By a CORRESPONDENT
THERE has been a renewed vigour by the United States of America to exert and dominate its influence over Zambia’s mineral resources since President Hakainde Hichilema assumed office in August 2021.
In fact, there has been a record number of very senior US State Department officials regularly visiting Zambia to strike deals and just exerting influence on the local governance system.
One of the renewed areas of interest by US-based conglomerates is in the copper mining sector where already, some bilateral arrangements were expedited and finalised at presidential level to facilitate for production of batteries for electric cars between the Democratic Republic of Congo and Zambia.
Recently, a fact-finding mission to the Copperbelt Province to investigate the moves by American conglomerates who are infiltrating the mining sector revealed some interesting findings.
One of the findings is the amount of secrecy and no publicly available information regarding the deals, operations and activities of American companies who have invested in the mines. This puts into question the model of American democracy, which has always projected itself as a model that promotes transparency and accountability.
Also, it is apparent that Copperbelt residents are still tormented and traumatised by the sudden withdrawal of the giant Anglo-American Corporation from Zambia, which left major devastation as people lost jobs and sent them into unemployment and others died of depression.
The relocation of investment by Anglo-American Corporation contributed to the major socio-economic woes in the country’s economy, especially the Copperbelt Province where up to now, residents are still struggling to survive, coupled with the vast environmental damage that the corporation left behind.
In 2022, California-based exploration firm KoBold Metals announced an initial investment of over $150 million in a copper mine and this investment will also be directed towards the development of another mine which has a cocktail of several precious mineral deposits in Zambia.
Kobold Metals investors include Breakthrough Energy Ventures, a climate and technology fund founded by Microsoft’s Bill Gates. Others are Amazon’s Jeff Bezos and Sir Richard Branson from the Virgin conglomerate.
Critics, mining experts and environmentalists have cautioned the Zambian government to be wary of American style of democracy. In fact, some critics have stated that the renewed US interest in mining does not come with mutual benefits, but utter manipulation and neo-colonialism.
Mr Given Lubinda is the acting president for the Patrotic Front. Mr Lubinda said, “the USA must not determine the fate and destiny of Africa, especially Zambia. We have seen the USA passing on activities and having more interest in Zambia. That is strange and it is manipulative.”
A recent visit to Chililabombwe, a small district surrounded by open pit and underground mines, on the border with the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) found that the US Kobold Metals is carrying out exploration activities and uses artificial intelligence and machines learning to identify battery metal deposits.
There is no much information from local sources because the operations are so secretive.
Apart from the exploration works, KoBold has acquired shares in Lubambe Mine, west of Chililabombwe where there is chaos in the underground ore blasting and the effects are experienced on the surface where both concrete and mud thatched houses are developing cracks and others are collapsing. In view of this, the $150 million investment is viewed as problematic, rather than a blessing.
“There are ongoing and other eminent negative ramifications include displacement of peasant farmers from their communities and endangering surface infrastructure that has come with these investors from the US in Chililabombwe, Environmentalist and Green Party President Peter Sinkamba lamented.
Additionally, Mr Sinkamba has cautioned Government to treat US mining firms with caution as they had a horrific history of pulling out of the country in frustrating and undiplomatic ways leaving environmental liabilities and joblessness.
“Americans are not necessarily good investors. Remember how Anglo-America told off our late former President Levy Patrick Mwanawasa when they were pulling out of Zambia? It was so painful. They told our President that their interest was not to help the Zambian people manage environmental issues but to make profits.
They told him it was not their job to safeguard the environment. In view of this, American investors do not deserve any of our mines,” Mr Sinkamba said.
The continued depositing of mining waste from the mine into the Kafue River has made it shallow and in the process affected fish breeding coupled with taste degradation besides pushing hippos, crocodiles and other aqua-culture out of their habitat.
The Kafue River meanders many kilometres along the line of rail and populated towns where most agricultural and manufacturing activities are taking place.
Many Chililabombwe locals are worried that the renewed mining by KoBold means more pollution as there are already no safeguards, but wanton disregard of environmental regulations.
“The Kafue River is the most important and significant source of commercial and domestic water. The river has economic impact to the people of Zambia and Copperbelt in particular with its water being a backbone of the country’s industrial base,” Mr Sinkamba said.
Mr. Sinkamba explained that he was part of the Mingomba Resettlement Programme many years ago and that he understands the environmental liabilities that came about as a result of Americans pulling out of mining on the Copperbelt.
“Right now, we have the earth opening up because of blasting, the water quality is also being affected, infrastructure like houses are cracking, wildlife is disturbed and many more injustices.
Our hope is that these impacts will be managed. The new investment spells severe consequences on Zambia’s environment ranging from poisoning fresh water bodies, to disturbance of aqua-life,” Mr Sinkamba said.
According to Mr Sinkamba, the renewed interest the Americans have in Zambia is to manipulate natural resources and make the country a source of raw materials for their growing electric car battery business but he is concerned that Americans would soon relocate their investments after amassing profits and once the natural resources are depleted without due care for the welfare of Zambians.
Mr Sydney Bunda, is a local environmentalist and activist at Kirika Naturals who argues that mining was a temporary and damaging undertaking that comes with health and environmental liabilities and that the same land proposed for American mining activities can instead accommodate farming or tourism which were sustainable ways of attracting investment and income.
“Mining just leaves tunnels and who is going to bury them when these same Americans are gone. Farming and tourism can be done on that same land. It won’t change for years, even our grandchildren will use the same land but for mining, after six months you won’t be able to recognise the same land,” Mr Bunda said.
Mr Bunda also called on Government to entertain sustainable investments that had no impact assessment of the environment and the people and said some countries in Africa were doing well with only farming as their main activity.
“Let us emulate other African countries that are doing fine with agriculture only such as Seychelles, Cape Verde, Comoros, Gambia, Swaziland, Burundi and many more. We can also do it, if mining is the best, then why are we not a developed country,” Mr Bunda said.
He said the UPND government must ensure that the interests of its citizens are protected when giving out land in the mining area where proper environmental impact assessments should be done to ensure the impact of mining activities and safeguard the local people.
The effects of underground blasting can be noted on the walls and floors of Kamenza Catholic Church Parish in Chililabombwe. Earth tremors emanating from Mingomba Mine explosives have cracked the church building, including the Priests’ house and the man of God is visibly perturbed by the situation.
Father Justine Chikontwe, who is Kamenza Catholic Church parish priest said the church relies on well-wishers and donors for maintenance support and is worrid about the Christian community in an event that the church collapses.
Father Justine Chikontwe is the Priest in charge at Kameza Catholic, who said there were gaping cracks on the walls of the church and the priest’s house.
“I am hopeful that government and the mines would effect a programe or plan to mitigate or cushion the impact of mining on the environment, infrastructure and life that had been disturbed in the area,” Father Chikontwe said.
Ms Juliet Chipili, a resident of Konkola Township in Chililabomwe recalls how her previous house collapsed as a result of unground blasting and this structure killed their seven-year old son when a concrete block fell on him in his sleep.
“We don’t know where to go now while land for farming has all been taken up by the mining firm that is coming. We are closer to the border with the Democratic Republic of Congo so if we are pushed further, it means we will be settlers in a foreign country,” Ms Chipili said.
The USA has always promoted itself as an open, inclusive and caring society. The US has always given a perception that it is involved in clean and sustainable ventures from a private sector perspective but not until you visit its mining investments in Zambia.
The people of Chililabombwe, especially Mingomba area do not believe that the $150 million that has been injected in the mining activities is a silver bullet that will cure the current socio-economic challenges. Rather, the people view this resource as more of torment and suffering.
Zambia can play an effective role in enhancing these efforts by discouraging projects that degrade the environment and consequently affecting human habitation.