Clean Air: Privilege, Not a Right in Mufulira, Zambia

While air cannot be seen, it can certainly be felt. A breeze on a hot day or the crisp smell of a new season can be felt through the air; but for the residents of Mufulira, Zambia, the air surrounding Mopani Copper Mine offers a different sensation: one citizen described it as “being cut up from the inside by razor blades.” Mopani began in 1933, and was privatized with the rest of Zambia’s Consolidated Copper Mines (ZCCM) in 2000. Mopani Copper Mine employs over 15,000 people, making it the largest private employer in Zambia. The mine has stimulated the economy, but has also resulted in negative externalities that have forced the local community to face the age-old development dilemma of economic growth versus environmental health. This is the story of how the resilient community of Mufulira has advocated its rights within the structure of a foreign-owned enterprise, and how it is now trapped within that power structure.

On paper, Mopani Copper Mine is co-owned by Mopani Copper Mines PLC and Glencore International AG. However, according to Anne-Sophie Simpere of NGO Counter Balance, Mopani Copper Mines PLC is 73.1% owned by Glencore International. Glencore is a Swiss multi-national corporation (MNC) and self-reportsthat it controls 50 percent of the world’s copper. Mopani is the largest of Glencore’s two copper mines in Zambia, boasting the largest smelter plant in Africa.

However neighbors consider this mine “the neighbor from hell” because of the toxic pollutants it releases, most notably sulfur dioxide.  Sulfur dioxide causes the lower airways of its inhalants’ lungs to become inflamed, leading to serious respiratory problems for the civilians and workers around these mines that breathe in the chemical. As explained by Elisha Ncube, Clement Banda, and Jhonnah Mundike from Copperbelt University, sulfur dioxide is a subtractive chemical—once it is in the air, there is no technology to remove it.  Glencore boasts that it has reduced sulfur dioxide emissions in Mufulira since it bought the mine, but as of 2013they still released 70 times the amount advised by the World Health Organization in one year.  The lasting impact has been rampant levels of heart and lung disease, as reported by the surrounding community. Unfortunately, a lack of case documentation allows Glencore to avoid legal responsibility.

As the Lusaka Times reports, the Mufulira community resisted the privatization of the Mopani Copper Mine from the beginning. Community leaders appealed to their district commissioner as well as to higher government agencies such as the Zambia Environmental Agency to prevent Glencore’s involvement. Numerous national institutions work together to prevent environmental hazards in Zambia, including the Zambia Environmental Management Authority, Zambian Ministry of the Environment, Environmental Council of Zambia, and the Ministry of Mines and Minerals Development. National laws have also been passed to protect the air, including a series of regulatory acts in 1997. However since its privatization, national institutions have not pressured Glencore to follow through with protecting Zambia’s air quality.  In fact, rather than following WHO advised levels of sulfur dioxide, Glencore blames the SO2 emissions on the previous state management of the mine, stating “For 70 years, the plant has spewed out SO2 and over the course of the last 14 years [under Glencore ownership] sulphur capture has gone from 50 per cent to 97 per cent.”

Ethically, it was Glencore’s responsibility from initial ownership to invest in an efficient system that would reduce sulfur dioxide emissions as they permanently depleted Zambia’s natural resources. Instead, Glencore took advantage of weak Zambian institutions, knowing full well—according to the AfriTEST Network- that the Environmental Council of Zambia did not have the resources necessary to check contamination. Glencore refutes this argument, as they proudly spend millions of dollars per year on their seven clinics and five public health centers that are available to the citizens of Mufulira. However, in most cases the citizens of Mufulira cannot afford this healthcare, and end up living with the respiratory issues that are projected on them.

Regardless of who should have regulated the mine to avoid human harm, the lack of enforcement, along with Zambia’s investor-friendly Mines and Minerals Act of 1995 made it profitable for Glencore to avoid basic environmental standards. As these emissions have continued, citizens of Mufulira have organized themselves to protect their “commons” of clean, healthy air.

Numerous anti-mining campaigns were started, many with the help of foreigners. The Centre for Trade Policy and Development, a European NGO, spearheaded the “Pay Up, Clean Up, or Get Out!” initiative. As in the documentary Good Copper, Bad Copper, the residents of Mulufira, who had already been discussing the ways they could have their voices heard, partnered with this organization to file suit against Glencore. The lawsuit was paired with over 70 testimonies of citizens who experienced severe health issues from the mine. The settlement called for compensation for those harmed, as well as a shut-down of any harmful emissions systems, and an “environmental audit.”

Glencore temporarily lost this battle in 2012 when Zambia’s Environmental Agency heeded the complaints from nearby residents and “ordered the immediate closure” of the Mufulira branch until they implemented required safety measures. But because of this shutdown, many Mufuliran residents lost their jobs, most of them local people with few transferrable skills and no guarantee of rehire.

Glencore reopened Mopani Copper Mine with very few impactful changes made to their emissions issue, and the laid-off workers were not rehired. This controversy instigated by the community raised their hopes and awareness of a deep, shared issue, but the outcome only produced weak laws and laid off, low-income workers. Was this worth the minor improvements that were made to satisfy Zambia’s Environmental Agency? Maybe so, but this juxtaposition of sustainability and economic growth is precisely what is so challenging to navigate in development studies. Months of advocacy and deliberation ended in a short-term fix for a long-term problem.

There have been less large-scale complaints from the citizens of Mufulira since 2012, but sulfur dioxide emissions are still present and problematic. In 2014 the district commissioner Beatrice Mithi of Mufulira died on New Years Eve while she was giving a sermon and inhaled toxic sulfur dioxide. This event added to the tensions between the community and Glencore, which claimed that Mrs. Mithi’s death could not be directly linked to the Mopani mine.

Glencore’s tax avoidance adds a new dimension to this narrative, especially when multiple campaign groups filed a complaint against them with the OECD in 2011. In 2009, a leaked document revealed that Glencore has been avoiding taxes to the Zambian government for a $50 million project in 2005 through tax evasions. Glencore denied the claims, and the lending European Investment Bank (EIB) initiated an investigation in 2011.  This investigation lasted three years before the EIB stated in 2014 they had no “contractual relation” with Mopani/Glencore since Glencore repaid their loan early. The bank proceeded to mysteriously freeze all new loans to Glencore, handing the responsibility of finding the lost tax money to the Zambian government.  A leaked audit of Mopani reports that the Zambian government loses £76 million in Glencore’s tax avoidance every year—money they could be using to strengthen their own environmental protection institutions.

Local demands for better air quality resurfaced again in 2014, when seven people were hospitalized due to sulfur emissions.  After breaking up the riot officialsadmitted they had found a “leak in the damper valve,” but there was “no records of hospitalization.” However the anger that resurfaced from this event was quickly overshadowed by a new challenge.

According to Bloomberg Business, this past September the Mopani Copper Mine announced that it will be closing for 18 months to “refurbish assets and lower production costs.” This $950 million project comes as a reaction to falling global metal prices, and the downward spiral of Glencore’s stock. As a result, at least 3,800 employees will be laid off, without the promise of rehire.

For me this case study is deeply personal. After just one month living in a town near this mine, I returned to the United States with asthma. A round of steroids and fresh Florida air cured my temporary condition, but the citizens living around Mufulira and other such production plants do not enjoy such luxuries. Like so many other marginalized communities, the citizens of Mufulira have had to wrestle with the question: is everyday livelihood more important than the long-term health of a community? If not, how can workers demand for Glencore to improve its environmental standards at major layoffs in sight?

Last month the Paris Agreement of 2015 included 200 countries that set challenging goals to reduce harmful emissions. While these globally standardized objectives are promising for future generations, communities like Mufulira offer a human narrative behind the bullet pointed desired outcomes, and beg for heightened accountability among the private sector—here, and now.

Deborah Carey is a student in the School of International Service class of 2017. She can be contacted at

All views expressed are solely those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the views of the World Mind or of Clocks and Clouds.

About Deborah Carey

Deborah is the Secretary for the World Mind, as well as the Contributing Editor for International Development, Sustainability, and Public Health Section. She is a senior in the BA/MA program for International Economic Relations.