Shell will be forced to halt oil exploration at vital whale breeding sites along South Africa’s east coast after a local court blocked the controversial project.
The court order calls for an immediate halt to Shell’s seismic testing, which blasts sound waves through the Wild Coast’s relatively pristine marine environment, home to whales, dolphins and seals.
The community activists behind the legal challenge hailed the court’s decision as a victory for ‘voiceless’ indigenous groups living near the coast who have the customary right to small-scale fishing in the area, as well as a cultural and spiritual connection to the area. ocean.
Lawyers from the groups successfully argued that Shell had failed to meaningfully consult people who would be affected by the seismic survey, and also provided evidence of the threat of damage to marine life.
Wilmien Wicomb, a lawyer with the Legal Resources Centre, said the case was of “enormous significance” as it showed that “no matter how big a company is, it ignores local communities at its peril”.
“This case is truly a culmination of communities along the Wild Coast for recognition of their customary rights to land and fisheries, and for respect for their customary processes,” Wicomb said.
Sinegugu Zukulu, a senior campaigner for Sustaining the Wild Coast, added: “The voices of the voiceless have been heard. The voices of the people directly affected have finally been heard and the constitutional rights of the indigenous people have been respected.”
The victory for local communities follows an unsuccessful 11th-hour legal challenge earlier this month by environmental groups to block Shell’s plans on the grounds that it could cause irreparable harm to the environment.
Critics of Shell’s presence on the Wild Coast say the plans were approved using outdated legislation. Shell was given the go-ahead in 2014 from South Africa’s then minister of mineral resources, Ngoako Ramatlhodi, just months before new environmental legislation came into effect.
The oil company could be forced to comply with stricter environmental regulations to proceed with its exploration plan for the sensitive ecological region, subject to a separate court hearing.
“This case reminds us that constitutional rights belong to the people, not the government,” Zukulu said. “And that’s the only way we can [ensure] that the rights of indigenous peoples live – and not just written on paper – when we challenge government decisions that ignore these rights. This victory is hugely important as we have ensured that the rights of indigenous communities are kept alive.”
A Shell spokesman said: “We respect the court’s decision and have suspended the investigation while we review the ruling.”