Environmental Destruction Wreaks Havoc on Human Rights

From the Fall 2007 issue of Nexus.


 Cory Wanless
International Human Rights Program volunteer Cory Wanless

If you check out "google earth," you can actually see the swath of destruction that the copper mine has left," says Cory Wanless. The third year U of T law student is referring to the massive environmental damage that has been caused by copper mines in Mufulira - an area known as the copperbelt of Zambia, Africa. "The areas adjacent to the mine are an uncharacteristic gray, and the tailings ponds (called the slimes by the local communities) are an unearthly turquoise," says Wanless. "You can tell which way the mine is by looking at the trees - the gray side faces the mine, while the green side points away."


In the summer of 2006, Wanless spent three and a half months on an International Human Rights internship at DECOP, the Development, Education Community Project, a local grassroots organization that focuses on land rights issues. "There are thousands of subsistence farmers in Zambia that farm on land they don't own. The legal owners of the land include local council government, the ministry of forestry, absentee white farmers, and large copper mines," explains Wanless. "Through a long process of colonialism, and economic restructuring led by international institutions such as the World Bank, many Zambians have been denied control of land for themselves."

"Environmental issues and human rights issues must be seen for what they are," says Wanless, "different elements of the same problem." He adds: "What good is it to advocate for the land rights of farmers when runoff water for the fields is polluted? What sense does it make to advocate for title to farms that force communities to breathe toxic air?"

In Mufulira, as in most mining areas of the developing world, environmental issues and human rights issues are intimately connected and compound each other in complex ways. "The locals who live in communities near to the mines can no longer grow vegetable gardens in their yards, and paint no longer stays on the walls," says Wanless. "Sulphur dioxide, a primary component in acid rain, has contributed to roofs that leak, and accounts for the disproportionate number of respiratory ailments that local health clinics must deal with."

The poor local farmers are savvy enough to know that crops don't do well downwind of the mines, but as Wanless points out, they are powerless to do anything about it. "My work at DECOP was to use a variety of tactics ranging from legal to political to secure land rights for the farmers," says Wanless. "In Zambia, land truly is the sine qua non of economic and social progress - without it there can be no food, safe drinking water, education, community centres, and health care."

Wanless was also deeply concerned with what he saw as the "Canadian connection." The mine is partially owned by Canada's own First Quantum Minerals, and a staggering 60% of the money used in mining operations world-wide comes through the TSX alone.

He was so moved by what he saw in Zambia that when he returned to law school in September 2006, Wanless convinced a dozen or so of this classmates to help him start a working group called "The Umuchinshi Initiative," a word that means respect. "As a group, we look at corporate accountability among Canadian mining companies operating abroad, and recognize that respect should be the governing principle of any corporation or NGO working in the developing world," he says.

In less than a year since the start up, the group has participated in the National Roundtables on Corporate Social Responsibility in the Extractive Sector in the Developing World, and Cory has written an article based on his experiences for an international network of NGOs. "This is a very exciting time for corporate accountability," says Wanless. "The flip-side of Canadian dominance in global mining is that Canada has the ability not only to become a world leader in corporate accountability, but also to set the global standard for the respect of human rights and the environment. And that's pretty neat."