Transitional minerals in Southern Africa: Are companies getting it right?


With the increasing demand for critical minerals in renewable energy such as lithium, cobalt, copper, and nickel, companies are ever racing to produce the technology needed to support the low-carbon transition, from electric vehicles to solar panels to wind turbines. However, the companies’ human rights due diligence is not keeping pace with expanding exploration, increasing the risk that the transition fuels further abuse in an already troubled sector.

During the 2021 Alternative Mining Indaba, a global platform that brings together mining affected communities, faith based organisations, civil society organisations, community based organisations and other stakeholders together annually to debate, discuss various issues as well advocate for equity and justice in the mineral governance sector, the Zimbabwe Environmental Law Association (ZELA) and the Business & Human Rights Resource Centre (BHRRC) had the pleasure of convening a virtual side session that ran under the theme, Transitional minerals in Southern Africa: Are companies getting it right?

BHRRC’s Chelsea Hodgkins and Manson Gwanyanya took the opportunity to present a research on the human rights violations and allegations relating to companies mining cobalt, copper, lithium, manganese, nickel and zinc, minerals that are crucial in the transition to low-carbon technologies. The Transition Minerals tracker provides an analysis of human rights policies and practices, with British Copper mining company, Vedanta operating in Zambia being one of those which were investigated. The tracker highlights how environmental impacts are the most prevalent forms of abuse by Vedanta and these are five times more pervasive than their violations of governance and transparency. Zimbabwe’s lithium producing company, Bikita Minerals is also allegedly violating environmental rights with all allegations evenly split between soil pollution, water pollution, and impacting access to water by local populations. Corruption is also rampant in this company, issues relating to Governance and Transparency are the second most common abuses captured in the Tracker. In 2017, Bikita Minerals was central to an investigation by Trust Africa on illicit financial flows in Zimbabwe’s Lithium Mining Sector. The report raised allegations of the company profiting and depriving Zimbabwe of revenue by exporting undeclared lithium to Asia and Europe.

ZELA’s Executive Director, Mutuso Dhliwayo highlighted that a just and rapid transition away from fossil fuel towards renewable energy is welcome, however transitional minerals have resulted in human rights violations and environmental harm that are all too familiar to communities in the mining sector. He also noted that all hope is not lost because, communities facing harm from investments in their localities have a wide range of options when exploring when and where to lodge grievances either nationally, regionally or even through the use of Independent Accountability Mechanisms (IAM) of financing institutions.

“IAMs of financial institutions play a very important role in providing a forum for communities to express concerns about development projects that affect them and to seek redress. They were established to address complaints from affected communities regarding the environmental and social impacts of development projects supported by multilateral financial institutions.

When it comes to compensating the communities, it must be proportional to the gravity of the harm and violations that are caused. Effective remedy is not limited to financial compensation only, but can potentially take a number of other substantive forms such as apologies, restitution, rehabilitation, punitive sanctions, as well as measures to prevent future harm such as injunctions and guarantees of non-repetition, “he advised.

Mr Mutuso also underlined the need for responsible investment where business practices protect and promote human rights, the environment, labour rights and public disclosure of contracts and revenues. For example, data from the Transition Minerals Tracker reveals that 61% (14/23) of the top global companies mining cobalt, copper, lithium, manganese, nickel and zinc have a human rights policy in place, but 87% (20/23) have human rights allegations linked to their operations. Therefore, a thorough due diligence process is necessary to make sure human rights risks are identified and remedied in accordance with the United Nations Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, Voluntary Principles on Human rights and Security, Global Reporting Initiative (GRI), the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (EITI) among others.

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