Join me in fighting tax avoidance, says Zambian minister

06 March 2015

CHRISTIAN AID

Zambian campaigner: the Revd Dr Suzanne Matale

Zambian campaigner: the Revd Dr Suzanne Matale

A ZAMBIAN ecumenist has called on British Christians to join her fight to make mining companies in Zambia pay a fair amount of tax on their profits.

The General Secretary of the Council of Churches in Zambia, the Revd Dr Suzanne Matale, who is a Methodist minister, said that rising public anger against tax avoidance in the UK mirrored the demands of the Zambian Church that multinational mining firms should pay more tax.

In 2013, Zambia was the world's eighth-largest copper producer, but Dr Matale said that Zambians saw little benefit. "We sincerely believe that there is something wrong going on in our nation, because . . . the people living a stone's-throw away from the mines are desperately poor," she said in an interview last week.

Often, the mining companies do not break any laws, but use loopholes in the tax code to siphon money out of Zambia almost tax-free. The Zambian authorities estimate that they lose $1 billion a year from tax-avoidance.

"Our advocacy is not against investment; it would be foolish for investors to invest for charity, we want them to make profit," Dr Matale said. "But we are saying, give us our fair share of the tax, which I am sure they are able to."

The Church Commissioners have significant investments in a number of international mining companies, including Glencore, BHP Billiton, and Anglo American. Some campaigners, including the charity Operation Noah, have called on Churches to sell all stakes in fossil-fuel and mining companies, but the Commissioners have mostly resisted this.

Last year, their head of responsible investment, Edward Mason, said that the Commissioners had been successful in changing policies to protect the environment and people (News, 24 October).

Dr Matale said that the question of disinvestment was a difficult one, and that the Church of England was left "between a rock and a hard place. . . What is important is, if they are sitting around the table, we must see the difference. But if they engage, they have a huge role on our behalf, as people of faith, to ensure that the correct thing is done, which we haven't seen yet."

Responding this week, Mr Mason said: "The Commissioners' clear view is that companies should not, for both ethical and business-risk reasons, engage in aggressive tax planning, aggressive tax avoidance, and abusive tax arrangements. This is particularly important in low-income countries."

It is not just tax avoidance that Dr Matale has in her sights. Mining companies in Zambia, she said, were also guilty of allowing pollution into the soil and rivers, as well as forcibly relocating villages away from their ancestral lands.

The Council of Churches in Zambia has been travelling the country, educating local elders about tax avoidance and how it contributes to poverty. Sixty-four per cent of Zambians live below the poverty line.

Dr Matale said these efforts were now bearing fruit, although the Government did not appreciate the Churches' activism. "When we ask them why are the people poor in the midst of all this rich mineral wealth, they say 'Go back to the pulpit, you are interfering in our politics'.

"We have no message for the people if they are hungry and poor. We don't believe it's correct for us to preach the word on Sundays and tell the people that God is good if they didn't have a meal in the last few days."

British Christians should join her campaign, Dr Matale urged, and should back Christian Aid's drive for a new law to crack down on tax avoidance in the UK. "We believe that they also dodge tax here in the UK. It is for the benefit of all of us that this Bill goes through Parliament, and that they can put stringent measures to ensure that it is minimised."

Dr Matale was in the UK to take part in a conference last weekend on Christianity and politics. She said that believers had no choice but to hold their governments to account, and get involved in politics, as Churches in Zambia are doing.

"That's a resounding 'Yes' for Christians to engage in politics. Politicians must be aware that ...we are watchdogs to make sure they do it correctly. We don't really have a choice about this but to involve ourselves in a way that makes a difference in the lives of people."

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