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Judge overturns halt in Ivanhoe grave relocations in South Africa

Robert Friedland, founder and chief executive officer of Ivanhoe Mines Ltd., speaks at the Melbourne Mining Club in Melbourne, Australia, on Thursday, Dec. 1, 2011. A South African judge has overturned a court injunction at a huge Ivanhoe-owned platinum project, saying that any delay to the project would cause “significant prejudice” to the company and the local community.

Carla Gottgens/Bloomberg

A South African judge has overturned a court injunction at a huge Canadian-owned platinum project, saying that any delay to the project would cause "significant prejudice" to the company and the local community.

The judge reversed an earlier court order, issued last November, that had halted the exhuming and relocating of dozens of ancestral graves at the site where Ivanhoe Mines Ltd. is developing a $1.6-billion platinum mine.

Hundreds of community members have been fighting against the mine for years. But the company says the project would provide thousands of direct and indirect jobs, along with education and training opportunities and a local ownership trust.

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The Platreef project by the Vancouver-based company is "one of the most significant foreign direct investments into the South African economy in recent years," Judge John Murphy said in his ruling for the High Court in Pretoria.

"It has the potential to be developed into the largest underground platinum mine in the world, yielding very significant benefits to the South African economy," he said.

Extending the earlier court order would "cause a delay in the construction and development of the project, because the development of the mine surface infrastructure cannot proceed unless the graves are relocated."

Judge Murphy cited several other reasons for his decision, including the fact that the majority of the next-of-kin have consented to the relocation of the graves, and they would benefit from having the graves located in formal cemeteries closer to their homes. They will lose "substantial financial benefits" if the relocations are halted, he said.

He showed some sympathy, however, to the community members who had sought the court injunction. He refused to order them to pay the legal costs of the case.

"While the application for an interdict was misconceived, it was motivated by a legitimate assertion of cultural and traditional rights," Judge Murphy said in his judgment.

"The removal of ancestral graves to make way for mining and commercial development is a sensitive matter, which often will benefit from an independent assessment. Those deeply affected and aggrieved by a process they might not prefer should not be discouraged from pursuing constitutional claims."

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Judge Murphy had issued his decision in early February, but he did not release his full reasons until late last week.

Ivanhoe's subsidiary Ivanplats, which owns 64 per cent of the platinum project, had little reaction. "At this stage we have nothing to say about the judgment, other than the fact that we welcome and respect the court's ruling," said company spokesman Jeremy Michaels.

The company had begun exhuming and relocating the ancestral graves last November. It said it wasn't informed that the community members were seeking the urgent court order to halt the relocations, and it wasn't given a chance to argue against the order until Judge Murphy heard the case this month.

Ivanhoe's billionaire founder and executive chairman, Robert Friedland, says the mine's first shaft is now 210 metres below the surface and rapidly getting deeper.

"Our No. 2 shaft will be the largest mining shaft on the African continent," he told a mining conference in Cape Town this month. "At 12 million tonnes a year, Platreef is destined to become the world's largest platinum-group metals mine."

Because of mechanization, the mine will resemble a potash mine in Canada and will produce "no sound, no noise, no vibration" for nearby communities, he said.

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"In South Africa, many of the oldest, deepest mines are going to peak by 2021. We are doing our best to delay the inexorable decline of platinum in this country."

He said the project's black empowerment component will help to transform South Africa's economy "to rectify horrible inequities that occurred in this country in the past."

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