Zambian case scales up climate change liability

It really is a David and Goliath story. The kind that brings hope for small remote communities who are trying to protect their environment against large corporations who extract resources from the earth.

When Chilekwa Mumba was emailing lawyers and social activists in 2015 looking for help for Zambian villagers being harmed by the world’s largest open pit copper mine, he probably wasn’t thinking about changing the world.

But he did, with the aid of a UK legal firm, making it possible for many other communities who suffer harm caused by subsidiaries of UK firms to hold those firms accountable in British courts. In a landmark judgment in 2019, the UK Supreme Court held that British companies can be held liable for how subsidiary-run operations cause environmental damage in another country.

Chilekwa, who won this year’s prestigious Goldman Environmental Prize for the African region, grew up in Chingola, Zambia, where his father was a miner-turned-Pentecostal minister. Zambia is one of the largest producers and exporters of copper in Africa, and Konkola Copper Mines (KCM) is Zambia’s single largest employer.

Chingola was built in the 1940s to support the Nchanga mine, which has been operating for nearly a century. The complex also includes several underground mines, smelter, sulfuric acid plant, tailings dam, and refinery.

But after 2004, when Vedanta Resources bought a controlling stake in mine operator Konkola Copper Mines (KCM), people began suffering headaches, nose bleeds, rashes, and burns. In 2006, the Kafue River,which provides almost half of the country’s drinking water, ran bright blue due to waste from the copper mine. 

Zambian courts found that KCM had discharged acidic effluent into the river’s tributaries and ordered damages to be paid to almost 2,000 claimants. But the company appealed to the Zambian Supreme Court, which found in 2015 that the trial judge should have ordered damages to be assessed on an individual basis rather than setting a fixed amount for all claimants.

Chilekwa was running an orphanage in Lusaka with his wife when he heard about the plight of the Shimulala, Kakosa, Hippo Pool, and Hellen villagers.That was when he took to the internet to try and find help. “I decided to try and get in touch with as many NGOs and law firms as possible to bring attention to this issue,” he says. “I must have written to maybe close to 100 of them.”

He heard back from the UK-based Leigh Day, which sent attorney Oliver Holland to Zambia to learn more. From 2015 to 2021, as the legal case moved forward, Chilekwa served as a facilitator between the Chingola communities and the lawyers. He arranged meetings with villagers and the legal team to explain the lawsuit process and goals, translated materials for non-English speakers, assisted experts in collecting water quality samples and gathered information on how each of the 2,000 villagers who participated in the legal case were affected.

Chilekwa Mumba, Goldman Environmental Prize

The legal case settled without any admission of liability in 2021, explains Leigh Day. Vedanta settled with the 2,000-plus Chingola residents who brought the UK lawsuit for an undisclosed amount. “We are delighted that Chilekwa has been recognised by the Goldman Prize for his significant contribution to furthering access to environmental justice through his work on the Vedanta case,” says Oliver Holland.

“The Supreme Court ruling on the case was a momentous step forward in holding multinationals to account in the English courts,” says Leigh Day. “The decision also gave way to an array of interesting possibilities for climate change liability litigation against parent companies and their foreign subsidiaries, as their cumulative greenhouse gas emissions are likely to be considerably higher than when taken separately, arguably making prospective claims against them more viable.”

Since the Vedanta ruling, Leigh Day notes, the UK Supreme Court has found that Royal Dutch Shell might owe a duty of care to two Nigerian communities in Okpabi and Bille v Royal Dutch Shell, and therefore may be liable for the damage caused by oil spills. And in Begum v Maran, filed on behalf of the widow of a Bangladeshi shipyard worker against shipping company Maran (UK) Limited, the Court said that “the company may still owe a duty of care to the claimant because it may have been responsible for creating a danger by selling the vessel to the beaches in Bangladesh,” Leigh Day said.

“In these judgments the courts have repeatedly shown that a duty of care may extend to anyone who is at foreseeable risk of harm due to a corporation’s operations. This paves the way for ‘supply-chain’ cases where multinationals set standards for and have oversight over supplier operations. Ongoing cases related to this principle include the case against Tesco and Intertek on behalf of migrant workers in a Thailand garment factory; the case against Dyson on behalf of workers in a Malaysian factory and the case against cocoa supplier Olam on behalf of a group of Ghanaian children.”

One of the other Goldman 2023 prizes also involves landmark litigation. In December 2019, Diane Wilson won a landmark case against Formosa Plastics, one of the world’s largest petrochemical companies, for illegally dumping toxic plastic waste on Texas’ Gulf Coast. The $50 million settlement is the largest award in a citizen suit against an industrial polluter in the history of the US Clean Water Act. Formosa Plastics also agreed to reach “zero-discharge” of plastic waste from its Point Comfort factory, pay penalties until discharges cease, and fund remediation of affected local wetlands, beaches, and waterways.

2023 Goldman Prize Winner – Chilekwa Mumba. Goldman Prize.

A Zambian Activist’s Win Against British Mining Firm Sets Legal Precedent. Earth Island Journal, May 11, 2023

Chilekwa Mumba awarded the Goldman Prize for his work on the Vedanta case. Leigh Day, Apr. 24, 2023

For years, a UK mining giant was untouchable in Zambia for pollution until a former miner’s son took them on. CNN, Apr. 27, 2023

Cover image: Nchanga copper mine near Chingola, Zambia. Blue Salo, Wikimedia.