Zambia pollution: UK’s SC to hear case against Vedanta

Vidya Ram | | Updated on: Dec 06, 2021

Villagers allege water sources have been contaminated by copper mining, causing health problems and harming their crops

Britain’s Supreme Court will decide if over 1,800 Zambian villagers can take Vedanta and its Zambian subsidiary, Konkola Copper Mines, to court in the UK over allegations relating to the pollution of a river there.

Lower courts previously upheld the jurisdiction of the UK courts in the case, which Vedanta has appealed all the way up to the Supreme Court. The issue will be heard on Tuesday and Wednesday, with a decision potentially expected by April.

The villagers, represented by UK law firm Leigh Day, say that their water sources and farm land have been contaminated by product from KCM’s copper mining operation over the past 15 years, resulting in health problems and harm to crops. Their lawyers are set to argue that the case can be heard in the UK, where Vedanta remains domiciled, because the company should bear equal responsibility for the damage.

In 2017, the Court of Appeal upheld the 2016 judgement of a lower court, enabling the case to go ahead. The lawyers for the villagers do not believe their case is impacted by the decision of Vedanta Resources to de-list in London last year. “Our clients continue to suffer from the effects of the pollution, both on their health and their livelihoods,” said Oliver Holland of Leigh Day. “The clients first came to us almost four years ago and we are, very unfortunately, still dealing with a preliminary issue, which has prevented our clients’ claims from moving forward. We hope that if the Supreme Court allows the claims to proceed in this jurisdiction, that Vedanta will then come to the table speedily to resolve these claims,” he added.

“Vedanta and KCM believe that the Zambian court system is the natural forum for the hearing of the claims. KCM, the operating company, is domiciled in Zambia, and all of its operations are located in Zambia, and that is where the claimant communities live and the alleged claims arise,” said Vedanta and KCM in a statement ahead of the hearing.

‘Aware of toxic effluents’

The claims date back to 2004, when Vedanta Resources Holdings Limited, a subsidiary of Vedanta, acquired a 51-per cent stake in KCM, and then gradually increased its stake.

The villagers allege that both Vedanta and KCM were aware of the discharge of harmful effluent into the waterways, which the villagers used as their primary source of clean water for drinking, bathing, cooking, cleaning, and other purposes, and point to studies — including a 2014 Zambian government report — that noted high levels of toxicity.

They argue that Vedanta failed in its duty of care, and they are pursuing the case in the UK because of the parent firm’s location here.

Vedanta and KCM sought to challenge this, insisting the entire focus of the case is on Zambia and ought to be heard there. Arguments also centred on whether the villagers — many with very limited resources, financial and otherwise — would be able to properly pursue the case in Zambia, with the judge in the initial case concluding that if they pursued KCM in Zambia there was a risk they would “not obtain justice.”

Villagers along the River Kafue, as well as Chingola residents, have suffered severe pollution of water resources ever since Vedanta took over the mines. Despite 12 years of legal campaigning in Zambia, nothing has been done to improve the desperate situation for the most affected communities, where the land is poisoned and people are very sick, said Zambian campaigners from Chingola, George Mumbi and Esson Simbeye, ahead of the hearing.

Campaign groups, including Foil Vedanta, are expected to protest outside the hearings. “While the financial and material gains from copper have been allowed to flow seamlessly out of the country, justice risks being restricted by economic and institutional barriers of territoriality,” said Samarendra Das of Foil Vedanta.

Published on January 13, 2019
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