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Giant SKA telescope rattles South African community

Struggle in Northern Cape province highlights a balancing act that scientists leading gigantic projects face.

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The MeerKAT telescope under construction in South Africa’s Northern Cape will form part of the world’s largest radio telescope.

“Move it away! We don’t want it!” a farmer shouted at a crowded meeting in Carnarvon, a small town in the semi-arid, sparsely populated Northern Cape, one of South Africa’s poorer provinces. He was talking about what will be the largest radio telescope in the world, the international Square Kilometre Array (SKA), a portion of which is due to be built nearby.

Representatives from SKA South Africa, an organization of scientists, engineers and technocrats, were attending the meeting of farmers in May, in an attempt to respond to rising criticism of the project from local people. “It’s fine to be part of the international community, but how is it helping this community?” came a faceless call from the other side of the meeting hall.

In 2012, the SKA’s coordinating organization decided that it would divide its thousands of dishes and many more antennas, whose combined ‘collecting area’ for radio waves will span approximately one square kilometre, between Australia and South Africa. The site in the Northern Cape will include 197 dishes, and form part of the project’s first phase, SKA1. The 64-dish MeerKAT tele­scope, which will be part of SKA1, is already being built. The rest of the dishes will be added from 2018.

Last year, opposition to the Thirty Meter Tele­scope on Mauna Kea, Hawaii, prompted the state’s supreme court to invalidate the telescope’s construction permit. Opposition to the SKA is unlikely to derail the project because legislation protects most of the Northern Cape for astronomy. But SKA South Africa officials say that they need community buy-in if the project is to be sustainable over its 50-year life.

The struggle that is playing out in the Northern Cape illustrates the balancing act that scientists who lead gigantic projects must pull off — to highlight the benefits that the project will bring to an area without over­inflating expectations.

When SKA South Africa proposed the SKA project to the Northern Cape community, starting with the MeerKAT telescope in 2008, it said that the project would lead to local economic development, create jobs and improve opportunities for children through education and science. But the organization never quantified these objectives — and now its director, Rob Adam, is struggling to manage the expectations of the poorest members of the Northern Cape, who are largely ‘coloured’ people, a recognized racial classification in South Africa.

SKA South Africa has already come good on some of its promises. It now employs a high-school maths and science teacher for Carnarvon, for example, and is paying for five coloured students at Carnarvon high school to attend university as part of a pan-African bursary programme that it runs. But members of the coloured community complain that such resources haven’t materialized across the board — not all the towns in the area have gained a high-school teacher, for example.

And although a small influx of scientists, engineers and contractors has to some extent improved the economies of the province’s towns, the communities are not yet satisfied. “What’s in it for us?” asked one resident at a meeting in the Northern Cape town of Brandvlei in May.

Adam says that the community’s expectations have risen beyond what the SKA can provide. “You must understand, we are not the government, the education department and the police, all rolled into one,” he told the crowd in Brandvlei.

The problem is different for members of the richer, mainly white, sheep-farming community of the Northern Cape, who are concerned about SKA South Africa’s land acquisition.

According to the Astronomy Geographic Advantage Act, which was passed in 2007, the government has the right to acquire land for the project within a designated ‘core’ area if negotiations fail, and if the land is required for the SKA and the organization has offered a fair price.

Luigi Bennett/SKA South Africa

Northern Cape residents voice discontent with construction of the Square Kilometre Array.

In 2008, the government bought Losberg farm, the site of the MeerKAT telescope. What is riling this community is that SKA South Africa is now eyeing 36 other farms — which comprise about 118,000 hectares — to accommodate the further 133 dishes that make up SKA1.

Many farmers say that the loss of their farms will destroy the local, agriculture-based economy, and that they are being forced to sell. Although the amount of land needed for the SKA is now agreed, the farmers are also suspicious about the scope of the project. “They don’t believe things will stop here,” says Henning Myburgh, general manager of farmers’ organization Agri Northern Cape in Kimberley.

The spectre of Zimbabwe-style land expropriation, in which the government took land from white farmers without compensation, is also present. “It’s a land grab, one way or the other, be it for SKA or something else,” says Eric Torr, a former resident of the province who owns a local aviation company.

Expropriation would be a last resort, say SKA South Africa officials. “It’s not in the best interests of the SKA to do that because we have to live in this community,” says Alice Pienaar-Marais, who is in charge of the land-acquisition process. She is confident that SKA South Africa will acquire the 36 farms by the end of next year, in time for SKA1 construction in 2018.

SKA Australia, meanwhile, “could be doing more” with respect to community engagement, project director David Luchetti told Nature.

The Australian SKA Pathfinder telescope, which is currently being commissioned, is to be built on an area that traditionally belongs to the Wajarri Yamatji tribe. Following the 2009 Indigenous Land Use Agreement, which was negotiated between the government and the indigenous group, the tribe has received benefits worth more than Aus$18.1 million (US$13.5 million) in exchange for the use of the land for radio­astronomy.

But the agreement needs to be renegotiated for the SKA before construction starts.

Journal name:
Nature
Volume:
534,
Pages:
444–446
Date published:
()
DOI:
doi:10.1038/534444a

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