Friday, March 6, 2020

My name is Lesley Johnston, and I am a Ph.D. candidate the School of Public Health and Health Systems. I have long held an interest in the way mining impacts health, probably because I grew up alongside the developing oil/tar sands sector in Alberta. Many of my family and friends found economic opportunities in Northern Alberta, yet evidence of growing inequality in the province was everywhere. I witnessed gaps in service and cost increases that arose with the population influx to the region, the rise of sexually transmitted infections, and the escalation in violence. While some of these issues are attended to, the underlying structural drivers that privilege some groups over others remain neglected.

If these were the impacts of extractive industry development in a high-income country like Canada, what are the effects in lower- and middle-income countries? Through longstanding partnerships through Canadian Coalition on Global Health Research (CCGHR), I was given an opportunity to ask what this question meant in Northwestern Province, Zambia, home to three large-scale copper mines owned by Canadian-registered multinational corporations. In my research, I adopted critical ethnography, and was able to spend eight months in Zambia in 2018 and 2019, while also conducting research in Ottawa and Toronto.  

Fundamentally, mining is a fraught enterprise. It transforms landscapes, societies and culture, and is implicated in community concerns over livelihood security, the distribution of benefits, social cohesion, human rights violations, health impacts, and environmental change. These projects further stand accused of perpetuating colonialism, racism, and patriarchy. Between 2004 and 2009, in Northwestern Province, two large Canadian mining companies began operations, resulting in rapid transformation of the region. This change has been particularly notable in Solwezi town, an administrative outpost whose population grew from 30,000 to close to 300,000. Canadian mines employ approximately 10,000  workers, and in an effort to improve community ties under their corporate social responsibility policies, companies have committed to a number of development advances, ranging from housing projects, to schools, to health clinics, to supports for small enterprise development.

Kasanshi mine, Northwestern Province, Zambia

Kansanshi mine in Zambia, the eight largest copper mine in the world, located nearly 10km north of Solwezi town. Image credit: Lesley Johnston

Where there has been economic growth, it has not been shared evenly. When asked if mining development has benefited the region, citizens generally respond with a ‘Yes, but…’. Most were not achieving the quality of life they felt they had been promised. Though some people have benefited economically through employment and expanded markets, there are challenges, exacerbated by the presence of the mine. These include overcrowded housing and increased costs, to marriage breakdown, early pregnancy and increased rates of HIV and other sexually transmitted infections.

Given these accounts, I expected to hear a clear rejection of the industry. Instead, I would often find myself in conversations initiated by Zambians who are proud of their mining heritage. While there is a profound appreciation of the mine-perpetuated challenges and impacts in the community, and an acknowledgement that relations between community, country and company can be problematic and contentious, conversations often revolve around, “how to do mining better”, to create a “win-win-win scenario” for community, country, and company.

While mining impacts must be attended to, political and commercial determinants of health must also be considered. In Canada, we must address processes, that through trade agreements, lending policies, aid requirements, and legislation, entrench benefits to accrue to our government and Canadian registered corporations, at the expense of countries that host Canadian mining companies. How can financial benefits be redistributed more equitably, so that countries like Zambia have the resources they need – from their mineral wealth – to address challenges to health and wellbeing.