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Element Africa: Lead poisoning, polluted rivers, and ‘calamitous’ mining regulation

  • More than 100,000 Zambian women and children are filing a class action lawsuit against mining giant Anglo American for decades of lead poisoning at a mine they say it controlled.
  • Illegal gold mining in Ghana is polluting rivers that local communities depend on for water for drinking, bathing and farming.
  • A legal case against a village head who allegedly sold off the community’s mining license to a Chinese company has highlighted what analysts call the “confusing” state of mining regulation in Nigeria.
  • Element Africa is Mongabay’s bi-weekly bulletin rounding up brief stories from the extractives industry across Africa.

Zambians launch lead poisoning lawsuit against mining giant Anglo American

A group of 140,000 women and children from Zambia’s Kabwe district  is seeking to bring a class action lawsuit against mining giant Anglo American South Africa, demanding compensation for harm caused by 88 years of lead pollution from the Broken Hill mine.

Broken Hill operated from 1906 to 1994, mining lead-rich sulfide ores, crushing and smelting them, and leaving toxic wastewater, sludge and rock behind in a series of dumps and tailings in Kabwe. Both the “Native compound area” for the company’s Black workers and the homes of other Black residents of Kabwe were sited downwind of mine facilities, where residents continuously inhaled lead dust and fumes, according to court papers.

After eight children died of suspected lead poisoning in Kabwe in 1971, an investigation by the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine found significantly elevated blood lead levels in the district.

A 2020 investigation of soil contamination levels found dangerously high levels of lead in the district’s soil; a 2015 study of blood lead levels in young children found all of those sampled had elevated lead levels — more than half of 100 children tested in Kasanda township, just north of the mine site, had levels indicating lead poisoning. Women in the district were found to have double the levels of lead in their blood that can cause serious health damage.

A Kabwe child playing outside.
Without remediation, lead can remain in soil for decades, putting children like this boy playing with sand in Kabwe at risk. Image courtesy Lawrence Thompson for Children of Kabwe.

Paul Dargan, a consultant physician and clinical toxicologist in the UK, and professor Colleen Adnams, a professor of intellectual disability at the University of Cape Town examined some of the applicants  and provided expert reports on their findings. They found children as young as 3 years old suffering lead poisoning. One suffers continuous diarrhea, coughing and vomiting; the child’s growth has been stunted and they are currently at risk of developing encephalopathy. They also noted other children suffering learning difficulties, headaches and debilitating abdominal pains, as well as anemia and eyesight problems.

An Anglo American spokesperson told Mongabay that the suit was an attempt to hold the company “liable for a mine we have never owned nor operated and for pollution and harm that others have caused and freely acknowledged as their responsibility.” The company has long maintained that it held only an indirect share of the mine, and that responsibility for remediation of land lies with the Zambia Broken Hill Development Company Limited, which operated the mine from 1974 until it closed in 1994.

But the claimants’ attorneys, U.K.-based law firm Leigh Day and South Africa-based Mbuyisa Moleele, have filed company minutes and reports dating back to 1960 to show that Anglo-American was “the de facto controlling entity … providing management, technical engineering direction and advice, and medical oversight, including advice on health and safety measures and the control of lead pollution” between 1925 and 1974, during which time 66% of the mine’s output was produced.

They say as many as 100,000 children and women of childbearing age in the district are likely to have suffered lead poisoning.

For the case to advance, the claimants will need to prove to a South African High Court that Anglo American knew of the risks of lead pollution and failed to prevent it. The application for certification, which began on Jan. 20, is being livestreamed daily.

Samantha Hargreaves, director of WoMin, a pan-African women’s organization working against destructive resource extraction, said the precedent-setting case strengthens the movement to compel mining companies to pay reparations to Global South communities they have destroyed.

“Dirty corporations, usually headquartered in the most powerful countries in the world, need the land and forests and water bodies of Indigenous and Black populations in Europe and North America, Africa, Asia and Latin America, but the people themselves are dispensable,” Hargreaves said. “These are the surplus people easily sacrificed in the pursuit of maximum profit. Corporations generally act with impunity.”

People of Kabwe.
More than a third of Kabwe’s 76,000 residents live in lead-contaminated communities, says Human Rights Watch. Image courtesy Lawrence Thompson for Children of Kabwe.

Illegal mining polluting water for farmers in Ghana’s gold-producing regions

Growing numbers of farmers living along Ghana’s Debre River in the Ashanti region are desperate for water. The river used to run clear and fresh, but is now brown and polluted because of illegal mining.

Nana Kweku grows okra and garden eggs (Solanum gilo, a small variety of eggplant) on 2 hectares (5 acres) of land in the village of Kasotie, Atwiman Mponua district. During the dry season, he draws water from the river for his farm.

“Instead of green leaves, some of our plants have yellowish-green color. This is unusual,” he says. He says his harvest has fallen by more than half.

The farmers can no longer use the river’s water for drinking or bathing. Instead, children and women are forced to walk as much as 6 kilometers (3.7 miles) to buy clean water from a borehole well drilled by the Atwiman Mponua district council and local philanthropists.

Kweku sometimes irrigates his farm with water from this borehole, but the cost to fill two jerricans is high for a farmer with a large family  “We fetch about 20 to 30 gallons [300 to 450 liters] a day. Sometimes I have to fetch some to the farm to irrigate the crops, making it more expensive. If the river wasn’t polluted, we wouldn’t be facing this situation.”

He says borehole water costs his family 1 cedi for 50 liters — between $3 and $5 a week.

“Outside the Ashanti region, the Birim, Ankobra, Pra, Densu … and many other rivers have been polluted as a result of illegal mining in the river bodies, including rivers in the Atewa Forest,” Daryl Bosu, deputy national director of environmental group A Rocha Ghana, told Mongabay.

Residents of Atwiman Mponua say they have little hope that the river will be restored to health soon, as there are no efforts in sight to end the illegal mining.

Illegal gold digger using a water pump.
Illegal gold miners in Ghana: unregulated mining is polluting waterways across the Eastern, Western, and Ashanti regions. Image by Elodie Toto for Mongabay.

Poor regulation a threat to communities as new mineral boom sweeps Nigeria

On Jan. 23, villagers in central Nigeria’s Nasarawa state took its village head before a magistrate, accusing him of forging documents that transferred the community’s mining license to a Chinese firm in exchange for cash.

The Ugya community had set up a company and secured a small-scale mining license, but according to the Vanguard newspaper, community members said the village head, Musa Adamu, then sold the license to HSHF Overseas Mining Limited, a Chinese firm, for an undisclosed sum.

The Ugya case highlights the chaotic state of regulation of mining in Nigeria, a situation that has frequently allowed miners to destroy farmland and pollute watercourses with impunity.

Nasarawa state, in central Nigeria, has some of the country’s largest quantities of solid minerals, including tantalum and tin. Nigerian officials blame widespread illegal mining activity in Nasarawa and elsewhere in the country on the actions of local elites and land grabbers.

By law, each of Nigeria’s 36 state governments regulate access to land, but the federal government controls all mineral resources. Once an exploitable resource is identified, the central government assumes power to issue mining licenses, review environmental and social impact studies, and approve and monitor mitigation and remediation of harm. Lawful owners and occupiers of land are entitled to compensation, and miners are required to reach a community development agreement with their hosts.

But analysts say neglect, corruption and poor regulation are fueling illegal mining and exposing residents to harm. In some cases, local leaders accept payment from miners and illegally grant them access to land without a mining license or environmental assessment. Responding to a growing number of local conflicts and widespread environmental damage, Nasarawa’s state government issued an order on Jan. 4 barring communities from allocating land for mining.

“Host communities have always been at the receiving end of the calamitous realities that arise from mining activities, made more complicated because in Nigeria we have a very confusing [mining] legal framework,” said Akintunde Babatunde, who heads the natural resource and extractives program at the Abuja-based Centre for Journalism Innovation and Development, a policy research and media nonprofit.

Babatunde says if it is enforced, Nasarawa state’s order will help protect communities, but fears it will not be effectively implemented. “How do we ensure there are no sacred cows? The fear of the lack of the efficacy of this order is more on the implementation,” he said.

Element Africa: Diamonds, oil, coltan, and more diamonds

Mabel Adorkor Anang, Ini Ekott, and Anna Majavu contributed to this bulletin.

Banner image: Child playing with sand in Kabwe. Image courtesy Lawrence Thompson for Children of Kabwe.

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