When Climate, Cattle, and Copper Collide

Cattle carcass with bone beneath its hide exposed, decaying in a field

In October 2019, as it started to cool down in North America, the temperature reached over 100°F elsewhere in the world. With the heat, a stench of death settled over the Ngamiland District of Northern Botswana. District-wide communal grazing and low amounts of precipitation during the last rainy season contributed to cattle dying from lack of food and water. The dust storms blew over their slowly dying bodies that we drove past daily. The scale at which pastoralism is communal in Ngamiland means cattle often get lost as they graze, even in the middle of town. What results is an amalgam of livestock that can find grass and water to live; cows that are clearly dying, unable to move; rotting carcasses of various livestock along the roadside; barren, former grassy lands; a bone-dry river; and farmers that are not exactly sure how many cattle they have because some have wandered astray. 

Seventy kilometers to the south, near the village of Toteng, the Boseto and Zone 5 copper mines are being reinstated by a new international company after a few years of economic stagnation. So far, two copper companies—Cupric Canyon Capital and their subsidiary Khoemacau—have acquired twelve farms, some of which are syndicates of up to ten families. Outside of a few wealthy lawyer-type outliers, many farmers grew up on these farms. They knew and loved the places where their parents were buried, where they had invested their labor in their livestock and the land. 

Roadside signs for copper mining sites
Roadside signs for copper mining sites near Toteng, Botswana. Photo by author, 2020.

This is a story of different worlds interacting to bring about opposing plantations—places that are created through the discipline, simplification, and dispossession of plants, animals, and humans—and wrapped up in processes of erasure and death. One of these worlds is embedded in a long-standing tradition of cattle pastoralism occurring in a political economy of beef and grazing in Botswana. The other world involves the hidden interactions of international investment in the copper mining production process. The two come together to show how “the capacity to love and care for place is radically incompatible with the plantation,” as families and their livestock are forced to leave their land, and the latter die upon their return.    

I have come to know some of this story as I conduct my Ph.D. research on how people experience and remember displacement for different political and economic purposes: copper mining, diamond mining, and conservation. As an American settler on African land that has often been violently fought over by outsiders, I continue to struggle with the balance of questioning oppressive systems and not claiming a “move to innocence” of my own positionality. Eve Tuck & K. Wayne Yang argue that a move to innocence can allow settlers to reconcile their guilt without having to change much at all. Merely talking about my own power within my research is incommensurable with actually having to give up power in some way. However, as writing can be an act of political (and economic) resistance, I want to use this essay to share some of what I have learned and observed over the past half-year about copper plantations and developers’ forced erasure of farmers and cattle. 

The Costs of Copper Mining

Copper is ubiquitous. Yet, many consumers of copper do not know that it is currently conducting electricity in most of their electronic devices. This makes copper rather cryptic in the world, but even if it was in plain sight, like diamonds, the process of production would still hide oppressive displacements of farmers from the consumer. Displacements in Toteng associated with copper production are shaped by a racialized and classist approach to development: those whose language and culture are nationally recognized, and those who are more economically well off, prosper. 

Map of Southern Africa
Map of Southern Africa, with inset of Botswana. Image by author, 2020.

Some trace these inequities to the Tswana wars of 1770-1820, which provided the foundation for present-day democracy as Tswana kingdoms expanded from South Africa to Botswana due to drought and local political systems formed around cattle pastoralism. While people of many ethnic backgrounds have lived in Botswana since before the 18th century, the Tswana have maintained the power they acquired once they moved into pre-colonial Botswana. The Banderu and Herero people, the majority of farmers displaced by the copper mine, are not indigenous to Botswana. They came to the country following the Herero genocide in Namibia at the beginning of the 20th century. Displacement is not unknown to them. Their language is not recognized nationally, nor their cultural traditions. Ethnic minorities are largely forced to conform to Tswana tradition, which manifests through the local governance kgotla (court) system and language laws that allow only Setswana and English for formal proceedings, as in parliament, in school, and on the radio. However, with land, minerals, and water being entirely state-owned and leased, the government has maintained levels of control over natural resources for everyone, not just ethnic minorities such as the Herero and Banderu.   

The farmers displaced by the copper mine now raise livestock on a variety of land tenure types. In Setswana, moraka (cattle post) refers to “where the animals are” or where livestock are able to roam freely. Cattle posts are communal unfenced areas. Polase refers to the ranch—a fenced, leased area. Outside of leasehold ranches, cattle roam freely in Ngamiland up until the veterinarian fences that separate wildlife and livestock areas. These fences are meant to reduce the transmission of foot-and-mouth disease from wildlife to livestock so the latter can suitably be sold on the European beef market. Unfortunately, this makes wildlife migration impossible and human-wildlife conflict within the fences all the more likely. 

Brown cows within a fence
Cattle at a leasehold ranch in Ghanzi District. Photo by author, 2019.

Everyone who has been displaced has only received compensation from the mine: no new land, no relocation assistance. Farmers have either taken their cattle to a nearby cattle post, moved to a new ranch, or have given up farming completely. Members of the latter group often head to Maun, the nearest large town, in search of work. Without farming income, many find themselves in dire financial positions.

In the case of the Boseto and Zone 5 mines in the Ngamiland district, copper mining displacements have also disrupted the forced labor of non-humans in an already fraught grazing environment. When farmers moved to cattle posts or other ranches after their farms were acquired, the cattle suffered. Farmers described losing many cattle after long journeys of herding them on horses or donkeys through the savanna woodland bush. Along their journey, cattle would get lost and die either of starvation or through some interaction with the mine, such as falling in the tailings pit, where mining waste is stored. Cattle that do not succumb to whatever fate they find on their way home join the masses around the cattle posts in Ngamiland. Within the simplified ecology of livestock grazing, which has been driven by Botswana’s beef industry, these non-human laborers seem to also have made a connection to the land, a home.

Searching for Home After Drought and Dispossession

Driving to an interview last November, I was surprised to see grass, something I hadn’t seen in at least a month, as soon as I crossed over district lines. Farmers that make the 220-kilometer journey to Ghanzi, the next district south of Ngamiland, are required to enclose their livestock in fences. The Ghanzi area consists of freehold ranches, remnant colonial-period ranches, as well as leasehold ranches. In a communal ranch such as a syndicate or a leasehold ranch, people are more likely to know the number of cattle they have and understand the grazing available than when they are at the cattle post. Scholars have used Botswana to argue that the tragedy of the commons does in fact, occur. However, a major assumption of this is that livestock are being grazed in a stable system, which overlooks the lack of rainfall in the region. And after all, drought is what drove the Tswana into Botswana in the first place. 

Dry landscape and small riverbed where the water of the Okavango Delta ends
Where the water of the Okavango ends. Photo by the author, 2020.

The Okavango Delta in Ngamiland is the end of the stream for waters that originate in the highlands of Angola, as part of the Cubango-Okavango River Basin. Last year both the source and the sink of the Okavango received below-normal rainfall compared to the districts south of Ngamiland, which received average rainfall. Precipitation across Southern Africa was at a low point of its multi-decadal precipitation oscillations. This calls for a need for grazing policy that not only responds to land tenure but to long-observed fluctuations in precipitation as well. 

Climate, cattle, and copper really begin to overlap when farmers are forced away from their boreholes for copper mining. Many farmers described their previous boreholes as having sweet water, a term they use to describe fresh water that is not salty. Therefore, sweet water is good to drink and allows farmers to sustain their cattle even during a drought. At the communal cattle posts near dry Lake Ngami only wells are available, and the wells have run dry. No water means no grass and suffering cattle. At the intersection of copper mining and water availability is land security, and what seems to drive the government to withdrawing from farmer leases to make way for copper production is the economy. 

One calf stands in dead grass near dead trees
Calf grazing on dry Lake Ngami. Photo by author, 2019.

These overlaps of industry, agriculture, drought, and dispossession show how the Anthropocene is not experienced equally across all areas. Rather than looking to the species as a whole, we must look to identify certain political economic drivers and actors. Taken on its own, the copper mine might provide the perfect example for what the Anthropocene era looks like in action, through the physical stripping away of earth and slow-decaying waste left in tailings pits. Zoom out to just outside its newly erected fence and you will see the homes that are becoming vacant, the former cattle farmer who can’t find a job, and the cattle that have become lost and died. The concept of the Anthropocene becomes too simple to describe the violent social and economic oppression that underlies the copper project.  

Copper mining in the Toteng region has brought with it multiple forms of erasure. Most immediately, the removal of farmers who knew and loved the land. And ultimately the removal of the land itself, through prospecting, drilling, and infrastructure that copper mining demands, such as roads, power lines, and fences. After the drilling process, the extracted copper goes to market, where Cupric Canyon earns a profit that surpasses the cost of infrastructure and relocation. This profit occurs at the cost of farmer erasure, death of livestock, and loss of connection to place. This is all made to seem acceptable due to ongoing racism and colonialism.

What can be done to address this? Mallence-Bart Williams is a revolutionary voice for the people of Africa against long-standing international and ongoing colonial exploitation of the continent’s resources. She argues that what Africa needs are local shareholders in natural resources. If dispossessed farmers had been made shareholders of the mine, their love and care for place would not be so radically incompatible with the copper operation. If the displacements continue, at least farmers may have a more sustainable way forward, and regional development may finally directly benefit them. 

Forecasting an Uncertain Future

During the global financial crisis in 2008, the value of copper fell drastically, and the copper market has remained volatile for years since. This unpredictability has had very real effects on local people whose lives are entwined with the mines. As international copper companies pull out of their investments, they leave behind unemployed workers and displaced families who lost their farms to the mines. Such was the case with Discovery Metals Limited (DML) in Toteng. The international company relocated a number of families when it opened in 2012. DML shut down operations just three years later, in response to a struggling copper market. The morning the mine closed, workers were escorted onto buses by armed police.

But now a new international private company has taken over the Boseto and Zone 5 mines. Cupric Canyon Capital and their subsidiary Khoemacau followed suit and acquired two farms. Last November, while I was getting maps at the Tawana Land Board, someone informed me that Khoemacau is likely to keep acquiring farms. As far as I know, this information isn’t well-known by the community in Toteng. This creates a dilemma: what do I do with this information? For now, publishing this is one of those things.

With December came the rain, just a couple months too late, and puddles started to form next to cattle carcasses. The weather forecast says more rain. The mining forecast seems to say more displacement. 

Featured image: Decaying cow in the Boro River, Maun. Photo by author, 2019.

Justyn Huckleberry is a Ph.D. candidate in the Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies and a Center for Humanities HEX scholar. Her current research focuses on how people experience different types of conservation and extractive-industry development-induced displacement differently. She holds an M.L.A. in Environmental Planning from UC Berkeley. Contact. Twitter.