The 2 faces of Solwezi
|Manjimela lost her son when he fell into a pit dug by the mining company in front of her house.|
|Kampelembe standing where his house once stood before the bulldozers came.|
|Mavumbo points to the number on his house. The number indicates that the house must be demolished to pave way for mining operations.|
By Jack Zimba
It is touted to become the biggest mining operation on the continent when it is finally commissioned, with a capital investment of about US$2 billion, Zambia’s largest single investment ever.
The Trident project in Senior Chief Musele’s area in North Western Province is one of the most ambitious mining undertakings by First Quantum Minerals (FQM) – a Canadian multinational that has quantum-leaped from a small operation at Bwana Mkubwa in Ndola, into the mega mine that is FQM today.
The mining giant is currently operating Kansanshi Copper Mine (KCM), about 10 kilometres outside Solwezi town, the capital of North Western Province, and has become one of the most significant contributors to the country’s treasury. Since 2006, the mine has contributed over K10 billion to Zambia’s economy.
It is a figure the mine owners recite every so often when they talk about the significance of their operation to the Zambian economy. And the prospects for the mine seem brighter still.
It is envisaged that in the next few years, FQM, which is currently bigger than Rio Tinto, Anglo American and BHP Billiton, will become the largest mining company on the planet.
According to Bruce Lewis, who is the mine’s social responsibility manager, the mining giant is currently negotiating a takeover of the world’s biggest mine in Panama, South America.
Sitting at the mine’s exclusive golf club restaurant in Solwezi, with its picturesque golf course and mouth-watering dishes, Lewis paints a perfect picture of the mining company, with a social responsibility bar that is higher than any other private company in the country.
But drive 150km west of Solwezi to Senior Chief Musele’s area and one gets a different picture of Zambia’s largest mining investor.
Here, there is growing anger and resentment towards the mining giant, which the locals accuse of grabbing their land and of not sharing the benefits from the mineral wealth.
The villagers have formed a taskforce to defend themselves against the mining giant’s perceived invasion of their land.
The taskforce is headed by Robson Ilunga, a no-nonsense-looking man with a combatant attitude. He led me to some villagers facing removal from their homes at the mine’s order. On our way, we passed several demolished houses, whose owners have already been relocated.
Graham Kampelembe, who had his house destroyed in July, says he was only paid K1,000 plus a small house built by the mine as compensation. He showed me a heap of mud bricks on the roadside where his house once stood before the bulldozers came.
But others, like Christine Mulalu, who is headwoman for Konyanga village, are refusing to move. Mulalu says the land where the mine is resettling them is too small – just about 20mx40m for each household. And it is land, she says, that still belongs to the mining company.
But it is the story of Rhoda Manjimela that was most distressing. She lost her two-year-old child when he fell in a pit dug by the mine in front of her house. It’s now been two years and she claims the only money she received from FQM was K1,000 to cover the funeral costs for her child.
Her anger against the investor quickly gives way to grief and her eyes well up as she talks about her dead child. “The mine people killed my child,” she says.
Manjimela’s anger is shared by many in her community and as I spoke to her, I was suddenly surrounded by an angry crowd of men and women all speaking against the mining company and vowing they will never move from their land. Others, however, say they would move if they were given adequate compensation. The villagers do not speak with one voice on the issue of compensation or even the relocation programme, making it hard to separate truth from falsehood.
But Lewis says the compensation amounts the mine has paid out have, in many cases, exceeded the rates stipulated by the ministry of agriculture, and that the mine has helped resettled families to venture into income-generating activities such as poultry.
“We make sure their lives are better than they were before,” Lewis told me.
And there have been reports in the media in the past of some villagers praising the mine’s resettlement programme.
The taskforce, however, accuses the mine bosses of working with a few “weak people” among the villagers who have been paid to speak well of FQM. “It is these same people,” says Ilunga, “who are paraded before the journalists who are brought here by the mine, so what do you expect?”
Ilunga also accuses the mine bosses of having little regard for the traditional leadership, including the senior chief.
But who really is to blame for the land wrangle in the Musele chiefdom?
Some accuse Senior Chief Musele, himself, of being responsible for the problem after he signed the agreement to allow FQM, through its subsidiary, Kalumbila Minerals Limited, acquire 518km/sq of land for the Trident project. But Chief Musele says he signed the agreement under duress just two months before the country went to the polls in 2011, which saw the MMD exit from power. It was, perhaps, a last-minute attempt by the previous administration to impress voters in North Western Province, where its fortunes had seriously declined over the years.
But one senior government official in the province told me, matter-of-factly, that Chief Musele did receive a huge sum as inducement from the mining company in order to sign the land deal.
The senior chief is also rumoured to have demanded a plane and an air strip near his palace from the investor in exchange for the land.
The softly-spoken Lunda chief, however, dismisses such allegations, challenging his accusers to produce evidence of the bribery. “I have documents to show what happened,” he argues.
And many of his subjects, like Ilunga, are quick to jump to the chief’s defence.
Chief Musele has always claimed to be a victim in the whole land affair and has been an outspoken critic of FQM’s conduct in his area, accusing the mining company of destroying his cattle.
His narrative of what happened is nothing short of drama.
It was a cold July night in 2011 - around 23:00 hours – when he was visited at his palace by the district commissioner for Solwezi at that time and the country manager for FQM, Gen. Kingsley Chinkuli. This was after about a year of the chief resisting demands by government that he give up 950km/sq of land to the mining company. That demand was later reduced to 750km/sq.
At a meeting with the Environmental Council of Zambia (now Zambia Environmental Agency) held in March 2011, Senior Chief Musele had vowed that he would not sign the land deal because the land being asked for by the mining company was too much and suggested that they take up only 500km/sq.
But, according to Chief Musele, the two messengers told him in no uncertain terms that the government wanted him to quickly sign the land deal in order for the ruling party to win votes in the province.
The chief says there were threats issued against him if he refused to sign.
“They told me that ‘if you don’t sign, the government will be on your neck’,” he says.
Later the same month, the chief was taken to Solwezi and booked at the Solwezi Royal Hotel where the government and the mining company tried to persuade him to give up the huge track of land.
“For three days I resisted to sign,” he says.
Finally they agreed to sign for 518km/sq, which the chief says he only signed because he was afraid.
“I was afraid because I had no security and it was in the night,” he told me. According to the chief, the agreement was signed between 21:00 and 22:00 hours.
He says as a way of rewarding him for signing the land deal, FQM had proposed to build him a palace, but he refused, demanding shares in the company, instead. His demand was never met.
“I wanted the whole community to benefit, that is why I refused a palace,” he says.
The agreement also gave guidelines regarding the operation of the mine in relation to the local population. According to Chief Musele, part of the agreement was that the mine would not displace people, disturb their burial sites or close roads.
However, two months after the agreement was signed, the mining company “became impossible” and started reneging on the agreement, says the chief.
To date, over 50 people in the chiefdom have been displaced and resettled by the mining company.
Bowas Mavumbo is a community leader in Kankonji, and like the other villagers that I met, he is defiant and strongly opposed to any plans to resettle him.
“I was born here and I’m not going anywhere,” says the 59-year-old.
Yet, Mavumbo’s small mud house, like many others in his village, has already been marked with a number – it is marked for destruction to pave way for development by the mine.
How long his defiance will hold is hard to tell, but each morning, Mavumbo wakes to the sound of huge earthmoving machines passing by his numbered house. His days living on his ancestral land may well be numbered, too.
At an impromptu meeting in Kankonji, that had attracted a sizable crowd, another community leader, Best Kakusa, warned of bloodshed if the government did not intervene to help the people.
“It’s like the investor is more important to the government than the local people,” he complained.
Some of the locals now talk of picking up axes and machetes to defend their land. And if that fails we will use witchcraft, they say. It is perhaps a clear sign of desperation and despondency among the villagers, who accuse the government of not paying much attention to their situation.
“People have lost tampers, anything can happen,” says Ilunga. “We are like slaves in our own land.”
What has incensed the villagers even more is the decision by Kalumbila Mine to lay two huge pipelines – about a metre in diameter – across an important access road that connects three chiefdoms, namely Musele, Ntambo and Sailung’a.
“Even the rivers in this area have been blocked – they don’t belong to us any more, they belong to the mine. And when we try to go and fish there, they chase us with dogs,” says Mavumbo.
And for the young people in the area who hoped the coming of the mine would bring the much-needed jobs, it has not happened, at least not for them.
Brighton Chaba, 35, has been seeking employment at the mine as an electrician the past two years, but without luck. He says the problem is that the mine recruits its workforce online and the villagers have no access to internet.
Chaba says the number of young people seeking employment at the mine in the area now exceeds 300 – a good number of them migrants from other parts of the province. Chaba, himself, came from Mwinilunga, one of the furthermost districts in the province.
But Lewis says his company finds it hard to employ locals because most of the jobs are specialised, requiring skilled labour – skills which most locals do not possess.
The mine is, however, now providing relevant skills training to locals to prepare them for jobs in the mining industry. But that is long term and the villagers want jobs now. And the lack of jobs for locals seems only to add to the anger among the villagers.
I witnessed some of that anger when a condescending driver of a huge grader working on a road refused to give way to our vehicle. Tempers flared, with bitter exchange of words between the locals and the driver of the grader, who spoke in Congolese-accented Bemba.
The conflict between the locals in Chief Musele’s area and FQM brings to question the conduct of multinationals in relation to poor communities where they operate.
Chief Musele says he feels intimidated by the mine owners because they are powerful and seem to have a clout with the government.
Paul Fitsher is a Swiss national who worked in the mines on the Copperbelt before Zambia’s independence and is now involved in campaigns against some multinationals back in Switzerland.
On his recent visit to Zambia, Fitsher said there was need for international regulation for multinationals in order to protect poor countries where they operate.
Fitsher has been involved in campaigns against multinationals like Nestle and Glencco Xstrata, the mining giant that also owns Mopani Copper Mine, back in his home country.
And Dr Chris Muyunda, who is a mining and environmental expert, says what needs to be done about the Kalumbila project is to carry out a strategic environmental impact assessment which, he says, would take into account all the concerns being raised by the villagers of Musele chiefdom and reduce the tension.
One thing is true, though, land is always an emotive subject everywhere and the night before I met the subjects of Chief Musele, I had listened to Chief Mumena of the Kaonde people at his palace make impassioned pleas over land. At one point the chief’s voice began to crack and he had to briefly stop speaking in order to regain his composure.
The chief’s major concern is the way the mines ministry is issuing exploration licenses in his chiefdom without consulting him. He says even the land on which his palace sits has been given up for mineral exploration.
“The entire province is already taken up,” he says. “I’m yet to know which part is not taken up.”
“Where do I take the people if the exploration licenses are sitting back-to-back all over? If we turn all these exploration areas into mines, aren’t we choking ourselves?” the chief asks, his voice filled with frustration.
His warning over mishandling land issues is mythical yet believable: “This land is a living thing,” he says, “if you mishandle it, it will respond in its own way.”
But this is the blessed curse the villagers in Chief Musele’s area and elsewhere in the province have to deal with: their villages sit on abundant mineral deposits.
North Western Province is said to be the next “Copperbelt Province”, although some argue the province has more copper deposits than the actual Copperbelt Province ever had. Chief Mumena thinks “copperfields” and not “copperbelt” is a more befitting term for North Western Province, “because anywhere you throw a stone, you will find mineralisation there”.
There may be some exaggeration in the chief’s assessment, but the huge investments in the province all point to its abundant mineral wealth, although, frankly speaking, there is a huge disparity between the investment taking place at the mining sites and the infrastructure obtaining in Solwezi town.
Apart from a few banks that have recently opened business and countless nondescript lodges, Solwezi has remained a one-street town now chocking up with traffic and a huge influx of traders and prostitutes following the copper money.
“This is frustrating to us because the money we pay in taxes does not come back to Solwezi,” says Lewis. His frustration is shared by Chief Mumena who thinks Solwezi is getting a raw deal, with a lot of urbanization taking place without modernisation.
“It’s like we are developing a large shanty,” he says.
Solwezi is also waking up to the challenges of urbanization such as a surge in violent crime. During my visit – on October 31 – two bandits were gunned down by police after a botched armed robbery. They were both identified as Congolese nationals who traded in shoes during the day and put on balaclava to transform into bandits during the night.
The once quiet town of Solwezi is now a hive of activity enough to overwhelm even the most prying journalist.
But there may be a story that the journalists who are flown by the mining giant to report on its activities in Chief Musele’s area are not telling. There may be truth the government is not revealing. It is hard to know the truth when all the parties involved point an accusing finger at each other. And, so, I leave Solwezi with a dreadful sinking feeling that maybe I, too, may have missed the real story.
But one thing is clear; Solwezi is a place of two stories. The story of Bruce Lewis talking excitedly about the gains and prospects of FQM; and the story of Rhoda Manjimela, who is still grieving over the loss of her child and now faces possible displacement from the place of her birth, all in the name of mining.