Building vibrant and tolerant democracies
Whisper it softly but something truly extraordinary has happened in Zambia in recent weeks - a major mining company has been forced (shock!) to take the health of local people into account and (horror!) to actually consult civil society and local communities about its activities. These 'earthshattering' events have not attracted nearly as much attention as they should. And if you're thinking 'well it's not much' - let me repeat - a rich, politically-very-powerful mining company has been forced to back down by the government because of concerns about the rights of local communities. When was the last time that happened in southern Africa?
The story started last month when the government took on the Mopani Copper Mine - one of the country's biggest mines and a subsidiary of the massive multinational Glencore (which boasts an appalling reputation for pollution and violating human rights) - over pollution at its leach plant and forced it to put in place minimum measures to prevent acid mist from affecting the health of local communities. Needless to say, the mine reacted - as they always do - with threats of job losses and economic hardship in local communities (as if life could get much worse for the acutely poor inhabitants of the townships around Mopani). Obviously, they were expecting the government - as govenments usually do - to bow down before them and come to a pro-company agreement behind closed doors.
But not this time. Not only did the government not budge but it also made the mine consult with local communities and civil society - something that is No. 1 on most mining companies' list of things not to do. Obviously, these are just small steps and there is still a long way to go before Mopani - or other mines - genuinely consult and collaborate with local communities and civil society. But they are potentially revolutionary steps towards greater transparency nevertheless.
Mining offers Zambia and many other African countries the chance of sustainable economic growth and pro-poor development - but only if governments and mining companies change they way they operate. And the most critical step is realising that the days of deciding everything during secret discussions in smoke-filled rooms must end.