By Michael Chawe
More than 2,000 villagers in Zambia have won the second round of their unprecedented search for compensation over water pollution by Konkola Copper Mines (KCM), a subsidiary of UK’s Vedanta Resources.
The villagers have since 2007 been seeking justice against the company for poisoning their water sources and destroying farmland.
The UK Supreme Court ruled on April 10 that it had jurisdiction to hear the reparations claim, striking a blow on the miner, which wanted the matter settled in Zambia.
This inches the villagers closer to compensation for what they say are personal injuries arising from consuming polluted water.
“The Supreme Court judgment will finally enable justice for the thousands of victims of pollution by KCM’s mining activities, who have suffered immensely since 2006 to date, in the Chingola district of Zambia.
Their livelihoods, land and health have been irreparably damaged by pollution which has rendered the River Kafue completely polluted and unable to support aquatic life. Some have already died as a result,” James Nyasulu, the lead claimant in the case said in a statement.
“After four years fighting for this case to be heard by the English courts we are delighted that our clients’ case can now go ahead in the UK where there is a real opportunity for justice,” said Oliver Holland, a solicitor at Leigh Day, the law firm that represented the community.
He said they took the matter to the UK because the community was unable to get justice in Zambia too powerful for 13 years.
Big corporations operating in Africa are often seen as too powerful for ordinary citizens to secure fair hearing against them in courts.
The Supreme Court also ruled that companies are liable for the commitments, including good corporate citizenship, they make publicly regarding their subsidiaries and their commitments to the communities they serve.
The determination of jurisdiction hearing means the substantive claim will be heard in the UK High Court amid speculation of a likely out-of-court settlement.
Vedanta said in a statement it was ready to defend itself against the claims. “Vedanta and KCM will defend themselves against any such claims at the appropriate time.”
Vedanta India mine closed
Chingola town, where the pollution affected villagers, has one of the largest open pit mines in the world. It was privatised in the 1990s and changed hands several times before Vedanta bought it.
Last week, the company reported to the London Stock Exchange that it had raised $1 billion mainly for repaying debts at an interest rate of 8.75 per cent and maturity of almost six years.
Last month, Vedanta Resources appointed Christopher Sheppard as Kongola’s new chief executive officer.
In May last year, the Vedanta-owned Tuticorin copper smelting plant in India’s Tamil Nadu state was closed by authorities over pollution.
This followed global outrage over the killing of 13 people by police during protests against the Indian smelter.
“I hope this judgment will send a strong message to other large multinationals that their Corporate Social Responsibility policies should not just be seen as a polish for their reputation, but as important commitments that they must put into action,” said Martyn Day, senior partner at law firm Leigh Day.
Zambian authorities, including the environmental management agency ZEMA, said they would not comment until they reviewed the judgement.
Environmental activists said the landmark judgement could see other communities in developing countries seek similar redress against large multinationals in their homelands.
The villagers claimed KCM has since 2004 been disposing effluents like sulphuric acid and other toxic chemicals into the Mushishima stream and Kafue River.
The water sources serve the mining towns of Hippo Pool, Kakosa, Shimulala and Hellen Hippo. The villagers depend on them for domestic use as well as agriculture.
A blue river
The environmental pollution dispute arises from an incident in 2006 when effluents from Nchanga Copper mine in Chingola turned River Kafue bright blue with copper sulphate and acid, poisoning water sources for 40,000 people
KCM runs the mine.
A year later 2001 claimants took the mine to court and the case was ruled in their favour in 2015. However, the Zambian court did not offer any reparations.
It was then the claimants decided to take the case for hearing in the UK, where Vedanta is incorporated.
Vedanta, objected to the hearing in the UK but lost the case at the UK Supreme Court on April 10 after a series of appeals on decisions of lower courts.
The law firm based in Manchester proclaims on its website “We act for the vulnerable” and lists human rights, medical negligence and discrimination as its areas of expertise.
The firm is no stranger to Africa having represented 5,228 Kenyans who suffered torture and abuse at the hands of British colonial officials during the Mau Mau uprising in 1952.
They won $26 million in compensation from the UK government in 2013 through Mr Day.
The firm is also representing the Bodo Community in Nigeria against Shell in an oil spill case in which the oil major was ordered by the UK High Court last year to clean up the environment.
The Bodo community has up to July this year to reactivate the case if Shell does not comply with the orders. Another 40,000 Mau Mau survivors from Kenya have retained Leigh Day to argue their compensation case against the UK government.
They are claiming damages for torture, rape, wrongful detention, forced labour and mistreatment by British officials during the fight for independence.