Victory for Activists in El-Salvador: A precedent for Southern Africa?
Despite attempts at best practices by mining companies and changes to laws in some countries, water, soil, and air pollution resulting from mining, industrial and agricultural activities continue to rise.
Late last month, the Central American state of El Salvador made history as the first country in the world to ban metal mining. The decision by lawmakers to ban mining in the country came after a protracted struggle between activists and mining companies to protect the country’s dwindling water sources from pollution by mining projects.
In Southern Africa, one of the world’s most mineral-rich regions, mining and its associated industries are the cornerstone of most of the region’s economies. But, as in El Salvador, the region’s citizens have paid a heavy price, as mining and mineral processing activities in the region have severely impacted the environment and their livelihoods. Despite attempts at best practices by mining companies and changes to laws in some countries, water, soil, and air pollution resulting from mining, industrial and agricultural activities continue to rise.
A lack of legal regulation and enforcement of industrial and artisanal mining, deforestation, domestic water and sanitation systems, and heavily polluting industries has often led to human rights violations. Activists and ordinary citizens on the coalface of defending their rights to land and the environment often face intimidation, legal and physical harassment and deadly violence.
The main victims of environmental harm are impoverished and marginalized communities with limited opportunity to meaningfully participate in decision-making and public debate on environmental issues, and with little or no access to courts to achieve accountability and redress.
Evidence-based research has revealed that water scarcity and associated increased water pollution, limits social and economic development is closely linked to the prevalence of poverty, hunger and disease.
According to the Benchmarks Foundation, in South Africa, “the single most destructive impact of mining is on the environment.” The Foundation goes on to state that “air and water pollution, as a result of mining, acid mine drainage, toxic waste and abandoned mines continue to pose serious risks to South Africa's communities and its environment.” It concludes that South Africa’s “rivers and streams throughout the country are under severe stress as a result of mining and industrial activities.”
The situation is no better in the Democratic Republic of Congo where serious human rights violations and environmental pollution have occurred as a result of copper and cobalt mining, including water pollution and forced evictions.
In Malawi, Human Rights Watch has documented how some mining companies have cut the community’s existing drinking water supply by destroying the water pipes running through the mining area and left communities with “few boreholes and river water for drinking and domestic use.”
Research by the Open Society Initiative for Southern Africa (OSISA) and its partners in Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Zambia and Zimbabwe echoes these findings. In collaboration with partners, OSISA continues to highlight the difficulty of implementing relevant environmental and mining laws to address the negative impacts, human rights violations and long-term environmental risks that mining poses to local communities across the region. Recently, OSISA trained ninety DRC judges and magistrates on environmental law to be able to deal with environmental issues identified by local human rights activists. OSISA also trained 480 Members of Parliament in ten SADC countries on their oversight role on mining related issues, including environmental impacts of mining.
In many Southern African countries, far too many loopholes exist in the legislation for effective regulation and governance of the mining sector; OSISA has thus supported a review of mining legislation in the DRC, Malawi, Lesotho and Zambia.
Despite efforts to highlight environmental destruction caused by mining activities, mining corporations have not and are not being held accountable for many of the costs that their operations impose on society. Additionally, where countries have amended laws in respect of the environment and sought to introduce stringent health and safety requirements, mining companies have put up considerable resistance. OSISA’s recently launched Mineral Governance Barometer points to the fact that government officials in many SADC countries are compromised due to corruption and are unable to enforce laws and legislation on multinational mining companies.
While the victory in El Salvador is a watershed moment for activists and citizens globally, it is unlikely that such legislation would pass in Southern Africa in the near future, as mineral resources continue to provide the bulk of the region’s economies. But such a scenario cannot be ruled out: If the current trend, where mineral extraction benefits only a few and destroys people’s land, environment and lives continues; the calls for a ban on metal mining emulating El Salvador will increase in the region.
The El Salvador decision underscores just how much more can be achieved when citizens collectively challenge mining companies and demand their rights, and states demonstrate the will to ameliorate the effects of mining on the environment and communities.
As a result, OSISA continues to support efforts aimed at ensuring that the region’s extractive sector provides sustainable development benefits by monitoring and evaluating the impact of extractive activities on the rights and livelihoods of vulnerable populations, especially women, and the environment. OSISA also continues to work with key stakeholders such as parliaments, civil society, media and communities from most countries in the region to enable them to discharge their oversight role effectively with the view to ensuring that minerals not only benefit every citizen but protect the environment and citizen’s health.
Continentally, OSISA has supported the popularisation and domestication of the African Mining Vision which recognises that water pollution and biodiversity destruction pose a significant risk to the entire region and seeks to address this challenge.
It is only through proper governance and respect for social, environmental and human rights policies and practices that the abundant land, mineral and water resources of the region will be utilised for inclusive, broad-based economic development that benefits citizens.
About the author(s)
Tiseke Kasambala, a Malawi national, was previously the Southern Africa Director of the Africa Division of Human Rights Watch. She has worked on issues related to state-sponsored repression and violence, international justice, and economic, social, and cultural rights such as the rights to health and housing. She joined OSISA as a Deputy Director/Head of Programmes in 2014 from the Human Rights Watch where she worked as a Zimbabwe researcher from since 2004. She documented abuses surrounding the disputed presidential elections in 2008, marked by government-sponsored violence, the 2005 parliamentary elections in Zimbabwe, and the displacement of 700,000 Zimbabweans during mass evictions in 2005. Before joining Human Rights Watch, Tiseke worked as a campaigner and acting researcher on Southern Africa for Amnesty International. She holds a Master's degree in Social Sciences from the University of Amsterdam, the Netherlands. She regularly contributes reports, articles and opinions on human rights to leading national, regional and international newspapers, magazines and television programmes.