Playboy Millionaire Turned Environmental Activist

Peter Sinkamba, founder of Citizens for a Better Environment

Kitwe, a dusty industrial city in a region of North West Zambia known as ‘The Copper Belt’, isn’t much to look at.  At the end of a burnt out corridor in a half empty office block, Peter Sinkamba’s office is in keeping with its charmless surroundings.  If someone told you there was an internationally-acclaimed NGO working inside, you’d laugh out loud. But this set-up epitomised our experience of Peter – as one unlikely scenario unfolded, another would follow.

Started by Peter in 1997, Citizens for a Better Environment (CBE) works to promote the social and environmental rights of local communities affected by the malpractice of multinational mining companies. As soon as you drive out of Kitwe, it’s apparent why this work is so essential. Clogging up the horizon are twelve copper mines (and counting).  Though the mines bring essential economic gains to Zambia, their ethical code of conduct is thought by some to be questionable.

Before CBE, local citizens had no way of speaking out against the negative side effects of the mining industry. In order to win business during the push for privatisation, the government set lenient contracts for mining companies indemnifying them against the harmful effects of pollution.  Consequently, intoxicating levels of chemicals began to contaminate local water supplies and infiltrate the air.  The impact this had on the health and livelihoods of communities was ignored until Peter Sinkamba made it his business.

Peter was already a well-known character before he set up CBE. As Student President of Zambia Institute of Technology (now The Copper Belt University), Zambia’s President had labelled him “a radical young man”. In 1986 Peter led his peers in a boycott of lectures in protest against new laws which removed student subsidies. Unfortunately, the government didn’t take kindly to this act of leadership. Peter told us that they expelled him from university and blacklisted him from ever working in the public sector.

This made finding a job quite difficult in Zambia’s socialist dictatorship where most jobs were linked back to the government. He tried to get work at a bank and then in the army, but both times his past record caught him out.  He resolved that entrepreneurship was his only option and that was how Peter really earned his name among the masses. He set up his own company exporting maize to the Congo and within five years of being expelled he was on his way to becoming a self-made millionaire. “I was a very rich man,” Peter told us laughing, “not this poor man I am now!”

Peter shared with us some tales about this time in his life. He told us how he had hired whole commuter trains to transport maize across the country and how he won over the Congolese blood barons. And then, as one or two more beers slipped down, he explained how, thanks to his flash cars and private planes, he earned his title of ‘Playboy Millionaire’. Yet, much to everyone’s amazement, this was the life he chose to give up so he could set up CBE.

At first we struggled to understand why Peter would abandon his business to become an advocate for people and planet.  It was clear from the glint in Peter’s eye when re-telling his playboy stories that he wasn’t bored of having fun or sick of being filthy rich.  But the deeper we dug the more it became obvious that Peter’s first love isn’t making money. A relentless activist, Peter is addicted to speaking out about under represented issues which deeply affect his country and more importantly, his people.

Both at university and during the years that followed, Peter used politics as a platform to get his voice heard. He told us how he’d been “one of the big boys” in the struggle for multi-party democracy in 1990.  In fact, whilst running his company, Peter also co-founded an opposition party which became one of three major contenders for leadership in the 1991 elections.  As General Secretary of a leading opposition party, Peter was elected in 1993 to sit on the committee reviewing Zambia’s constitution.  Throughout all of their enquiries Peter was struck by the fact that nobody spoke about the impact that business has on the environment. However, living in Kitwe, Peter was all too aware of the adverse effects the mines were having on Zambian people. It wasn’t unusual, especially in the rainy season, for people in the city to suffer an incessant cough owing to unsafe levels of sulphur dioxide in the air.

Peter tabled his concerns, but the committee was all talk and no trousers when it came to environmental issues. This, of course, fired Peter up even more. “I’m a lion, a Leo”, he told us, “We like to take on challenges and we don’t get scared.” So, much to everyone’s disbelief, he sold his business and invested his own resources in setting up CBE. Eager to be seen as a plausible advocate for the cause, he moved out of his supersized home in a posh part of Kitwe and bought a new residence right outside a mine. Peter admits that this was a “very big sacrifice” and that his wife wasn’t best pleased, but 14 years down the line, his passion is unwavering.

CBE’s approach is not ‘anti-mining’. They merely want the industry to play by the rule book.  They gather evidence from local communities about the negative effects of the mines and compare this against a long list of laws, standards and policies. If they find that a company or government agency is in breach of their responsibilities, they prepare a case and present it back to the parties concerned. Thanks to Peter’s standing, it’s rare that his complaints fall on deaf ears and, where possible, issues are resolved without calling upon the law. Peter’s power, however, is far from limitless and harder measures often have to be deployed. “When they become stubborn, I take them to court”, Peter told us with a huge grin.

Peter’s shelves are crammed full of serious looking law books and he was quoting the names of official acts at us left, right and centre. “So when did you get your degree in law?” we asked him. Along came another extraordinary explanation.  In the beginning, CBE used to hire lawyers to take on their cases but they found that the law firms were too easily bought off by the mining companies. So, without any kind of legal training, Peter took on the role of barrister and decided to represent himself in court. He takes on companies in his own name, working on behalf of the communities he’s speaking out for.

Peter’s strategy has led to a fair amount of outrage. “Suing the mines was unheard of”, he told us with delight. Naturally, the government hasn’t been welcoming of CBE’s activities and the law community is always giving him a hard time, incredulous that anyone could have the audacity to practice without qualifications. Peter has finally quieted these complaints by capitalising on his political influence. Thanks to his amendments, the latest Mining & Minerals Development Act (2008) now states that his approach is totally kosher and, better still, it states that no costs will be awarded against him as long as he can prove he’s acting in the public’s interest.

The decision to go to court, however, isn’t taken lightly by CBE. Since CBE started, eight cases have been raised, most of them taking years to come to a resolution. In 2009, CBE brought a successful lawsuit against a French cement company which had not been making statutory contributions into the Environmental Protection Fund.[i] The High Court ordered the company to pay $13.5million into the fund and cover the legal costs incurred by CBE. However the company appealed against this ruling and the case drags on – it is expected to be resolved in 2012. Despite the challenge of drawn out court cases, CBE has made some ground-breaking achievements. Another high profile case involved CBE suing a Chinese and a South African mining firm for the joint mismanagement of waste that was affecting the local water supply. In response, the companies spent $300,000 re-laying a pipeline which safely disposed of the pollutant. An even bigger win came when CBE, in collaboration with a research group from Oxford University, exposed Anglo-American Corporation and the Zambian Government for breaching the Privatisation Act, the OECD Guidelines for Multinational Corporations and the UN Covenant on Economic and Social Cultural Rights.[ii] Instead of moving through the courts, CBE raised complaints at the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva and the Department of Trade & Industry in the UK.[iii] As a result Anglo-American agreed to forego some of the indemnities they had agreed to in their Zambian contract, reducing their tax breaks and increasing their responsibility for pollution. The Zambian government was also put under the spotlight and was forced to produce regular reports on their performance against the UN Convention.

CBE has also orchestrated the re-housing of a number of communities, one of which we went to visit. Sat outside the first of a row of well-finished houses, Community Leader Hilda Shiliya, greeted us warmly. She and 65 other families have been living on their new plot of land for three years now, sincerely grateful that they were able to escape their old village.“When they blasted, the cracks in our houses became very big”, Hilda explained to us. “It was so bad you couldn’t even stay in the house. People were putting in sticks to support the roofs.”

Before Peter stepped in, Hilda had been trying in vain to raise her community’s concerns with both Mopani (the current mining company in the area) and the ZCCM (the government-owned company which previously owned and operated the mine).[iv] Mopani refused any liability, blaming ZCCM, whilst ZCCM, reluctant to take full responsibility, agreed to provide tents for the community to live in. When Hilda contacted CBE Peter was disgusted with these terms. Unable to make ZCCM budge, he called up his contacts at the World Bank. Within three days the World Bank had ordered that ZCCM use a pre-existing loan to cover the costs of re-housing for the whole community.

Compared to the influence of many environmental NGOs, CBE’s power is quite remarkable. This is undoubtedly linked to Peter’s reputation as an ex-maize tycoon and political front-runner, but CBE has, in its own right, earned itself an international reputation which means they can open doors. Thanks to Peter’s work in an advisory capacity, he has built strong links with the World Bank, the United Nations, the African Development Bank Group[v] and many others who wield control and influence over African affairs. CBE has also been recognised by numerous international NGOs and Peter is an Ashoka fellow.

As a result, CBE’s opponents have slowly become allies, and both the government and mining companies now turn to CBE for support. “If there’s a problem, we tell them and they listen”, Peter told us. A prime example of this came when Peter told us that the night before he had called up his local mine to complain about the sulphur dioxide levels. No court cases necessary, they immediately closed down the operation for further investigation.

Peter Sinkamba’s story warrants a whole book, if not a Hollywood movie. On top of CBE, he has completed a Masters, is writing up his PhD, has a wife, four kids and a new political plan on the horizon. His energy topped every other social entrepreneur we met and we’d dare anyone to try and replicate his routine. Every day he gets up at 2 am, studies until 6 am, goes to the CBE office for a full day’s work and then heads to the squash club for a compulsory beer (or five). Peter has plenty of plans for the future, including supporting others to replicate the CBE model in neighbouring countries and maybe even morphing CBE into Africa’s first Green Party. Wherever the future takes him, Peter Sinkamba is one to watch and we wouldn’t be surprised if one day we’re supporting his campaign: Peter for President.

For more info visit:                 

Citizens for a Better Environment: www.cbezambia.org

[i] The Environment Protection Fund in Zambia was set up under the Mines and Minerals Development Act and mining companies working in Zambia make statutory payments into it. The fund has been set up to ensure that all mining companies execute their environmental protection and rehabilitation responsibilities as required by law and to protect the government in case companies do not adhere.

[ii] See www.oecd.org/dataoecd/56/36/1922428.pdf for OECD Guidelines for Multinational Enterprises; see http://www2.ohchr.org/english/law/cescr.htm for the UN’s International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights

[iii] See www.ohchr.org/english/bodies/hrcouncil for UN Human Rights Council; see http://www.bis.gov.uk/ for the re-named Department of Trade & Industry, the Department for Business, Skills and Innovation

[iv] See www.glencore.com for information about Mopani Copper Mine

[v] See www.afdb.org/en for African Development Bank Group; see http://www.worldbank.org/ for the World Bank; see www.un.org for the United Nations


 Copyright © Nikki and Rob Wilson 2011