I climbed into my kayak at the mouth of the River Mtentu and paddled into a gentle breeze upstream. The snaking watercourse was flat calm and glistened like polished metal, its surface carpeted with a near perfect reflection of the river's resplendently lush banks. After about three kilometres I stopped, a pair of fish eagles surveyed the water, mullet swam alongside me and a trumpeter hornbill flew erratically overhead. The Mtentu is one of only two rivers worldwide to experience the Dance of the Kingfish, an aquatic pilgrimage of an oceanic fish which grows up to 1.7 metres long. The Kingfish gather off the river mouth, swim upstream to where I rested in my kayak, form a tightly knit school and circle in unison. Magically, no one knows why.
The Mtentu is one of many sinuous waterways slicing through Pondoland's landscape before breaking through a coastline strewn with ancient sand dunes and coastal thickets. The thickets boast around 600 tree species, that's more than any other temperate forest in the world. It's an area of "plant endemism" as so many of these species occur nowhere else on earth.
There's not just environmental wonder here, relatively speaking, the social structure and way of life of local amaMpondo people has not changed much in 100 years. Later that day Russel Hartshorn of Mtentu River Lodge, where I stayed, described the amaMpondo as "simply the most incredible community, neighbours and partners." The community own the lodge and their rondavels scatter the surrounding hillsides. No lodge doors have locks, as this is a community without any theft. From the community to the landscape everything seems rare and precious.
A further asset found in this bountiful terrain is buried below the sand dunes, titanium.
Titanium is used as a strengthening agent in graphite composite golf clubs and for white pigments in paint, paper and toothpaste. Titanium covers the exterior of Bilbao's Guggenheim and 45 tons are needed to build a Boeing 747. The Mtentu River, Pondoland and the amaMpondo's way of life are threatened by mining proposals caused by, among other products, the international demand for a material used to whiten toothpaste.
The N2 toll road
The communities I spoke to in the villages east of the Mtentu are worried, not only about the mining proposals but also by plans to construct a highway through their sparsely populated undulating hills. One section of the road would be an upgrade of an existing highway, which very few object to, but the second section would divert the road, moving it closer to the proposed mining zone and cutting through a relatively untouched area. This latter section is far more controversial. The people I spoke to all believe the two projects are inextricably linked, it's not hard to see why.
Only 5% of South African rivers are pristine, the Mtentu being one of them, but one of the biggest new road bridges would cross it. It wouldn't be visible from the part of the river I kayaked but any project that size would lead to runoff into the river. We don't know why the Dance of Kingfish takes places, let alone the impact on them or other species from bridge runoff. Russel says the new road would drastically improve the lodge’s access and trade "but then we'd lose all the things which make this remote place special".
Helping by making sound consumer choices
Sometimes individual consumer choices can assist environmental causes, could this approach help Pondoland? One of the most simple consumer choices, to aid an environmental cause, is ensuring we purchase only "dolphin-safe" or "dolphin-friendly" tuna.
Dolphin-safe tuna first arose in the USA, where canned tuna is primarily yellow-fin tuna, a species which closely associates with dolphin. It’s the association of the two species which leads to the danger of catching dolphin when tuna fishing, therefore necessitating the need to adapt fishing techniques to avoid such by catch. The prominence of the issue in the USA meant the UK quickly jumped on the bandwagon. However, the UK canned tuna market didn't rely on yellow-fin tuna but rather other tuna species which don't associate with dolphin. That meant the UK market had no real dolphin by catch issue and there’s a strong argument the UK's dolphin-safe branding was a marketing gimmick.
Labelling cans of tuna with cute dolphin logos in the UK implied fishing practices had changed, when they hadn't and, in relation to dolphin at least, hadn't needed to. Furthermore "dolphin-safe" tuna isn't necessarily "any other species whatsoever-safe". In the UK, even this most simplistic consumer choice lacked the positive environmental benefit consumers fairly inferred from "dolphin friendly" branding.
There's no obvious cute dolphin type logo to sum up Pondoland, an area which few internationally know about. Furthermore, as titanium is a component in a multitude of products its effects are hidden, preventing consumers making an either/or choice. If individuals want to help save Pondoland buying one product over another doesn't look like the way to do so.
What to do?
Whilst the local community are almost universally opposed to mining their views and Pondoland's environmental significance will not, in the long run, prevent mining. When existing titanium mines are exhausted, or demand increases, people won't stop flying planes or insist on buying only non-whitened "Pondoland friendly toothpaste" - if it were available.
Plenty of little known exceptional landscapes, communities and species are threatened by consumption demands. We can all help those less well-known, simply by using less stuff and lowering demand. Also, particularly if you're wealthy, suppressing long term demand by choosing a smaller, Pondoland-friendly, family size must have the biggest impact. One child consumes a lifetime's less toothpaste, white paper and tuna than two children. That's a choice we can make and if made by enough people it could be the best environmental decision for Pondoland, dolphin, tuna and much else besides.