Approaches towards mining and environmental change in African history – Iva Peša

Iva Peša is Research Associate in Environmental History on the ‘Comparing the Copperbelt’ project

It is obvious that mining has a significant impact on the environment. Through Environmental Impact Assessments mining companies today are expected to justify their environmental footprint and policies are put in place to minimise the negative effects of mining on the environment – even if these policies do not always result in effective action. Yet historically the relationship between mining and the environment has received far less attention, it has hardly been remarked upon. This separation is replicated in the continuing gap between the history of mining and environmental history, with only a few exceptions (e.g. LeCain, 2009). This gap is even more striking in the history of Africa. As part of the ‘Comparing the Copperbelt’ project, a workshop was held in Oxford on 3 November 2017, examining how to bring mining and environmental history in Africa together. Within the framework of the university’s Imperial and Global History seminar series, focusing this term on ‘Ecology and Empire’, the workshop explored mining and environmental change in twentieth century Central and East Africa, with the help of leading experts in the fields of environmental history, global ecologies and the social and spatial dimensions of mining. As Corey Ross, one of the speakers at the event, noted in his recent book (Ecology and power in the age of empire) ‘the role of mining in transforming regional environments remains underexposed, despite the fact that it has perennially been one of the dirtiest of all industries as well as a cornerstone of empire and global trade.’[1] The workshop sought ways in which to overcome this oversight, by exploring different approaches and methodologies – such as political ecology, history and geography, or paying attention to forestry and agriculture – with which to bring the relationship between mining and environmental change in African history into clearer perspective.

The first speaker, Gavin Bridge, set the scene with his presentation ‘To the ends of the earth: extraction as a political ecology of capital circulation.’ This paper linked mineral exploration to processes of financialisation, questioning what factors drive resource rushes and shape their unevenness in space and time. Bridge excitingly applied his theoretical framework from political ecology to the case study of the Northern Rhodesian Copperbelt in the early twentieth century. He framed resource extraction as a process of material mobilisation and value transformation. Metropole and mine were linked through intricate financial flows, which revolved around speculation as much as actual mineral wealth. Yet financialisation created very real effects in the mining towns of the Copperbelt, which were further explored by the following speakers.

Corey Ross presented on ‘Ecology, exchange and the multiple frontiers of colonial Africa’s Copperbelt.’ Placing the rise of the Central African Copperbelt within the context of imperial history, Ross explored the socio-ecological changes caused by copper mining. Applying the framework of unequal ecological exchange, he looked at two distinct levels. On the one hand, there was the actual business of mining and extraction, shaped strongly by colonial states and mineral companies. On the other hand, there was the more diffuse transformation of mineral hinterlands, ‘rural’ areas which supplied labour, food and resources and which were – like mining areas themselves – profoundly transformed as a result. Looking at global and local asymmetries and power relations, applying concepts of the mine as enclave, Ross illustrated what the study of malaria or food production can contribute to the environmental history of a mining region.

This theme was further developed by Iva Peša, the project’s own researcher on environmental history, in the paper ‘Tailings, trees and crops: An environmental history of the Central African Copperbelt.’ Because Zambian mining companies and government officials silenced the environmental impacts of copper mining from the 1950s until the middle of the 1980s, alternative approaches such as agriculture and forestry can be useful to shed light on the environmental history of the Copperbelt. By paying attention to the primarily economic motives of the Smoke Damage Prohibition Act, which indemnified mining companies from pollution claims, environmental knowledge production might be better understood. Furthermore, the sudden ‘discovery’ of environmental issues and pollution in the 1990s was historically contextualised as a local and (inter)national phenomenon.

Deborah Bryceson provided a brilliant comparative case in her discussion of ‘Artisanal gold rushes and small towns in Tanzania, 1980-2002: Dynamics of urban agglomeration and economic diversification.’ She focused on artisanal mining and its connections to particular forms of urbanisation (secondary city and small town growth). Adopting a historical perspective, Bryceson asked whether mining urbanisation and livelihood diversification could be sustainable. She paid particular attention to the temporality of mining towns, imperilled by the limited life span of mineral deposits and looming mine exhaustion. Applying Bridge’s concept of financialisation, Bryceson drew parallels with industrial mining and considered the differences and similarities between Tanzania’s ‘Ring of Gold’ and the Copperbelt. The presentation usefully reflected on how mining influences the urban environment from a geographer’s perspective.

The discussion was introduced by Miles Larmer and William Beinart, who raised important issues about the relationship between metropolitan capital and local state formation, the differences between open cast mining in Congo and deep shaft mining in Zambia, as well as how communities acted upon their own environment. It was even suggested that environmental history might be a starting point to synthesise from, making it a tool par excellence to write global history. Parallels between mining and imperial commodity frontiers, conservation and the peripheral impacts of mining through food and timber were further brought up.

The third research seminar of the ‘Comparing the Copperbelt’ project was fortunate to have a set of excellent speakers and discussants, as well as an engaged and encouraging audience. By bringing together speakers from different specialisms and disciplinary backgrounds, this event proposed new perspectives for the study of mining and environmental change in African history. The audience ambitiously challenged the speakers to expand upon the presentations by paying more attention to local environmental consciousness, in particular through the application of oral history. This is indeed the next step of Peša’s research, on which she hopes to report in a few months time.

[1] Corey Ross, Ecology and power in the age of empire: Europe and the transformation of the tropical world (Oxford University Press, 2017), 137.