Villagers in Zambia’s Copperbelt region claim water was contaminated by a subsidiary of Vedanta Resources, but the firm claims case should be heard in Zambia, not the UK
One of the world’s largest mining companies is expected to argue in the London high court on Tuesday that Zambian villagers should not be allowed to bring a case alleging pollution of their water from a copper mine to the British courts.
Residents of four villages in the Copperbelt region of Zambia claim that their water sources and land were contaminated by the mining operations of Vedanta Resources, a London-based company with assets of $37bn (£30bn), and its Zambian subsidiary Konkola Copper Mines (KCM).
The 1,826 villagers say they have suffered continual pollution since 2004 and that it is still ongoing, causing them to fall sick and lose their crops.
But in a three-day hearing at the high court, the mining companies are expected to challenge the jurisdiction of the villagers’ claims, saying that because they are Zambian and the alleged damage occurred in Zambia, any case against them should be heard in that country.
London-based law firm Leigh Day, acting for the villagers, is expected to respond that because Vedanta Resources is headquartered in Britain and exercises a significant degree of control over its subsidiary’s health and safety policies, it should be held to account in London.
It will also argue that the villagers are less able to obtain justice in Zambia. According to Leigh Day, the pollution has been going on for many years and no successful claim for damages has been brought in Zambia.
Martyn Day, the senior partner at Leigh Day, said: “The claimants are desperately poor Zambians who are anxious to be compensated for all the losses and harm they have suffered as speedily as possible. It is clear that justice is far more likely to be achieved quickly and efficiently by the cases staying in this country.”
The high court hearing could have a far-reaching impact for communities seeking legal redress in Britain and for London-based multinational companies with subsidiaries in developing countries.
Should the court decide for the companies it could allow those with subsidiaries in developing countries to avoid being sued in London. English courts have jurisdiction over any company that is domiciled within their territory.
But if the court decides for the villagers it will confirm London as a world legal centre to test corporate behaviour in poorer countries. Many of the world’s biggest mining and oil companies have headquarters in London.
In the past few years Shell has settled claims brought by Nigerian fishermen in the English courts. The Dutch courts decided in 2013 that communities in Nigeria could have their cases against the company heard in Europe.
In other countries, such as the US, courts do not so readily accept jurisdiction over corporations being sued in their home country for actions that took place abroad.
The four Zambian villages are close to the city of Chingola and next to the giant Nchanga Copper Mine, which is operated by KCM. Vedanta bought a controlling share in KCM in 2004. The communities’ primary sources of water for drinking, washing, bathing and irrigating farms are surface water and shallow wells.
They are seeking compensation for loss and damage to their land and their health as a result of the pollution. They are also seeking remediation of the land and the provision of clean water.