The Copperbelt is Zambia's industrial base, a prosperous area around Ndola, Kitwe and Chingola dotted with mines – the area's production of copper and cobalt are of global importance. The population density here is high, and the environmental impact of so many people can clearly be seen. Despite this, the centres of the Copperbelt's cities are pleasant and not the sprawling industrial wastes that might be expected.
For the normal visitor, these areas have very few attractions and so this chapter is deliberately concise. For simplicity's sake, this text also aims to cover three of the main towns around the Copperbelt – Kabwe and Kapiri Mposhi to the south, and Solwezi to the west – even though these are not strictly part of the Copperbelt.The history of the copper
Zambia's rich copper deposits have been exploited since around the 6th or 7th century AD. There is evidence that the early Iron-Age inhabitants of Zambia mined, smelted and even traded copper with their neighbours – bracelets and bangles have been found at several sites.
However, large-scale exploitation of these reserves waited until the 20th century. Around the turn of the century, the old sites where native Africans had mined copper for centuries, like Bwana Mkubwa southeast of Ndola, were being examined by European and American prospectors. The demand for metals was stimulated from 1914 to 1918 by World War I, and small mines opened up to satisfy this need. They worked well, but these small-scale productions were only viable whilst the price of the raw materials remained high. Copper, zinc, lead and vanadium were among the most important of the minerals being mined.
Given Zambia's location, and the high costs of transporting any produce out of this land-locked country, it made economic sense to process the mineral ores there, and then export the pure metal ingots. However, this would require considerable investment and large-scale operations.
After the war, demand for copper continued to increase, fuelled by the expansion in the worldwide electrical and automotive industries. Large-scale mining became a more feasible option. In 1922 the British South Africa Company, who claimed to have bought all of the country's mining concessions in various tribal agreements, started to allocate large prospecting areas for foreign companies. Exploration skills from overseas flowed into the country, locating several large deposits of copper – well beneath the levels of the existing mining operations.
By the early 1930s, four large new mines were coming on stream: Nkana, Nchanga, Roan Antelope and Mufulira. These were to change Northern Rhodesia's economy permanently. Despite a collapse of the prices for copper in 1931, the value of the country's exports increased by 400% between 1930 and 1933 – leaving copper accounting for 90% of the country's exports by value. Thus began the mining industry which still accounts for about 7% of Zambia's GDP and 68% of Zambia's export earnings, and employs about 11% of the workforce.