Dying for Pieces of Copper

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Okrika Water Front, Niger Delta

Of the ten most toxic places on earth, three are found in Africa. They are: the Niger Delta, the mining communities of Kabwe in Zambia and the Agbogbloshie dumpsite in Ghana. While Kabwe ranks as number five on the list, Agbogbloshie stands at the tenth spot.

The Niger Delta ranks as number two on the list prepared in 2013 by Pure Earth and Green Cross, Switzerland. If you think that the region may have slipped out of the list since 2013, we are sorry to disappoint you as the listing remained valid at the close of 2018.

The rampant pollution of communities in Africa has gone on unabated and mineral rich communities are the worst hit. The state of affairs has been driven by the manipulation of governments by a mix of transnational corporations, as well as national and international financial bodies. Throw into that, the wholesale adoption of neoliberal policies by governments eager to attract so-called foreign direct investment and development aid and the waters become murkier. The craze for privatisation of public goods continue on the premise that government cannot be a good manager of business and must not be caught in any enterprise that requires efficiency. Thus, janitorial tasks in public offices are contracted to private enterprises and the digging of trenches in warfronts are being privatised and contracted out in the rich economies.

In our 2012 book, To Cook a Continent: Destructive Extraction and Climate Crisis in Africa, we stated, “The conversion of public goods into private property through the privatisation of our otherwise commonly held natural environment is one [of the ways] neoliberal institutions remove the tenuous threads that hold African nations together. Politics today has been reduced to a lucrative venture where one looks out mainly for returns on investment rather than on what one can contribute to rebuild highly degraded environments, communities and a nation.” This pathway has oiled and locked in corruption of various shades in the continent.

Zambia stands out as one of the countries that ended up holding the wrong end of the stick when it comes to the pursuit of privatisation, pliant surrender to corporate interest and lax regulatory and tax regimes. Corporate tax stood at almost zero at a time when they enjoyed a tax boutique that had the biggest chunk coming from workers’ withheld taxes. At that time extractive companies generated a mere 2.2 per cent of the revenue collected by Zambian authorities.

The abuse suffered on the continent is clearly systemic and places the burden on poor communities. Unfortunately, often the struggles of the poor are overlooked and even subverted by external and internal forces. How else could the list of the top ten most toxic locations in the world be in the public realm for over a decade and we continue with business as usual and keep weakening environmental laws so as to score cheap points on the chart of nations rated for ease of doing business?

Niger Delta communities continue to fight decades of horrendous oil and gas pollutions that have heinously degraded their environment. They have resisted and continue to do so through protests, litigation, direct and political actions. Thousands of lives have been lost, or cut short due to the pollution and attendant militarisation of the region.

In Zambia, 1800 villagers have stood up to the UK-based company, Vedanta Resources, that had polluted their waters through the activities of its subsidiary Konkola Copper Mines (KCM). The villagers complain that the company’s Nchanga copper mine has turned their Kafue River into a river of acid and are suing for personal injury and loss of livelihood. Villagers from Shimulala, Hippo Pool, Hellen and Kakosa are demanding compensation for harms arising from the pollution of their primary source of water. They also complain of the impact on their agriculture and socio-economic wellbeing.

The Zambian case mirrors the Niger Delta situation and underscores the critical need for solidarity between communities impacted by mining across the continent, indeed across the world. Local and international civil society networks continue to work with the suffering communities of the Niger Delta while the impacted Zambian villagers enjoy the solidarity of groups including Foil Vedanta in the difficult efforts to secure their right to life in a battle against mining behemoths. International oil corporations operating in Nigeria are deft at utilizing loopholes in the legal system to ensure that cases are often never decided on within the short lifespan of the litigants. When they are found guilty, they can shrug the sentence off as they are sure the government would be unable to force compliance since they are literally in bed together due to the business partnerships that are rigged against the people and the environment. Litigation in the home countries of the offending companies has been the option that offers a ray of hope for justice for the poor and for Mother Earth.

When the case against Vedanta went to the High Court in the United Kingdom the company argued that the matter should be heard in Zambia and not in the UK. The court disagreed on the understanding that the villagers would not get justice in their own country because of the costs and other aspects of the adversarial legal system.  That has always been the first objection that Shell, Chevron, ENI and the others raise whenever a case is brought to a location where their shareholders may pay attention. In fact, a Zambian court had ruled in 2011 that the company should pay a $2million compensation to 2000 claimants affected by pollution of the Kafue River that occurred in 2006.

The Zambian case will be heard at the Supreme Court of the UK next week based on Vedanta’s objections. While that is coming up, the manner by which Vedanta acquired the copper mines in Zambia is a lesson that conscious citizens should pay attention to. In a sort of confessional speech captured on video, Anil Agarwal, the founder/chairman of the company at a conference, gleefully outlined how he fooled the Zambian government when they advertised the desire to privatise their mining company. The guy literally scammed/bluffed his way into acquiring the Zambian assets. The video showed the chairman of KCM boasting that the mines make him $500 million in profits a year, when he acquired the mine for only $25 million. The lame excuse by the company is that the video clip was part of a longer speech and was taken out of context.  The facts speak clearly for themselves and show a very condescending attitude towards the Zambian authorities.

The company went ahead to claim that they had invested $120 million in “local communities, providing schools, educational programmes, sustainable agricultural initiatives, critical medical programmes and funding for cultural events.” This sounds much like what we hear as corporate social responsibility (CSR) efforts in Niger Delta communities where the basic right to life is clearly negated by the ecological harms orchestrated by the same companies.

Next week we shall know what the Supreme Court of the UK thinks of the cry of the Zambian communities. Whatever the outcome, it is clearly time for our communities to connect their pains, strategies and fights. Pollution respects no geographic or political boundaries and we cannot afford to allow these boundaries to short circuit our struggles.


This article was first published in The Instigator, my weekly column in The Leadership newspaper, Nigeria as Poisoned for Pieces of Copper