Democratic Republic of Congo and Zambia: copper legacies, atrocities and risks

By Claire Burgess & Liz Downes

Incorporating the Central African Copper Belt, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Zambia together account for around 11% of the global copper market. The DRC – the world’s fifth biggest copper-producing country in 2020 – boasts the legacy of one of the world’s most horrific massacres related to mining, and arguably the worst human rights atrocity associated with an Australian mining company.

In 2004 Anvil Mining, which operated the Dikolushi copper mine, allegedly supported the Congolese military with logistics and transport to slaughter 70 people in the nearby city of Kilwa. Amidst the ensuing legal turmoil – which caused international embarrassment for the company despite the failure of the courts to force any accountability for its 2004 actions – Anvil’s DRC assets became poisoned chalices. Dikolushi and a neighbouring mine, Kapulo, were offloaded to another Australian company, Mawson West, in 2010. Anvil Mining was bought out in 2012 by Hong Kong-based MinMetals Resources. The two mines were decommissioned in 2015 due to commercial unviability.

Largely as a result of this legacy, the DRC has been considered a “high risk” destination for Australian companies. However, this is changing due to the willingness of companies to invest in more risky jurisdictions in order to take advantage of increasing demand. Copper prices reached over $10,000 a tonne in April/May 2021, and the successful development of Ivanhoe’s grand-scale Kamoa-Kakula mine have encouraged companies to reconsider the value of DRC as an investment destination.

BHP has not been active in Africa since 2015 except through its spin-off company South32; but in mid 2021 the company was reported to be in private talks with Ivanoe. Australian company Taruga Minerals has been developing three copper projects since 2019 and has its sights on cobalt and lithium explorations in the Kolwezi region. 

Neighbouring the DRC, Zambia is an emerging copper exploration hotspot for junior Australian miners (e.g. Castillo Copper Limited) and giants (Rio Tinto).  Zambia has a 30-year legacy of serious industrial relations issues within its copper production industry, largely due to the country’s labour laws which have stripped unions of the power to protect workers. 

In Chinese-owned mines, workers have been fired for striking about unfair working conditions and miners have been reported to be bribed or threatened to prevent the publicising of accidents and abuse at the workplace. London-listed Glencore came under scrutiny in 2019 when it retrenched around 3000 permanent and contracted workers from its Mopani copper mine. 

Concerns have been raised by corporate watchdogs about the lack of regulation for Australian companies operating in Africa. In 2017, according to Keren Adams of the Australian Human Rights Law Centre, Australia had “over 150 mining companies operating in Africa and yet there is very little regulation or oversight of their activities and it is extremely difficult for victims to hold them to account when human rights violations occur.”  

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