The documentary examines the relationship between trade policy and poverty, and highlights that due to its massive copper deposits, Zambia should be one of the richer nations in the world, but instead it is one of the poorest. As major powers scramble to gather more natural resources, how is it that a country holding some of the worlds largest copper reserves is not benefiting from its extraction?
To give a bit of background, almost immediately after gaining independence from Britain in 1964, Zambia nationalised its mines, and as a result experienced a substantial period of growth. By the mid 70's, its GDP matched Portugal, however due to the oil crisis later that decade, the cost of copper fell and encouraged by the IMF and World Bank, Zambia borrowed heavily, but not beyond serviceability.
In the 80's, an interest rate hike by the American Federal Reserve caused Europe to follow suit, tripling Zambia's interest rate repayments overnight. As a result, IMF and World Bank changed their position and refused to release funds to Zambia without the privatisation of national industry (i.e. selling off the government owned mines to private business).
Enter the multinationals
By 2000, all mines had been privatised, the Mopani mine in Mufulira indirectly (via a screening company in the British Virgin Islands; a tax haven) to Swiss company Glencore. By operating through companies registered in tax havens, mines are able to funnel resources through screening businesses at a loss to avoid paying taxes to the countries from which the resources were extracted.
From there resources are sold on the open market for maximum profits to the companies, but the countries which make them rich get nothing (*quick aside: consider this in light of the mining supertax proposed a short while ago in Australia). One economist in the documentary postulates that in time we will see this form of business as nothing short of economic slavery.
Economically the documentary paints a horrific picture; socially and environmentally, things at are not much better. Even though Mopani does bring employment to the surrounding towns, working conditions are not safe, neither it seems are the environmental processes in place. Part of the extraction and refinement process involves massive usage of acid.
Glencore asserts that its variety of environmental controls is sufficient to keep the acid from leeching into water supplies and contaminating the atmosphere as sulphur dioxide, however workers report the contrary. Workers within the mine complain of foot ulcerations and insufficient protective gear through to the unsafe draining of acids and toxic runoff.
On the 2nd of January 2008, over 800 people in Mufulira were severely poisoned after drinking tap water. The effects ranged from severe stomach pain, to mouth ulcerations, the finger being pointed at Mopani, and yet very little has been done to compensate victims, and safeguard similar events in the future from occurring. One poor girl gives her account of how her baby died, supposedly as a result of the 2008 incident.
Personally, this documentary had particular significance as my wife is a Zambian and spent the greater portion of her life living in Mufulira, the town in which the Mopani mine operates. When moving to Australia, visa requirements lead us to undergo a number of medical tests, the outcomes of which highlighted some lung abnormalities.
Even though these issues may be minor, it can be assumed that they are certainly widespread, as when questioning the doctor for more information, we were told not to worry as nearly everyone from Mufulira has the same respiratory complaints as my wife does, presumably due to the high volumes of sulphur dioxide spewing from the smoke stacks of the mine.
Overall, Good Copper Bad Copper gives a great deal of insight into some of the issues facing third world countries, but unfortunately offers very few solutions. As most good documentaries, it has an obvious agenda and bias, but it must be said it is most definitely not unreasonable.
If you have a spare hour, it is worth watching as you will come away with a greater awareness and understanding of the great divide in opportunity between first and third world countries, and the processes keeping it that way. This Christmas we're also thinking on these things.
Ben Kitzelman has spent the last 4 years travelling between Australia and Zambia, serving for one as a missionary, and is now an IT professional in Melbourne.
Ben Kitzelman's previous articles may be viewed at www.pressserviceinternational.org/ben-kitzelmen.html