Alarmed by the pollution produced by the Konkola Copper Mines operation in the Copperbelt Province of Zambia, Chilekwa Mumba organized a lawsuit to hold the mine’s parent company, Vedanta Resources, responsible.
Chilekwa’s victory in the UK Supreme Court set a legal precedent – it was the first time an English court ruled that a British company could be held liable for the environmental damage caused by subsidiary-run operations in another country. This precedent has since been applied to hold Shell Global – one of the world’s 10 largest corporations by revenue – liable for its pollution in Nigeria.
Zambia is one of the largest producers and exporters of copper in Africa. Some 77% of the country’s exports come from the mining industry and 25% of government revenue is from mining royalties and taxes. The Konkola Copper Mines (KCM) is one of the largest mining operations in Zambia and the country’s single largest employer.
KCM’s Nchanga copper mine is located just outside of Chingola city limits in the Copperbelt Province, with an operation that spans 11 square miles along the Kafue River. The mine complex includes an open-pit mine, underground mines, a smelter, a sulfuric acid plant, tailings leach plant, and a refinery. The open-pit mine – the second largest in the world – is seven miles long.
In 2004, Vedanta Resources, a company headquartered in the UK, acquired the controlling stake over KCM. After Vedanta’s takeover, residents of four local villages – Shimulala, Kakosa, Hippo Pool, and Hellen – noticed contamination in the Kafue River and its tributaries. The river began emitting foul odors and fish were dying on the riverbanks. Copper, iron, cobalt, and dissolved sulphates were present in the water far beyond legal limits, and, in 2006, the river turned bright blue from copper sulfate and acid pollution.
In 2011, an internal company letter from a medical doctor stated that the water in the Kafue River and local aquifers were not safe for human consumption. The local water supply, down to the water table, had become severely contaminated from toxic waste spills and discharges of effluent into the river and its tributaries. Local residents relied upon the river water for drinking, bathing, livestock, and crop irrigation. As a result of years of contamination, crop yields were decimated, animals were sickened, and villagers suffered from headaches, nose bleeds, rashes, abdominal pain, blood in urine, and burns.
Residents took KCM to court in Zambia in 2006 but, after years of litigation, were unsuccessful in holding the company accountable for its devastating pollution.
Chilekwa Mumba, 38, is a community organizer who grew up in Chingola, in the Copperbelt Province, where his father was a miner-turned-Pentecostal minister. Chilekwa runs an orphanage in Lusaka with his wife. When he learned of the widespread contamination and injustice occurring in Chingola, in 2013, he felt an acute responsibility to protect the community and environment of his childhood.
Having grown up in Chingola, Chilekwa was deeply concerned about the environmental damage from Vedanta’s takeover of KCM. After the Zambian court failed to hold KCM accountable, he decided to spearhead legal action against Vedanta in the UK.
In 2015, Chilekwa reached out to Leigh Day, a UK-based law firm, and persuaded its attorneys to visit and, ultimately, take on a lawsuit to hold Vedanta legally accountable in the UK. While no UK parent company had ever been held liable for environmental damages caused by a subsidiary, he convinced Leigh Day’s lawyers to challenge the legal shield UK companies used to avoid liability for their overseas operations.
From 2015 to 2021, during the legal build-up, Chilekwa served as a facilitator between the Chingola communities and Leigh Day lawyers. He arranged meetings with villagers and the legal team to explain the lawsuit process and goals, and to cultivate interest in participating in the case.
Chilekwa translated materials for non-English speakers and gathered information on how each of the 2,000 villagers who participated in the lawsuit was affected by the mine’s pollution. In building the case, he convinced villagers to provide blood samples for analysis of the health impacts of contamination; to do this, he had to overcome doubt sewn by KCM representatives, who misled villagers into believing that their blood samples would be sold.
Chilekwa gathered water quality samples during the rainy season, wading into the flooded river, and braving possible encounters with water cobras, crocodiles, and hippos. He identified and persuaded witnesses to provide information against the company, including a former mine manager who gave testimony about the degree of control Vedanta had over KCM’s operations.
As the lawsuit moved slowly through the UK High Court, Court of Appeal, and Supreme Court over nearly six years, Chilekwa worked to reassure villagers who were frustrated with the slowness of the legal process. When the company tried to dissuade residents from taking part in the lawsuit, he helped convince them to stay onboard.
During the long campaign, Chilekwa and his partners were harassed. In 2017, he and a lawyer with Leigh Day were arrested at a public gathering while speaking with villagers about the lawsuit. Police arrived at the meeting in a KCM company jeep.
In April 2019, the UK Supreme Court found that Vedanta, as the parent company of KCM, owed villagers near the mine a duty of care, and Vedanta could be held accountable in UK court for environmental damage from the Nchanga copper mine’s operations.
This ruling meant that the company could not escape liability for environmental damage caused by a subsidiary. In 2021, Vedanta settled with nearly 2,000 people from the four villages near KCM; villagers received undisclosed financial compensation from Vedanta for the pollution that devastated their lives and environment.
The Vedanta case is already being applied in UK courts as a legal precedent. In February 2021, the UK Supreme Court allowed a group of 42,500 Niger Delta residents to sue Shell Global in the UK for years of oil spills that contaminated their land and groundwater, rejecting Shell’s arguments that its Nigerian subsidiary held liability.
In 2019, the Zambian government placed KCM in liquidation, and operations were taken over by the liquidator. Locals report that spills and discharges from the mine have stopped. Chilekwa’s legal victory held Vedanta liable for the grievous harm its environmental pollution caused the villagers near the Nchanga mine. His case successfully challenged decades of corporate impunity and set a legal precedent that British companies can be held accountable for their overseas operations that extract profits while destroying local environments. Last April, Chilekwa received the Goldman Environmental Prize, known as the “Green Nobel Prize”. (The Goldman Environment Report – Photo Goldman Environmental Prize)