University of Cambridge > > Centre of African Studies Occasional Talks > Mining, waste and environmental thought on the Central African Copperbelt, 1950-2000'

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

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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 and oral history, 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.

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, medical services 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 that 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 seeks to problematise the silencing of the environmental impacts of copper mining on the Central African Copperbelt.

Iva Peša is a Research Associate in environmental history at the University of Oxford. Within the ERC funded ‘Comparing the Copperbelt’ project, led by Prof. Miles Larmer, she conducts research on the environmental history of the Zambian and Congolese Copperbelt from 1950-2000. She obtained her PhD at Leiden University in the Netherlands in 2014 on the social history of Mwinilunga District in Zambia. Iva’s publications include three edited volumes (Magnifying Perspectives, 2017) and several articles, she is the editor of the open-accessSouthern African Journal of Policy and Development.

This talk is part of the Centre of African Studies Occasional Talks series.

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