Information is power: Communities taking action in Zambia

Zambia mining

19 April 2021

Zambia’s North-Western Province is considered by some to be the new Copperbelt – the province so named because of the rich copper deposits that once made it the backbone of the country’s early 20th century economy.

Mining is still the backbone of Zambia’s economy – the country is ranked the eighth largest copper producer in the world, one of the world’s biggest cobalt producers, and produces about 20 percent of the world’s emeralds.

However, many of the local people living above these valuable deposits have not seen much of the mineral wealth. Instead, many have been moved or cut off from their land, forced to deal with pollution of their waterways, excluded from mining jobs, and overwhelmed by domestic migrant workers chasing opportunities to work in the mines.

TI-Zambia explains that while people’s grievances differ across the different communities, a common underlying problem is the lack of proper consultation and information. People are witnessing significant changes to their land, lives and livelihoods, and many feel powerless in that process. Some households are resettled, while others that feel they should be are not. Many people – predominantly subsistence farmers before mining moved in – are being moved to less fertile land. Many see an increase in pollution, particularly affecting the waterways they depend on.

There is a perception among some men and women that local Chiefs are signing deals with mining companies behind closed doors, signing away the land and the people who live on it.

Tamika Halwiindi, Project Officer for the Accountable Mining Programme in Zambia, is more sympathetic: ‘some may feel disempowered,’ she says of the Chiefs and their negotiators. ‘They don’t necessarily have the influence the community think they have because the mining companies can be so strong’. On one side, the mining companies have their expert legal teams, she explains, and on the other: community members who don’t have those skills or knowledge of the laws that govern mining and resettlement.

‘There is a problem with information asymmetry,’ says Tamika.

The community and Chiefs are in a disadvantaged position because they don’t have access to all the information about the mine. ‘Mining companies do not always disclose the conditions and terms of licence to Chiefs and host communities.’

Meanwhile Resettlement Action Plan Committees, which are supposed to support the community to discuss resettlement options, do not have much power to negotiate better outcomes. As these committees are composed of members of the community, there is an information asymmetry that gives way to a significant power imbalance between them and the mining company. While these committees are not required by law, they have become standard practice, especially for large investment projects, like mining, that require resettlement.

‘Recently, A RAP Committee we were working with disclosed that when they asked for certain copies of documents, they were denied access and given excuses,’ said Tamika.

‘In the end it becomes a one-way communication from the mine to the community via the RAP.’

Communities need real, accurate and relevant information about projects that will affect their land and livelihoods. TI-Zambia is working to support this through district-level Transparency Action Groups (TAGs) in towns affected by mining. These groups enable community members to work together to stand up for their rights more strongly and speak more directly to local leaders, government officials and companies.

The groups are made up of people from the community, members of local NGOs, Church groups, the media and government organisations. Together they monitor how mining is affecting their local communities and insist on better outcomes. TI-Zambia is building their understanding of the mining sector’s processes and procedures and supporting them to defend their right to be heard in that process.

Through these groups and the forums and workshops facilitated by the Chapter, TI-Zambia is supporting open conversations between government, companies and the community.

‘We are kind of a bridge,’ says Tamika.

TI-Zambia’s work bridges the knowledge and skills gap so that communities can know and stand up for their rights.

Information is power – it enables women and men in communities to hold decision-makers and companies to account and ensure their plans consider the community’s interests. This helps fight corruption in mining licensing because when communities are actively engaged, those in positions of power are less likely to abuse their position.

The Transparency Action Groups have become self-sustaining community-led organisations that continue to help simplify and interpret mining and government reports for community members, helping local women and men have a greater say in the decisions that affect their lives.

‘TAGs have become a conduit for communities to relay their grievances. They are trusted by community members to be objective in their engagements with the community, traditional leaders and mining companies.

‘We are grateful for the works that the TAGs through TI-Zambia are doing, our resettlement issues started somewhere in 2000 but nothing was happening. But with the coming of TI-Zambia, we have seen so much progress and we are assured that it will eventually materialize. Our only plea is that we hope this project is sustainable, not just here for a short period to raise our hopes and disappear like most projects do.’ – A community member from Lufwanyama District.

‘We are very happy that TI-Z is working with our community, before they sensitised us on FPIC, we did not know our rights and sometimes our farmlands would just be grabbed by the so-called investors and we wouldn’t even have ways of proving if they are genuine. But after sensitisation we are able to defend our farm lands and demand that we are consulted on investors coming to our community.’  – A community member from Chimese Chiefdom in Mansa District

With greater transparency about how the process works, what has been agreed to and how, the community is in a stronger position to monitor those decisions and hold companies and leaders to account.

Photo: Flickr/James Gray King