The Erin Brockovich of Zambia

Zambia: Good Copper, Bad Copper is a powerful documentary by Alice Odiot and Audrey Gallet, released this April by Yami 2 productions with the participation of France Télévisions. The documentary follows the economic plunder of Zambia’s copper mines, and the repercussions for Zambian citizens.

Zoe-Erin-Brockovich copy
Savior and the real Erin Brockovich

It reminds me a lot of the film Erin Brockovich, which follows story of a lawyer-activist’s fight to prove that the groundwater contamination of a town in Southern California was caused by the Pacific Gas & Electric Company (PG&E). But in the case of Good Copper, Bad Copper, our hero is Savior Mwambwa, executive director for the Centre for Trade Policy and Development, an NGO that monitors the flight of capital from Africa. Savior is fighting a similar fight against Glencore, the multinational mining company in Zambia, to that which Erin Brockovich fought against PG&E. However, there are some very important differences between the situation in Zambia and what happened in Southern California:

Secrecy: First, the contract between Glencore and the Zambian government is secret – so it is difficult for citizens to distinguish if their government is receiving a fair share of the resources that are being mined from its soil. Since Glencore purchased the copper mines in 2000, copper prices have increased 500 percent. Due to unfair contracts, this windfall benefits only the multinational mining organizations.

Lack of information: Further, Zambia’s Freedom of Information Bill has been held up by government ministers, leaving Zambians with no recourse to gain access to the documents that outline the agreement their government has made with Glencore, or those that prove that emissions from Glencore’s copper mines have increased, rather than decreased. Since 2005, copper production in Zambia has doubled, making it likely that even more toxic byproducts are being released.

Poverty: Lastly, poverty is compounding the affect the pollution is having on Zambians. Their illnesses are less likely to be diagnosed, and treatment is nearly non-existent. The health dispensaries near the mines have only one treatment for the effects of sulphur dioxide and arsenic poisoning, whether it be asthma or lung cancer – acetaminophen.

WATCH THE FULL FILM HERE:

Savior is fighting Glencore on two fronts with the help from lawyers from Europe. First, Savior is launching a civil suit against one of Glencore’s UK subsidiaries. So far, Savior’s partners in Zambia have collected 71 testimonies from citizens present in 2008, when toxic chemicals were spilled into drinking water, affecting 800 families. Secondly, Savior discovered a confidential report that proves Glencore evaded at least $700 million in taxes by selling and re-purchasing copper from one subsidiary to another. Glencore International has 80 subsidiaries on 5 continents.

How did Glencore get to Zambia in the first place? Due to macroeconomic shifts in the 1980s, Zambia’s debt service payments tripled. In order to receive relief from the International Monetary Fund (IMF), Zambia underwent massive privatization – including in the health and mining sectors. Zambia sold its copper mines in 2000. Glencore, a mining company based in Switzerland, bought a large mine outside of Mufulira and employed a hazardous on-site copper smelting process that produced large amounts of dangerous emissions, including sulphur dioxide and arsenic. Zambians living near the mine were exposed to sulphur dioxide emissions that are more than 30 times higher than the long term limit recommended by the World Health Organization, and many are very ill. The air they breathe is heavy with sulphur dioxide that makes their lungs burn and tastes of rust.

Good Copper, Bad Copper is not the end of the story; it is the beginning. Savior and his partners are dedicated to ensuring that Zambia’s natural resources benefit citizens, Zambians are organizing to ensure that their voices are heard, and the new Freedom of Information law has the potential to change the relationship between citizens and government.