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Wanted – a common vision for mining clean-energy transition minerals in Africa


Nsama Chikwanka is National Coordinator of Publish What You Pay (PWYP) Zambia, part of the global movement for an open and accountable extractive industry. PWYP Zambia supports communities affected by mining, and is a coalition of more than 50 civil society organisations from all the country’s regions.

Zambian and other African nations’ minerals are crucial for a low-carbon world. But reform is essential if our people are to benefit from the wealth they will create.

It’s a story that has played out across the world time and again. Mineral resources are discovered and a nation thinks it has struck it rich.

Hopes rise among the population for better schools, roads and healthcare. But the wealth the resources create never reaches ordinary citizens. Instead, it’s captured by elites who funnel it into offshore bank accounts or squander it on lavish lifestyles.

Zambia has a chance to break this destructive pattern.

Demand is soaring for the raw materials the world needs to secure a clean energy future, and Zambia has abundant reserves of two key ones: the cobalt and copper used in wind- and solar-powered technology and electric vehicle (EV) production. 

Now the world is rushing to extract them.

On 18 January 2023, the US State Department published a memorandum of understanding (MoU) with Zambia and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) to develop an EV battery supply chain. Copper and cobalt would not just be extracted in these countries, the MoU said, but EV batteries themselves would be processed, manufactured and assembled in them.

This followed an announcement in December by Zambian President Hakainde Hichilema, who said that the California-based KoBold Metals, which is backed by Bill Gates and Jeff Bezos, and uses artificial intelligence to identify battery-metal deposits, was investing in developing a new mine in Zambia.

Flawed consultations

This coveting of our natural resources is nothing new: Zambia has been a major copper producer for more than a century. 

But with copper demand expected to increase by up to threefold by 2040, and a copper boom looming, we cannot repeat historic mistakes. In the past when copper prices rose, poverty and inequality in our country did not decline, and Zambia remains a deeply unequal nation.

For our copper and cobalt to drive development and benefit all Zambians, significant legal and policy reforms are needed.

The 2022 Mineral Resources Development Policy and its Implementation Plan, which the Zambian government approved in November 2022, offered a crucial chance to do so. It sets out the government’s vision for maximising the benefits from Zambia’s mineral resources.

For these benefits to be realised, the public, in particular the communities living close to extraction sites and who are directly affected by mining, must be properly consulted.

Unfortunately, public consultations on the new policy were carried out hurriedly and with serious shortcomings – meaning they won’t address the mining industry’s most pressing issues, or fulfil citizens’ expectations. 

In my role as country coordinator for Publish What You Pay (PWYP) Zambia, a coalition of more than 50 civil society organisations from all the country’s 10 regions advocating for transparency and accountability of the extractive sector, I have spoken extensively to people in mining communities about their hopes for how Zambia’s mineral resources can improve their lives. From these meetings, we believe there are a number of specific measures that could make this happen. 

Read in Daily Maverick: “The new scramble for Africa: turning the energy crisis into opportunity

First, we need to make sure that any decision to extract minerals is based on a comprehensive assessment of the true costs and benefits. For this, we need to look at the consequences for people, land, forests and water.

How is mining going to impact our population’s health and safety, but also their intangible and irreplaceable natural heritage? Mining is deeply interconnected with other sectors and we need an institutional framework that promotes an extraction that is primarily respectful of our livelihoods and environment.  

This won’t happen without meaningful and inclusive consultation and the participation of all communities affected by mining.

Second, Zambia’s mining laws need a subnational revenue-sharing mechanism. In simple terms, this means that mining companies would have to make payments to provincial authorities, as they already do in our neighbour, the DRC.

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This, in turn, would allow communities who are affected by mining to receive a dedicated share of Zambia’s mining profits, ensure that they are compensated for the disruption that mining in their areas can bring, and target funds towards their specific needs.

Finally, since women bear the brunt of mining’s deleterious effects, we need to set aside specific funds to support them. Gender inequality is more pronounced in countries which significantly rely on the extractive sector, as women are most often disadvantaged by mining’s effects on land use, pollution, care work, and sexual exploitation. 

And it is not just women who our mining policy must support. It must also tackle the problem of child labour in the sector, and allow children to enjoy their childhoods.

The 2022 mining policy is silent on protecting children, yet child abuse is rampant in the mining sector. 

A just transition for Africa

These specific measures are among those which can help ensure that the world’s green energy revolution drives Zambia’s development. And this applies to all mineral-rich countries. 

Africa possesses 30% of the world’s mineral reserves, many of them essential for a low-carbon world. The continent is notably home to 19% of the global reserves of metals required to make a standard battery-powered EV.

Read in Daily Maverick: “Zambia leaves South Africa choking in its dust at the 2022 Mining Indaba

The DRC, Madagascar, South Africa, Zimbabwe and Mali, among other African nations, will all have a vital role in supplying the raw materials needed to meet the growing demand for clean-energy technologies.

In a statement just before the recent COP27 UN climate summit, 250 civil society organisations highlighted the key measures that our leaders must implement if we want the energy transition to be fair and just for our populations. The principles of community participation, good governance, accountability and transparency which underlie them must be applied across the whole continent.

Through a shared vision for harnessing Africa’s natural wealth, we can tackle poverty, inequality and gender disparities, fund education and healthcare, and end the resource curse that has plagued so much of our continent for so long.

Next week in Cape Town, two conferences are happening where delegates can help shape a common vision for transition mineral mining in Africa: the industry-led African Mining Indaba, and the Alternative Mining Indaba (AMI), started 13 years ago because of civil society’s historic exclusion from the former.

To succeed, people – in particular communities affected by mining – must be at the heart of this vision, and given a voice in the decisions that affect them. DM


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