It was possibly one of Glencore’s better deals - to buy the Mufulira and Nkana operations of ZCCM from the Zambian Government at privatisation in 2000. But it takes further genius to do what they have now done – virtually re-build the MCM mining and smelting complex in Mufulira, sink new shafts at Nkana and above all capture sulphur.
I write this looking out from the shaded veranda of what was once a colonial home in the British Protectorate of Northern Rhodesia in the town of Mufulira. Not far from here is the spot marking the place where the celebrated American scout, Frederick Russell Burnham, first discovered copper in 1895, and where the British transformed the area from bush into one of the greatest copper producing regions on the globe.
Our base - 7, Julius Nyerere - situated in one of many roads re-named after Africa’s first Presidents of Independence, is today the base for groups from Somerset in England; teachers, doctors, children who come to this part of the world on educational exchanges. How this came about is one of the more serendipitous features of this tale. For it was as a result of a visit of a collection of Anglican bishops from Zambia to the Bishop of Bath & Wells in Somerset that the idea schools might gain on both sides from some form of linking occurred. Those schools, and there are many both primary and secondary who have been linked now for 20 years, created friendships and lasting partnerships.
A further link was created when the Minor Metals Trade Association (MMTA) made the town of Mufulira its industrial link in 2008 and has supported projects in this metal-making town too.
How it was...
The bungalow is located in a part of town called Fairview, whose name still conveys the essential feature of the place. The British were not stupid – the wind in this part of Zambia generally only blows one way, from West to East, and so the Brits built their homes in the lush upwind area, while the fumes from the smelter largely fell on the simple dwellings built by migrant workers. The Brits had other priorities too. Opening the smelter in the early 1930s, by 1933 they had already built the golf-course, to be followed shortly by the Rugby Club, Squash Club, Cricket Club, Swimming and Boating Clubs. The local District Commissioner’s house was built thoughtfully so that it exited onto the Golf Course and was not too far from the mess.
However, during the period, from 1933 until privatisation in 2000, neither the British, nor the Zambians under Zambian Consolidated Copper Mines (ZCCM), collected sulphur. But today, thanks to a $500mln investment by Glencore, it is gathered - and that is one of the main reasons I am here. To witness a remarkable achievement, one that might well have been made with initial reluctance but which today is quite simply world-class. Today, all Zambians living in or about Mufulira have the right to breathe fresh air.
It is the day before Zambia’s Independence Day Celebrations, Zambia’s Jubilee, made more poignant this year because its 5th President lies ill in a London hospital. (He died on Tuesday Oct 28th).
Earlier in the day I had visited a school called Mine Primary in the area known as Kantanshi, downwind, and in visible sight, of the smelter. Today it is Zambia’s largest, smelting about 200,000 mt per year, as much as the whole of Zambia produced in 2000 before privatisation. At the hub of the sub-Saharan copper industry and positioned only a few miles from the Congo border, not only does the smelter process the 2% containing sulphide ore from the Mufulira mine (1480 metres deep) but incoming concentrates mined in Congo which can grade Cu 20% and above in the ore. Bearing in mind the average Cu content in ore in the whole of Chile (the world’s largest producer) is no more than 0.5%, these are grades to die for.
...and how it is
Looking out from the school is a good place to contemplate the changes which saw the birth of a nation that contained no more than a handful of graduates in 1964 but which has now survived its first fifty years united and peaceful (perhaps the most peaceful country in Africa). Across from the school I can see the stacks of the smelter in the distance rising high over the vision-line of the school wall. In my sight-line I can also see fume emitted; but today it is safe, pollution-free steam.
Glencore’s achievement goes beyond sulphur capture; every aspect of the operation is striving for excellence, the new on-site training centre for mechanics, fitters, boiler-makers, electricians aims to reduce the need for expensive fifo (fly-in fly-out) workers and will lift skills amongst the local populace. (From what I could see, the centre was of a standard that the people of Somerset can only dream of when Hinkley Point C nuclear plant construction starts in a few years). Aside from this, Mopani has transformed roads, raised safety standards, and engaged in medical programmes and malaria-spraying on a scale that is felt throughout this 300,000 community. Furthermore, it is not just sulphur of course which is captured in the off-gases but many other deleterious particulates which have affected the health of Mufulirans for decades.
For me, Mine Primary school is a symbolic place to be today too, because this school and its teachers and children all played a part in the campaign to remove sulphur. Fitting too, because Dr Kenneth Kaunda (now 90 years old), Zambia’s first president, was headmaster here in 1946, with his wife succeeding him a year later. From this very spot in the 1940s he would have seen the burning economic heart of what was then one of Britain’s prized possessions, a place that supplied copper for Britain’s war effort. From here too, he would have breathed in the sulphurous fumes that over the next 70 years would fall as acid rain, bleaching the land, stunting crops and corroding the roofs and lungs of a generation of Mufulirans.
Despite the riches that copper was to bring to Zambia, Mufulirans saw all too much of its by-products and not enough of its base metal. But while Mine Primary gave to Zambia, in the form of Dr Kaunda, the father of the nation, the children of Mine Primary have now bequeathed the community something just as valuable.
For it was in 2009, when visiting Mufulira for the second time, that I came across a group of children who were members of the school’s Climate Change Group, sponsored with a £1000 grant from the British Council and led by their charismatic teacher, Godfridah Mwimbe. I had arrived there by chance with the head of a UK primary school and her husband. As we approached in a taxi, bumping across the unmade roads leading to the school, we were caught in a sulphur storm. For the first time I experienced what I had only heard about, the particular effect of sulphur gas on the human organism, a constriction of the airway that makes the victim feel, however irrationally, as if he is choking or being strangled.
Sulphur and the Children
As I entered the school and met the children from the group, they told me their story in their own words. They showed me the banana-plants with burnt leaves that they had tried to grow in the school grounds, and I saw the slag-polluted soil on which the school was built. With their pencils and notebooks the children had been round town and asked questions of their Town Clerk and elders. Why was medical waste dumped in the open? Why were fruit and vegetables, beloved of ordinary Zambians, unable to grow on their plots? Why were their lessons interrupted and windows sealed when sulphur emissions passed over the school?
These were not eco-warriors; just children asking articulate questions. And they asked me what I could do. This was not something I planned, nor something I had looked for, but I promised that if they each wrote a letter to say what it was like to live with sulphur I would pass their letters to the mine/smelter owners. A few days after returning to the UK, I received ten beautifully handwritten letters, each signed by their authors, Brenda, Sean, Gift, Enock, Nchimunya, Margaret, Tumpoka, Rabbeca, Benson, and Amos, and I sent them on May 3rd 2010 together with a letter to the mine’s owners, accompanied by analysis evidence I had gathered from the Environmental Council of Zambia on AH Knight (Zambia) Ltd paper confirming emissions of around 30,000-70,000 mg per cubic metre of SO2 at normal temperature and pressure as against the World Health Organization’s (WHO) limit of 250 mg per cubic metre or the Zambian limit of 1000 mg per cubic metre.
There was little reaction to begin with, but as luck would have it, Glencore’s intention, unknown at the time, was to float a part of this most private metal trading company on the London Stock Exchange. I continued writing, and Glencore continued to ignore the letters. So a year later, just days before the float I was ready to share my findings with The Times. So it was that on May 20th 2011, a few days before Glencore’s Initial Public Offering (IPO), The Times carried an article by Ben Webster entitled Billionaire ignored children’s pleas to stop toxic pollution from mine.
Doing the Right Thing
However, the billionaire did take note – and, $500 mln later Glencore have achieved an astonishing outcome, a plant of world class standard for a world class resource at the hub of the African copper industry. In so doing, its CEO may well have secured future billions for a company that is rapidly transforming itself from the secrecy of its Marc Rich past into the best and largest mining/trading house in the world - and at the same time has done the right thing by the Zambian town whose name is synonymous with copper.
This article was written by Anthony Lipmann. All views expressed are his own, as always with guest writers. However, in this particular case I would also add that it is a pleasure to be able to publish this story.