Chilekwa Mumba fights against the mining company Vedanta Resources

Chilekwa Mumba is a Zambian is an environmental activist and community organizer. He is known for having organized a successful lawsuit against UK-based mining companies.

Nestled in the mineral-rich heart of southern Africa, Zambia’s Copperbelt Province has long been celebrated as a treasure trove of copper and cobalt; vital elements in the world’s transition to a green economy. Conversely, the arrival of U.K. based Vedanta Resources in 2004 catalyzed a distressing transformation at the Konkola Copper Mines (KCM); turning the once-pristine Kafue River into a toxic wasteland. This marked the beginning of a chain of ecological and health crises that would echo globally.

The Awakening of an Environmental Defender

In 2013, Chingola, Zambia, faced an environmental crisis that deeply alarmed Chilekwa Mumba, a revered community organizer and environmental advocate. The pollution and degradation caused by Kcm reverberated as a distressing echo throughout the town, with the Kafue River transforming from a symbol of purity to a victim of contamination. Foul stenches, fish mortality, and widespread health issues prompted Mumba to take action; fueled by a profound connection to Chingola and its mining history.

mining company in zambia
Miners at a mine in Zambia’s Copperbelt province © Ron Giling / Alamy Stock Photo

For nearly a century, the Konkola Copper Mine stood as a cornerstone of Chingola’s heritage. But critics argue that environmental issues escalated after Vedanta Resources assumed control in 2004, leading to excessive discharge of copper, iron, cobalt, and sulfates in local waterways. This surpassed legal thresholds, causing untold health problems among local inhabitants and turning the Kafue River into an environmental disaster. In 2006, impoverished Chingola residents took legal action against Konkola in a Zambian court, but despite their efforts, the case ultimately ended in an unfortunate loss.

A Global Call for Accountability

Chilekwa Mumba’s discovery of this painful history in 2013 compelled him to hold Vedanta Resources accountable. Mumba’s journey began with outreach to Non-governmental organisation and law firms worldwide; seeking attention for the contamination.

A tireless advocate for Chingola’s Environment, taking on Vedanta resources in UK court over pollution © Goldman Environmental Prize

“I reached out to a multitude of law firms and environmental NGOs across the globe, firing off emails randomly from my Yahoo address. The responses were predominantly automated, until one day, I received an automatic reply from the renowned British law firm, Leigh Day. This was soon followed by a personal email from a real person, Katie Gonzalez. The name etched itself in my memory. To my surprise, when I revisited my emails, there it was. They assured me of their commitment, stating they would be on board within two weeks. The impact of that moment and the subsequent collaboration has left an indelible mark on my journey.”He disclosed.

Gathering evidence

Undeterred, Mr. Mumba played a pivotal role in facilitating communication between Leigh Day and community members, collecting blood samples for analysis, and securing witnesses against the mining company. Despite challenges, Mumba’s dedication and trust-building in the community led to a groundbreaking outcome. In 2015, a lawsuit was successfully filed in the United Kingdom court. Unfortunately, the lawsuit moved slowly through the UK High Court, Court of Appeal and Supreme Court over nearly six years.

Chilekwa Mumba
Chilekwa Mumba passionately addresses the villagers, shedding light on the alarming pollution and contamination issues stemming from nearby mines © Goldman Environmental Prize

Mr. Mumba elaborated that his efforts were directed towards alleviating the concerns of the villagers, who, in his view, expressed frustration over the sluggish pace of the legal proceedings. On another hand, he noted the persistent attempts by the mining firm to dissuade Chingola residents from participating in the lawsuit. He mentioned that he played a role in persuading them to remain committed to the cause. However, in 2019, a significant milestone was achieved when the UK’s Supreme Court acknowledged Vedanta’s accountability for environmental damage, a moment Mr. Mumba described as historic in British legal history.

Arrest Incident

Mumba recounted the incident, stating, “We were meeting with our clients, and the police came in with their mine vehicles and their police vehicles, quite a squadron of them. And they picked us up saying, ‘You’re not supposed to be here. You’re having an illegal meeting. You’re meeting too many people at the same time.’ We have a funny law code, the Public Order Act, which is only enforced at the convenience of political interests or police interests. So yeah, they took advantage of that, and I got arrested. I just said, ‘Well, if they arrest us, that’s part of the whole thing,’ despite the very unpleasant experience in the police cells.

Chilekwa Mumba helped in protests
A group of activist stage a protest in London against Vendata Resources for polluting rivers and allegedly copper looting ©  Foil Vedanta

They kept us for about eight hours. But they were in such a hurry to get us into the cells that they forgot to relieve us of one of our phones. So we took advantage. We took pictures of ourselves in the cells. We shared them with the law firm and our Zambian team. We were talking to them just direct on the phone, and then if we heard the wardens coming, we’d hang up.”

A Triumph for Environmental Justice

In 2023, Mumba’s unwavering dedication earned him the prestigious Goldman Environmental Prize. His success not only brought relief to his community but also shone a beacon of hope for environmental activists worldwide. Additionally, Mumba’s fight against Vedanta Resources set a legal precedent, inspiring international initiatives to hold corporations accountable for their environmental impact, regardless of their headquarters’ location.

protestors for mining companies in UK
Protestors display a placard in support of the Zambian villagers in London © Foil Vendata

Meanwhile, the ramifications of this legal milestone extended far beyond Chingola. In 2021, a British court permitted a lawsuit by 42,500 Nigerian residents to proceed in the UK against Shell Global for contamination caused by oil spills in the Niger Delta, using the precedent set by this case.

However, Mumba’s heroic battle for environmental justice is a testament to the power of one individual’s unwavering dedication to a cause. His relentless efforts to hold Vedanta Resources accountable for environmental damage have not only provided relief to his community but have also inspired a global movement. Mumba’s fight has set a vital legal precedent that paves the way for corporations to be held accountable for their environmental impact, offering hope and justice to communities worldwide. Explore the transformative journey from a polluted riverbank in Zambia to a landmark victory in the UK, and witness the enduring impact of Mumba’s environmental activism on a global scale.

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