Copper mines perpetuate poverty in Zambia

This story appears in the Mining feature series. View the full series.

by Melanie Lidman

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The computer that I’m using to type this blog has copper in it. There’s copper in your cell phone, and there’s copper in the internet cables that bring this blog to you. There’s copper in the plane that flew me to Zambia and there’s copper in millions of other places you barely consider.

I’ve never thought much about where copper comes from, until I landed on top of the mines in the Copperbelt Region of northern Zambia. I traveled along with Presentation Sr. Lynette Rodrigues, a passionate environmental crusader who was my indefatigable guide during my time in Zambia. Rodrigues drove along the highway from Lusaka to Congo, and as we got farther north we passed more and more signs for mines. Just past the town of Chingola, the potholes were so big that it felt like Rodrigues’ SUV was surfing giant waves as we bobbed up and down. Frequent traffic from mining trucks carrying heavy equipment destroys the roads, and no one seems to fix them.

As we swerved in between potholes behind a tanker labeled “DANGER: ACID,” suddenly, we both gasped. It was like a vast gash had opened on either side of the highway: mile after mile of earth, piled up like mountains. The sheer size of this open pit mine was larger than anything I had imagined. Konkola Copper Mines runs one of the largest open-pit mines in the world.

Driving past Chingola, the open-pit mine is the most noticeable, but it’s just the tip of the iceberg. Konkola also has four underground mines, with tunnels snaking at different levels, hundreds of miles in pitch-black passageways. Residents say they can feel the blasts from the underground mines vibrating up into their homes as the tunnels grow.

Zambia has one of the richest deposits of copper in the world, with concentrations of more than five percent pure copper in some areas. The United States also has significant copper deposits, especially in Arizona.

But the Central African belt has long been known for its mineral richness. The story of copper has been intertwined with Zambia’s history since it was a British colony in the late 1800s and British mining companies set up operations. Zambia gained independence in 1964, and the mines were nationalized until the 1990s.

For many people in the isolated rural areas in northern Zambia, the mines represent the only ladder out of abject poverty. Go to a school and ask students what they want to be when they grow up, someone told me. Ask every one, and almost all will say they want to be a miner.

But as the country is embroiled in a fierce debate over fair taxation among the multinational companies that operate the mines, environmentalists and social activists are waging a quieter war, trying to warn residents of the dangers that accompany the mining operations. The Catholic Diocese of Solwezi, working in partnership with Caritas, an international network of Catholic agencies, is at the forefront of this advocacy.

There is one fact in their report about mining and taxation that echoed in my mind as I explored the effects of the mine on the economy and the environment. “As a result of industry growth, communities near the mines are experiencing increased poverty rather than improved quality of life,” Edmond Kangamungazi wrote in a report for Caritas’ Economic Justice Programme. “They carry the burden of the adverse social and environmental impacts of the industry, which undermine development and perpetuate poverty.”

The mines are getting bigger, and the people around them are getting poorer.

Sisters are working tirelessly to try to provide services for those residents mired in this perpetual poverty. In Chililabombwe, where students were fainting from hunger during their classes, four Franciscan sisters run a feeding program that provides 2,000 meals per week. Lack of funding forced them to cut the feeding program for the older students, so now they just feed children in elementary school.

In Solwezi, the provincial capital in the northwest, the area is now called “The New Copperbelt” because of the recent meteoric rise of mining exploration. In this region, 12 congregations of sisters are providing social services in places like hospitals, clinics and schools.

I focused my reporting on a tailing dam in Chililabombwe, which is where the mine pumps all of the used water. I’ll be writing more about the area in an upcoming report, but here’s a quick set-up. The water is often infused with sulfuric acid, which is used to separate copper from the ore, and other chemicals. According to the mining companies, the sediment and chemicals settle to the bottom of this dam, then the “clean” water is pumped into the Kafue River, a 600-mile-long waterway that snakes through an enormous swath of the country. In Zambia, where 85 percent of the workforce is involved in agriculture, protecting waterways is essential.

The mining companies exploring to the northwest of Solwezi are looking in places less than 7 miles (10 km) from the source of the mighty Zambezi River, according to field researchers. Researchers are worried about the effect mining will have on a major river that supplies three countries: Zambia, Zimbabwe and Mozambique. The Zambezi is the river that thunders over the edge of a 2.2-mile (3.5 km) cliff into the breathtaking Victoria Falls.

On our long drive back to Lusaka, Rodrigues and I stopped for a break in the middle of the Kafue River National Park. Three hundred miles southwest from Chililabombwe, the Kafue River, a tributary to the Zambezi, majestically winds its way through the grasslands of the park. Away from the dust of the mining towns, the sting of the acid mist and the smoke belching from thousands of trucks carrying equipment, we sat by the side of the river and sipped cold drinks at a lodge for tourists.

Under the thatched roof hut of the lodge, I half expected to see Hemingway emerge from the bar with an extra-dry martini, spinning tales about a recent safari. It felt like Africa of yesteryear, a country untouched by the dynamite of the mines or the hungry production lines of tech gadgets in Chinese factories. When I took a picture of the swift and peaceful current, the copper in my camera’s memory card couldn’t capture the threat to this very river, hidden just beneath the surface.

[Melanie Lidman is Middle East and Africa correspondent for Global Sisters Report based in Israel.]