The price of contamination

Legal cases against foreign multinationals in the Central African Copperbelt seek justice for decades of pollution. But activists should also investigate the historical legacies of colonial mining companies.

Smelter, Zambia. Image credit MMJ via Flickr CC.

In 1907, the first industrial copper mine opened in Élisabethville (now Lubumbashi, Democratic Republic of Congo). Since then, the Central African Copperbelt, which straddles the borders of contemporary Zambia and the DRC, has been one of the world’s most productive copper mining regions. Mining has caused severe air and water pollution, landscape change, and health problems: sulfur dioxide, lead, and mercury levels all exceed permissible international maxima; giant tailings dams and slagheaps, such as Terril de Lubumbashi and Black Mountain in Kitwe, mark the landscape; and pulmonary diseases and skin rashes are abnormally high among Copperbelt residents. Remarkably, protests against the environmental effects of mining on the Copperbelt have remained limited, until recently. A historical approach suggests that this relative lack of protest can be explained more by the political and economic structures, such as mine ownership or national policies, than by absolute pollution levels.

To attract and retain the labor force required for extracting valuable copper, both the British and Belgian colonial governments set up generous “paternalistic” welfare provisions. Mineworkers received not only high wages, but also education, healthcare provisions, and housing. After independence mine ownership changed, resulting in the eventual nationalization of mining companies in DRC under La Générale des Carrières et des Mines (Gécamines) in 1966, and in Zambia under Zambia Consolidated Copper Mines (ZCCM) after 1968. Yet welfare services were further expanded into “cradle to grave” policies, including the provision of diapers for newborn babies. Morris Chimfutumba, who was born in Luanshya in 1930 and has lived on the Copperbelt all his life, told me in an interview that these policies influenced popular perceptions of pollution. When asked about how sulfur dioxide pollution (known as senta) developed on the Copperbelt, he responded:

In the 1960s and 1970s senta was already there—it was even worse than today because the chimneys could not capture the smoke. But you do not bite the hand that feeds you. How were we supposed to educate our children if the mines shut down?

So, was pollution simply accepted as a negative externality of copper mining? Were polluted water sources and chronic bronchitis the price for the Copperbelt’s Expectations of Modernity? The answer is complicated. If we stick to the example of sulfur dioxide pollution, knowledge of its effects was unmistakable by the 1950s. In neighborhoods located downwind from smelters or close to acid plants, such as Mufulira’s Kankoyo or Likasi’s Usines Chimiques de Shituru, vegetation was completely wiped out by independence. No trees, vegetables or grass could grow in these neighborhoods, and residents rightly attributed this to sulfurous smoke. Yet only after the privatization of the copper mines in the 1990s, which caused the neoliberal scaling down of welfare provisions and mass redundancies, did popular protests over sulfur dioxide pollution gain sway. When Mufulira’s district commissioner, an asthma patient, collapsed and died after inhaling sulfurous smoke in January 2014, mass protests followed. These protests cannot be explained by suddenly heightened pollution levels, as severe pollution had been ongoing for decades. Instead, protestors blamed Mopani Copper Mines—owned by the Swiss multinational Glencore—not only for pollution, but also for dilapidated housing, youth unemployment, and meagre healthcare.

Recent years have seen the acknowledgment of Copperbelt pollution in corporate environmental impact statements, media reporting, and even in international courts. In September 2016, the Zambian High Court ordered Glencore to pay £30,000 in damages to the widower of Mufulira’s district commissioner, as sulfur dioxide emissions had exceeded legal limits. In April 2019 farmers in Chingola won the right to sue Konkola Copper Mines—a  subsidiary of Vedanta, which has since been taken over by the Zambian government—in a UK court over pollution of their fields and water sources. In October 2020, the residents of Kabwe, the former lead mining town to the south-east of the Copperbelt (previously in the news as being one of the most contaminated places in Africa), sued mining giant Anglo American over the lead poisoning of thousands of children. How can these claims consider historical legacies of pollution and who should take responsibility for the contamination that has built up over decades?

Current legal cases are quick to blame foreign multinationals for lethal pollution. Protestors point out that these companies make extraordinary profits out of exploiting Copperbelt laborers and resources. But what about the role of colonial mining companies, or ZCCM and Gécamines? How to account for the structures of exploitation and environmental destruction these historical actors established? Could their provision of wages, housing and welfare weigh up against the costs of environmental destruction? Historical research into the environmental legacies of resource extraction across Africa—from gold mining in South Africa to oil drilling in the Niger Delta—is urgently needed to better assess contemporary claims over pollution.

Further Reading