Despite mounting pressure to drop the case and legal barriers erected in their path, 1,826 Zambian villagers will now have their case heard and determined in the United Kingdom.
In a historic ruling, the UK Supreme Court has allowed the Zambian villagers hailing from Chingola, in Zambia’s copper belt, to continue to pursue their case (Lungowe v. Vedanta) against UK-based mining giant Vedanta in the UK courts.
The villagers have been fighting for over a decade for compensation following serious pollution from a mine owned by Vedanta’s Zambian subsidiary, Konkola Copper Mines (KCM), which poisoned their land and waterways.
When the Zambian government privatized the mining industry in the 1990s following economic decline and pressure from foreign donors, a steady stream of investment started trickling in.
Among them was Vedanta Resources plc, who in 2004 acquired a 51% interest in Konkola Copper Mines (KCM), one of the most important Zambian state companies sold off to private investors. Vedanta now owns 80% of KCM and has invested heavily in increasing copper output. KCM is now one of Africa’s largest integrated copper producers with mines at three sites.
Soon after, villagers residing at Zambia’s copper belt started suffering from multiple health complications and even death after the company discharged sulphuric acid and other chemicals into water sources used by the villagers.
One such victim was Beatrice Mithi, Mufulira District Commissioner died after inhaling sulfur dioxide released by Glencore subsidiary Mopani Copper Mines. Her widower sued the company and in September 2016, he was awarded 400,000 Zambian kwacha (£30,000) in damages by the country’s highest court.
In 2011, the high court in Lusaka ordered mining giant Vedanta and its Zambian subsidiary KCM to pay about £1.3m to 2,000 people after the Chingola mine discharged sulphuric acid and other chemicals into a tributary of the Kafue River in 2006.
The mining company, however, appealed the ruling and while the Zambian Supreme Court upheld the judgement it reduced the compensation order to almost nothing.
Hurt, sick and with nowhere to go the farmers decided to seek justice elsewhere.
In 2015, the 1,826 people (“Lungowe and others”) from the three villages adversely affected by the mining activities took the case against Vedanta to UK high court.
The claimants presented company documents, such as Vedanta’s sustainability reports, that showed the parent company exercised an unusual level of control, direction and knowledge over KCM and argued it should, therefore, be held legally responsible for the damage arising from the pollution.
Vedanta’s lawyers, on the other hand, argue that the company’s UK headquarters is a separate legal entity with insufficient control over the Zambian subsidiary to be held liable.
In 2016, the UK High Court rejected Vedanta’s argument that the farmers should not be permitted to bring their case in London. The judge found that, despite recent reforms to the Zambian justice system, the claimants would not obtain justice if they pursued a case against KCM in Zambia.
Two years later, following a further appeal from Vedanta, the Court of Appeal upheld the High Court ruling. Vedanta appealed again and on 15-16 January the case was heard at the Supreme Court.
While the farmers are not guaranteed of a favorable ruling as the company has vowed to “defend itself against any such claims at the appropriate time” the UK’s Supreme Court decision to allow the case to proceed is a significant step forward.
The case also demonstrates the structurally unequal distribution of power that makes it particularly difficult for people in lower-income countries to hold multinational corporations to account. Firms such as Vedanta use complex corporate structures to operate globally, garnering vast profits, while financial returns remain limited for the majority of the population in resource-rich countries.
Should the Supreme Court rule in favour of the 1,826 Zambian villagers, the ruling would alter how international firms conduct and run their operations in Africa.
The findings would expand the scope of parent companies’ potential duty of care to communities neighboring their subsidiaries’ operations.
The judgement, expected in three to six months, will have far-reaching implications for multinationals globally and could open up this route to justice for others who have been adversely affected by corporate operations.