The Micropolitics of Mining and Development in Zambia: Insights from the Northwestern Province

by Rohit Negi


After two decades of economic stagnation, Zambia witnessed sustained economic growth in the period 2002-2008 due to investments in the country’s all-important copper mining sector. This article analyzes the political forms that took shape during the copper mining boom, bringing into view the new entanglements of capital, labor, civil society, and the state. It draws on ethnographic work in the Solwezi District of Zambia’s North Western Province, where the opening of two large mines since 2004 placed it on the map of copper extraction. The article argues that the interlinked processes of structural adjustment and the privatization of mining in the 1990s significantly weakened the country’s historically strong labor unions. Though still important as political actors within the workplace, the unions representing mineworkers are less salient in the arena of the broader civil society. Instead, loose networks of assorted groups have coalesced around the issue of capital’s developmental impacts, namely the mechanism of Corporate Social Responsibility, making this a pivotal site of the emergent politics of mining. These and other more “formal” political contestations forced the state to revisit the neoliberal mining framework that was negotiated with and tilted in favor of capital, only, however, to be confronted with a changed landscape of possibilities as the world economy nosedived in 2008.

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Rohit NegiĀ is assistant professor at Ambedkar University, Delhi. The research that this paper draws on was supported by grants from the Mershon Center for International Security Studies (Ohio State University), Foundation for Urban and Regional Studies (University of Essex), and the Department of Geography at Ohio State University. Negi wishes to thank Chris Mulaliki, Andreas Kahler, Thambani Zimba, and Prof. Kevin Cox for their help and support.