The EU should apply tight standards in the mining sector.

In your special report on Europe’s environmental footprint, you looked at two ways in which Europe’s footprint affects developing countries – waste and deforestation – and at some specific methods that the EU is advocating, such as a ban on illegally harvested timber (“Stepping in other people’s forests”, 19-25 May).

Such aspirations are laudable, but they would be more plausible if the EU were to demonstrate that it can apply tight standards in projects over which it has direct control. One example is the mining sector and, specifically, the Mopani copper and cobalt mine in Zambia.

This week 51 MEPs from different parties (S&D, Greens, GUE/NGL and ALDE) have signed an open letter calling for a moratorium on public financing for mining projects until tighter standards are in place. While the initiative came as a direct result of a number of reprehensible practices by the Mopani Copper Mine (MCM) in Zambia, the MEPs question the lack of regulation in the entire mining sector.

A recent study shows that the mine emits a range of pollutants – such as sulphur dioxide, dust, arsenic and copper – at levels in excess of limits accepted by the World Health Organization. It also uses acid on a massive scale and produces enormous quantities of waste. Its environmental footprint is, therefore, substantial.

A recently leaked audit has demonstrated that MCM, the consortium that runs the mine, has been siphoning its profits out of Zambia to avoid paying tax, parking that money with its mother company, the commodity trader Glencore, in the tax-attractive canton of Zug in Switzerland.

The company also pays its workers extremely low wages and has been very quick to lay off staff because of the financial crisis, leaving the entire region in an extremely delicate situation.

Yet this project has been lent €48 million by the European Investment Bank (EIB), a loan justified on the grounds that the EIB’s support would improve environmental standards and help the region’s development.

The example of Mopani gives reason to doubt the EIB’s other investments – worth hundreds of millions of euros – in the African mining sector over the past decade: six projects in Zambia, and others in Botswana, Congo, Gabon, Kenya, Madagascar, Malawi and Mozambique.

Other reasons for concern are official EU assessments that have judged the EIB’s policy toward the African mining sector and the implementation of its projects to be inadequate.

Despite these failings, the EU’s raw-materials initiative foresees an important role for the EIB in financing the mining sector and related infrastructure in Africa. This focus on the supply of raw materials to Europe seems to run counter to the EU’s Europe 2020 strategy, which puts a much stronger emphasis on resource efficiency.

The EU should act in line with the latter if it aims for a sustainable future both in the EU and in Zambia.

The case of Mopani shows how Europe’s environmental footprint is affected by the EU’s inadequate concern for the oversight, transparency and accountability of its own agencies and of beneficiaries of its loans. It also shows that, to lessen its environmental footprint, the EU needs to focus more sharply on the development characteristics of projects and on the financial probity of its loan recipients.

The EU should, of course, regulate sectors such as the timber industry to ensure that their environmental footprint becomes lighter and smaller. But it also needs to ensure that it improves its own standards and record, in particular at the EIB, which is a hugely important source of development funding.

Anne-Sophie Simpere

Counter Balance/ Les Amis de la Terre France