The economy has revived with higher copper prices but corruption remains a problem
Most of Zambia consists of a plateau at around 1,200 metres above sea level. The highest point is in the Muchinga Mountains in the north-east. The territory is mostly open grasslands with occasional trees. The main river is the Zambezi, whose energies are tapped by the huge Kariba dam.
Zambians can belong to any of 70 or more ethnic groups, most of whom speak Bantu languages, though the official language is English. There are also small numbers of Europeans.
Two-thirds of Zambians live below the national poverty line and most of these would be classified as ‘extremely poor’. In the past, one of the more successful areas was education: two-thirds of children are enrolled in primary schools and adult literacy is around 80%. In recent years, however, with budget cuts and low and often late pay for teachers, and rising levels of poverty, educational standards have been falling. Zambia had also made progress in health, but here too services have deteriorated.
Zambia is starting to reverse the trends. In 2005 donors wrote off $3.9 billion of the country's foreign debt and most of the savings are going into health and education. In 2006 charges in rural clinics were scrapped. By 2007 it had increased the number of teachers by 50%.
This still leaves the spectre of HIV and AIDS: in 2007, 15% of the population were HIV-positive. As a result, life expectancy dropped by around 15 years and around half a million children have been orphaned. Still, it looks as though infection might have peaked and the government is providing free anti-retroviral therapy.
Most people rely to some extent on agriculture. Zambia could be a major food producer: only around one-tenth of the land is arable though only about half of this is currently being worked. One of the main constraints for local food availability is the pattern of landholding. Much of the best land is held by large commercial farmers, usually white. While they do also grow the main food crop, maize, low prices have encouraged large farms to devote more land to tobacco, cotton, sugar, and flowers for the export market.
Meanwhile the subsistence farmers work on lower-quality communal land growing maize, sorghum, millet, and other basic crops, and in some cases cotton. Efforts to transfer communal land to private ownership have been blocked by traditional leadership.
One of the most important sources of income and employment is copper, which provides three-quarters of export income. The ‘copperbelt’ is in the north-west of the country, bordering on the Democratic Republic of the Congo. This is the most industrialized part of Zambia, and also produces cobalt, coal, lead, and zinc. Mineral income dropped during the 1990s but lately prices have surged.
Privatization of the mines from 2000 was a tortuous business but one of the largest owners now is an Indian company, Sterlite, and companies from Switzerland, China, and elsewhere are also involved. Higher international prices have encouraged fresh investment and output has increased.