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Court Orders Shell to Halt Seismic Surveys off S. Africa's Wild Coast

Wild coast
South Africa's rugged Wild Coast (Jon Rawlinson / CC BY 2.0)

Published Dec 28, 2021 8:02 PM by The Maritime Executive

A court in South Africa has ordered Shell to halt a seismic campaign off the Wild Coast, an iconic section of the nation's Eastern Cape region. 

Shell has chartered the seismic vessel Amazon Warrior to survey an area of about 1,800 square nautical miles off the coast, and it began the work about one month ago. Environmental activists and indigenous rights groups filed suit to block the operation, and on Tuesday, a high court in Makhanda issued an order requiring Shell to stop work. The firm and the Minister of Mineral Resources and Energy were also ordered pay the plaintiff's legal costs.

In the decision, Judge Gerald Bloem said that Shell had not adequately consulted communities with customary fishing rights in the area. The plaintiffs argued that the seismic campaign posed a reasonable risk of harm to marine resources, potentially affecting fishermens'  livelihoods, and would interfere with longstanding cultural and spiritual practices. Since meaningful consultation with affected communities is a legal requirement and was not reportedly conducted, the judge determined that Shell's exploration license was "unlawful and invalid" and ordered a halt to the campaign, according to Greenpeace.

"The case has huge significance in that it shows that no matter how big a company is, it ignores local communities at its peril. This case is really a culmination of the struggle of communities along the Wild Coast for the recognition of their customary rights to land and fishing, and to respect for their customary processes," said attorney Wilmein Wicomb of the Legal Resources Centre. 

A Shell spokesperson told Reuters that "we respect the court’s decision and have paused the survey while we review the judgement."

For now, Shell must halt survey work, unless it chooses to appeal. Another court will take up the matter again when it considers a related question - whether Shell needs an environmental authorization under South Africa's National Environmental Management Act (NEMA) to proceed with the survey. 

Top image: South Africa's rugged Wild Coast (Jon Rawlinson / CC BY 2.0)