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SHINENGENE, Zambia (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - The women sat quietly in a village church in northwest Zambia, the sun slanting down on their colorful Sunday outfits as they told how life had changed since their chief sold a tract of land to a foreign firm for a new copper mine, displacing hundreds of families.
"We had a vast land and we could do anything," Seke Mwansakombe, one of the displaced women, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
"Here we are confined to 40 by 40 meter plots and our movements have been restricted because certain areas are now no-go areas."
Kalumbila Minerals Ltd, a subsidiary of Canada-based First Quantum Minerals Ltd, signed a deal with Senior Chief Musele in 2011 to buy 518 square kms of surface rights for its mining activities, called the Trident Project.
As a result almost 1,000 families, most of them subsistence farmers, were relocated to Shinengene, or Southern Settlement, and to Northern Township, some 18 kms (11 miles) from their original village. Other villages are due for relocation soon.
A report by global charity ActionAid, published this week, said the villagers' displacement had marginalized the women, preventing many of them from growing their own food and limiting their access to natural resources such as forests and rivers.
In Zambia, where women take second place in every aspect of political, social and economic life, they are at a disadvantage when decisions like this are taken, which take no account of their interests, needs and concerns, the report said.
"Even when women attend meetings, they rarely speak and they don't ask questions," Pamela Chisanga, the head of ActionAid Zambia, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
Most of the relocated women did not know the compensation details or whether the new parcels of land provided by the mine were registered in their names jointly with their husbands', the report on negative impacts of mining on women in Zambia said.
According to the United Nations Human Settlements Programme (UN-HABITAT), 94 percent of land in Zambia is held under a customary system regulated by traditional leaders.
"Because the customary land is not regulated by law, it essentially gives the local leaders full authority," Peter Veit, director of Land and Resource Rights Initiative at the global research organization World Resources Institute (WRI), told the Thomson Reuters Foundation in a phone interview from Washington.
Land ownership by women protects their interests, especially in the event of divorce, inheritance and the transfer or sale of land.
"If women have their name in the title, at least they can be sure to receive some compensation from a large-scale acquisition," said WRI associate Celine Salcedo-La Vina.
The villagers, who used to live in traditional compounds with separate huts for each generation of a family, were given simple brick houses, one for each extended family, in the new settlement.
Beth Lombanya, a 42-year-old mother of 10, said she found it hard to fit her family into the four-room house they were given.
"It's not fair that this community ... got little matchboxes like this," Chisanga said.
The women, traditionally responsible for fetching water and growing and cooking food, said they found it hard to feed their families in their new village.
Unable to farm on the small plots around their houses, they have to walk a kilometer to an area the mine set aside for farming.
Those unable to grow enough food for their families now have to pay up to four times as much for food as before, mainly because transport costs have risen sharply now that they no longer live on the main road to Solwezi, the nearest commercial center.
Mining accounts for 10 percent of Zambia's formal employment and 12 percent of its gross domestic product, but only a few of the villagers are working in the mine, the majority of them men, because of a lack of skills and education.
As a result of their relocation, women lost access to forest resources like mushrooms, caterpillars and firewood, and surface water in local rivers that they need to process cassava, a staple food, the ActionAid report said.
The community had little room to negotiate the compensation package and received a "raw deal", according to ActionAid - an allegation the mining company's representatives dispute.
"The challenge has been that people didn't get enough information and they were misled about the kind of benefits they would have," Chisanga said.
The women, some illiterate, said they didn't realize they could not claim compensation once they had signed the mine acquisition documents, some with a thumbprint.
"There was very small print on the bottom of the forms that these communities were signing, that this was all the company was liable to provide to them as compensation," Chisanga said.
Traditionally, widows or single women live in the compounds of their relatives, usually men, so their own huts or fields were not taken into account when they moved, Chisanga said.
"I've no one to take care of me, so during the move I just followed everybody else," said 66-year-old Rontina Alesi Muke.
Garth Lappeman, manager of the Trident Foundation which oversaw the resettlement, rejected the residents' complaints, saying company officials had explained all points of the agreement carefully and taken trouble to ensure the villagers would not lose out materially as a result of their move.
"We've been very systematic to ensure that they haven't gotten a raw deal and there are measurable improvements in key areas that make up their standard of living," he said.
"We had a team of people who explained the agreements to the displaced households and farmers in the local language before they signed the agreements," he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
"I believe people understood and they're just claiming that they did not understand because they think this could be an argument that they could use to get additional resettlement entitlements. I think that is the situation there."
ActionAid initially wanted land titles to be given to displaced people in the Musele Chiefdom, but concluded that land titles can make communities even more vulnerable because they make it easier for individuals to sell their land, especially under pressure, Chisanga said.
Alarmed by the plight of their neighbors, more than 1,000 families from the nearby village of Kankozhi are refusing to move as part of the same project.
"Because of these inhuman conditions we don't want to relocate," 49-year-old Leonard Chinyama told the Thomson Reuters Foundation, as the worried villagers gathered for a meeting under the trees.
"The mine industry was supposed to serve people here, but those who are benefiting are not here, they are far away," added Donald Makina, 58.
Senior Chief Musele's prime minister, Sachiyenga, said the area acquired by the mine has been reduced to 385 square kms, and he and the villagers are lobbying the government to reduce it further, especially after the mining firm fenced off 66 square kms of forest for a game park.
"The mine brought animals to the park and now the animals are more important than us," Sachiyenga said.
Pepino Musakalu from the local non-profit Green and Justice, which works with the affected communities, said only the Zambian president's office can amend the land acquisition contract.
Some 370 kms (230 miles) east of the Musele Chiefdom, women trying to cope with the harm to the environment caused by another mine would love to relocate.
Esther Zulu, a 34-year-old mother of four, is one of more than 45,000 residents of Kankoyo, an impoverished area in Zambia's main copper mining region, the Copperbelt, where Mopani, one of the largest mines in the world, is located.
She said the polluted water there had given her embarrassing health problems and her husband had left her.
According to ActionAid, no food can grow in Kankoyo because of the high level of acid contamination of water and soil.
"When sulfur comes out ... you vomit and you have diarrhea," said Zulu. "We just want a big bus to go to the president" and appeal for help, she said. "The ideal solution is to move."
Mopani Copper Mines Plc did not respond to requests for comment.
Reporting by Magdalena Mis, editing by Tim Pearce. Please credit Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women’s rights, corruption and climate change. Visit www.trust.org