Mining, waste and environmental thought on the Central African Copperbelt, 1950-2000

Danford Room 2nd floor Arts Building (R16 on the campus map)
Wednesday 31 October 2018 (16:30-18:30)

Speaker: Iva Peša, University of Oxford

Part of the Africa Talks Seminar Series Autumn 2018.

Talks are held in the Danford Room, 2nd floor, Arts Building (R16 on the campus map). 
All welcome. 

  • Full seminar programme


Since the beginning of the twentieth century the copper mining industry on the Zambian and Congolese Copperbelt has moved tonnes of earth and has drastically impacted on the landscape. Yet although mining is one of the dirtiest of all industries, its role in transforming environments remains underexposed. Notwithstanding profound changes to the air, water and soils of the Copperbelt, environmental aspects of copper mining have been largely overlooked until the early 1990s. This paper argues that inserting environmental considerations into the history of the Central African Copperbelt is important and provides insights into broader socio-economic and political processes. Moreover, by looking at Copperbelt environmental history from the 1950s onwards, the sudden ‘discovery’ of pollution in the 1990s can be contextualised as a local and (inter)national phenomenon. Based on archival research, this paper provides an overview of environmental consciousness as it was expressed on the Zambian and Congolese Copperbelt from the 1950s until the late 1990s. Looking at Zambia and Congo comparatively brings out interesting parallels and differences in terms of environmental policies and thought.

Because mining companies, governments and even residents rarely reflected upon the impact of copper mining on the environment, creative approaches have to be adopted to make the environmental history of the Copperbelt visible. Apart from reading archival sources closely, agriculture and forestry can provide ways to tackle environmental knowledge production on the Copperbelt. Why, for example, was charcoal burning denounced, whereas the large-scale felling of trees for the copper industry was considered unproblematic? Government officials complained about subsistence agriculture and its contribution to soil erosion, but they did not even mention the tailings which mines discharged into rivers. By looking at such issues it is revealed that mining companies, government officials and local residents were acutely aware of the adverse environmental impacts of copper mining. These negative impacts were, however, systematically downplayed. This paper, therefore, seeks to problematise the silencing of the environmental impacts of copper mining on the Central African Copperbelt.

Speaker biography

Iva is a Research Associate in Environmental History at the University of Oxford and is currently working on an ERC Project, ‘Comparing the Copperbelt’.