‘They offered me nothing for what they had destroyed’: how the scramble for clean-energy minerals is hurting African communities

Dailes Judge Climate Change, Indigenous People, Natural Resources

Today’s mining boom may not be driven by the overt colonialist motives of the past – but the parallels are there, say Dailes Judge and Veronica Zano of Oxfam in Africa.

Abandoned car in Zvishavane, Zimbabwe’s mining capital. (Picture: Andrew Bogrand /Oxfam) 

“The lithium company came onto my land without my permission.  They cleared my plantain, my cocoa trees to dig their pits. I lost maize, tomato, and other crops. They offered me basically nothing for what they had destroyed. I won’t let them set foot on my land again.”

That angry testimony from one woman farmer from Ghana was just one of the troubling accounts we heard at this year’s Alternative Mining Indaba, from community leaders on the frontlines of Africa’s new mining boom – a boom driven by exploding demand for lithium, cobalt, copper, and other transition minerals considered essential for our clean energy future.

 “When they come for our land, all they want to talk about are the so-called benefits of mining,” a women’s rights and land activist from Angola told us. “They don’t tell us that the rivers will be polluted. They don’t tell us we will have to now walk miles and miles to farm or gather drinking water, and that means we must take our children out of school early. How will we feed ourselves? How will we feed our children? The companies don’t have answers for us.”

‘Many of us across the African continent have lived through boom-and-bust mining cycles before. We have been promised benefits but have instead been left with resource wars and degraded lands.’

Stories such as these rarely make the news. But they make for uncomfortable reading – especially when the current scramble for Africa’s mineral resources is being framed as imperative for climate action. 

Of course, we Africans know the urgency of climate change. We are living with the effects each day. From the unprecedented (and worsening) drought in the Horn and East Africa; to flooding and ever more powerful cyclones devastating our communities in  Madagascar, Mozambique, and Malawi; to the loss of our fishing resources as our oceans warm and acidify, and as we continue to auction off our coastlines to oil and gas companies.

Uncomfortable parallels with a colonial past

But a clean-energy transition that devastates African lives is not the way to tackle climate change – and it has echoes of historic exploitation. Yes, today’s mineral resource rush is not driven by the overt colonialist motives of the past – but the parallels are there.

The scramble for our subsoil resources is not new. Many of us across the African continent have lived through boom-and-bust mining cycles before. We have been promised benefits but have instead been left with resource wars and degraded lands.

Back then, our leaders dismissed us and tried to insulate mining from scrutiny: tying mining to poverty reduction and “development”. Today our leaders – and leaders around the world – are telling us that without Africa’s mineral resources we cannot reduce emissions fast enough to keep global warming below 1.5 degrees Celsius. But yet again, no one is listening to our frontline communities.

History teaches us that these boom-and-bust cycles will end the same way: with our governments in a race to the bottom to explore and approve new mines as quickly as possible, at great cost to our communities and to our national purses and lines of credit. Why are Africans being asked to shoulder the burden, once again, of another resource scramble? Haven’t we learned enough lessons from history about how to get this right?

Mining companies too use the language of climate. But we know miners are driven by profit first, not climate action. As a colleague pointed out in one of the closing plenaries in Cape Town, it beggars belief that the same companies now claiming there is no time to waste, lobbied governments for decades not to act on climate change. And many of these same companies continue to lobby politicians to trust in voluntary corporate commitments or aspirations rather than laws that would create real, enforceable accountability.

Six things communities need to stop the mining damage

With our Ghanaian partner Friends of the Nation and Zambia Alliance of Women, we gathered reflections from participants at this year’s Alternative Mining Indaba on what needs to happen in the coming years to stop mining damage to communities.

These are the six main points we heard:

  1. Global climate action cannot be used to justify further harm and human rights abuses of Indigenous and rural communities across Africa or elsewhere.
  2. Governments are fixated on the commodity boom of transition minerals yet are falling short on their human rights duties. They need to do more to strengthen and enforce protections for land, water, and other resources that people depend on for their livelihoods. This entails developing strong regulatory and institutional frameworks that hold mining projects accountable to the highest social and environmental standards to safeguard local communities. And this means legalising the standard of consent. It also means protecting women’s rights and promoting gender equality.
  3. Mining companies should stop hiding behind lower standards in national law when it comes to community rights.
  4. Governments and companies must take responsibility for legacy issues, including rehabilitating contaminated lands. A researcher described how in Kabwe, Zambia, residents have almost lethal levels of lead in their bloodstreams more than 25 years after a nearby mine closed and the land was not rehabilitated.
  5. Anti-corruption, transparency, and accountability need to be a priority in energy transition conversations. We must recognize the human costs when corruption occurs. We must continue to scrutinise investment deal-making and not allow projects that will worsen the national debt to move forward.
  6. We need more effective safeguards for protecting human rights and environment defenders, including the implementation of effective human rights due diligence mechanisms.

We know the above will only happen if we build and maintain collective power. This is how Oxfam will be showing up for the communities and local organisations with whom we partner.

  • We are investing in people living in and around mining projects who are organising their communities to defend their rights and we will show solidarity with them over the long term.
  • Through our environmental justice work, we will continue working in networks to support coordination, information sharing, and coalition building among and between community leaders and allies.
  • We will continue to invest in quality research that scrutinises the gap between corporate rhetoric and practice.
  • We will continue to work with investigative journalists and independent media on the ground, leveraging local, national, and international networks to keep pressure on companies and their investors.
  • We will push to ensure local community voices are at the centre of decision making on the energy transition and will continue to call on our governments to pass binding rules of transparency, accountability, and free, prior, and informed consent.

If governments and businesses are serious about ensuring a just energy transition, they should match their rhetoric with action and commit to moving mining projects forward only with the consent of the communities impacted and with the necessary socio-environmental safeguards. Only then will the energy transition be just. And only then will our governments live up to the aspirations in the Africa Mining Vision, with our mineral resources being used to support a just, sustainable, and equitable Africa.


Dailes Judge

Dailes Judge is Deputy Director, Oxfam in Africa


Veronica Zano

Veronica Zano is Extractive Industries Program Advisor, Oxfam in Africa

Find out more: Read this blog introducing a recent Oxfam research report that looks at how to achieve a just energy transition: “The clean energy transition needs to be fast – but it must also be fair”