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Talking Justice – Miners and the mined: are we doomed always to exploit?

A visit to Zambia’s Copper Belt by metal trader Anthony Lipmann was the start of a surprising turn of events

When we turn on the light, I doubt we consider where the copper in the switch comes from.

Actually, the chances are about one in ten that the atoms come from Zambia or Congo. That is because the Copper Belt region, bordering northern Zambia and southern Congo is source to about two million of the 22 million metric tons of copper the world uses each year for things we take for granted. Things like wind turbines, which contain 200 kilometres of fine wound wire, average saloon cars containing 30-50 kilograms of cabling and contact points, the hot water pipes in your house or the hospital door-handles made from copper alloy to reduce microbial disease. The list is much longer because copper is quite simply a most wonderful, malleable, alloy-able, ductile – and rather good-looking – metal.

So, before we talk about justice in the mining industry, we need to be clear about one thing – we are all guilty.

All this poses a bit of problem for our disapproval of mining companies who are the bête noire of interest groups and NGOs. We don’t mind the copper too much, but we are not keen on the people who dig it out. We think – I think – that they appear rather too powerful. We are suspicious of their multinational status, not sure they pay their rightful taxes; and we think they dig big holes and leave a mess. We worry too about whether communities in developing countries are exploited for their labour while the earth is removed from under their feet.

So what can and cannot be done?

What cannot be done, perhaps, is to change human nature by removing the exploitative gene: the one that so ingeniously hauls copper from deep below the ground where it resides as only 1-2% in the ore; the one that may exploit this element to make copper wire as thin as a human hair for use in micronized electronics.

But perhaps what can be done is to effect positive change – and that is what happened from here in Somerset.

Long known for their links to Zambia, schools and churches in Somerset have been twinning with their counterparts in the town of Mufulira in the Copper Belt for over 20 years, where the copper mine and smelting complex is owned by London listed commodities trader, Glencore.

In 2008, I joined a group of young people and their teachers from Ansford Academy in Castle Cary, Somerset, on their Zambian exchange trip and have returned every year since.

For me, it was a lightbulb trip, you could say. I got to go down the 80-year old mine – at 1480 metres, the deepest copper mine in Africa. I saw a community entirely dedicated to the production of metal and I saw how metal permeated the lives of all 300,000 people living in Mufulira. I saw that the – mainly female – teachers at the school, if they were lucky, had sons, fathers, husbands or brothers working for the mine. Mine workers were high earners in local terms. As one teacher said to me, “A miner is worth two teachers”. At that exchange rate it was not hard to see how important mining was to this community. But I could see also that the price being paid for this small advantage was excessive. Above all, I saw that in order to obtain 99.9% pure copper, the sulphur, which had to be liberated from the copper-containing sulphide ore on smelting, was not properly captured and was polluting the landscape and affecting health. In fact this had been happening for 80 years, under the British initially, then under Zambian state ownership and, now under Glencore who bought Mopani Copper Mines at privatisation in 2000.

A second lightbulb moment came when I happened to visit a school called Mine Basic, in sight of the smelter. Every other day, the wind would carry the sulphur fumes from East to West, and the school would be hit by a sulphur storm. Windows were closed and sealed, the women raised the hems of their chitengas to their mouths, but little could be done to allay the coughing and choking effect of the sulphurous gases. The land around the smelter was virtually barren. Locals could not grow vegetables and so had to buy high priced food in the market. Those suffering from TB and Aids were further debilitated. Those suffering from silicosis were hard of breathing and the mucous membranes when infected by sulphurous gases caused the mucous to acidify, bleaching lungs and eyes.

But at the school I visited, there was a charismatic teacher, by the name of Godfridah Mwimbe, who had created a small ‘climate change group’ of dedicated children who asked questions about whether things had to be this way. As a metal trader, being broadly part of the mining community, I asked the children to write letters in simple words about what it was like to live with sulphur and I promised to deliver them to the mine’s owners. When I got back to England, I received 11 beautifully handwritten letters, each signed by their author with their ages attached and couriered them to Glencore’s CEO in May 2010.

Climate Change group, Mine Basic School, Mufulira Copperbelt 2010

One of the children, Amos, then 13 years old had written:-

‘My name is Amos, a member of the International Climate Change crew at Mufulira Mine Basic school…the sulphur dioxide is released almost every day has an iritating (sic) effect on peoples breathing, lungs and has other Air borne diseases, the situation is quite serious.’

Although nothing much happened at first, as luck would have it Glencore was planning to float a tranche of their shares on the London Stock Exchange in May of 2011 and the story of the children’s letters was published in The Times.

The amplification of the message from the mouths of young people and the association with ordinary people in Somerset, had a profound effect and by last summer, only three years later, following an enormous engineering project costing about $150 million, new sulphur capture equipment has been installed. Although the expense is not great in relation to the value of copper exported, the result is that the local populace is now able to breathe fresh air, with the likelihood that general health will improve and the land will eventually regenerate.

So what are the conclusions? To me the first is that advocacy at the point of a pen can work. Secondly, that mining houses are not only to be demonised – after all, one of the most powerful commodities’ companies in the world responded to advocacy. Thirdly, such are the laws of governance in the UK, that multi-nationals seeking to use London’s financial centre for money-raising willingly lay themselves open to scrutiny, making the link between reputation and share price an effective lever. Fourthly, don’t give up.

The children of Mufulira managed to change their world by writing a letter.

Published in ‘Magnet’ July 2015


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