Mining was central to Zambia's economy. Copper accounted for 55% of export earnings in 2002, copper mining and processing was the country's leading industry, and cobalt was the second-leading export commodity. Zambia was the fifth-largest producer of cobalt in 2000, the 12th-largest producer of copper, and a major producer of gem-quality emerald and amethyst. The production of mineral commodities generated 15%–20% of GDP, while mining and quarrying accounted for 5% of GDP in 1999, 80% of merchandise exports, and 8% of total employment (38,500 jobs). Copper earned $372 million of Zambia's merchandise exports ($842 million) in 1999, and cobalt accounted for $95 million. Gemstones, mined mostly by small-scale and artisanal miners, also recorded significant earnings, although larger amounts bypassed official counts, and some believed their earnings amounted to $250 million per year. Construction was the country's second-leading industry, and the production of chemicals and fertilizers also ranked high. By 2000, privatization of most of the major mines, including copper, had been completed, and efforts were ongoing to privatize the gemstone and other small mines sectors, and to attract foreign investors to develop other known metallic and industrial mineral resources. Among the difficulties faced by landlocked Zambia were high transportation costs, the threat posed by HIV/AIDS to the labor force, cyclical world commodity prices, and the impact of civil wars in Angola and Congo on foreign investment.
In 2000, total copper mine output (by concentration, cementation, and leaching; metal content) was 241,200 tons, down from 352,900 in 1997 and 1969's peak, 825,000 tons. The output of cobalt (metal content), as a byproduct of copper mining and processing, was 4,600 tons, down from 11,900 in 1998. The mining industry has been effected by declining world copper demand, slow global economic growth, labor unrest, transportation difficulties, including port and rail congestion, and shortages of spare parts, raw materials, and fuel. In 2000, the copper industry began its first full year of private operation since 1968, after the government completed privatization of Zambia Consolidated Copper Mines (ZCCM) assets, which had comprised the country's major copper mining companies; ZCCM still retained ownership in most production companies. In 1969, the two major copper mining companies, Nchanga Consolidated Copper Mines and Roan Consolidated Mines, were 51% nationalized; they were reorganized in 1974 under management appointed by the government, and merged into ZCCM in 1982.
New mine owners focused on mine and plant rehabilitation efforts in 2000, and planned to produce 325,000 tons of copper in 2001 and 460,000 in 2003, and to triple or quadruple cobalt output by 2003. Among the largest copper mines were the Nkana (5.5 million tons ore per year capacity), the Nchanga and Chingola open-pits (4.5 million tons ore per year), the Nchanga underground (2.8 million tons), the Mufalira (2.8 million tons), the Konkola underground (2.2 million tons), the Luanshya underground (1.7 million tons), and the Baluba underground (1.4 million tons). Exploration work and feasibility studies on the Kankola North project were expected to reveal an annual capacity of 2.2 million tons ore. The country's total mineral resources exceeded 2,580 million tons, with ore reserves of 728 million tons. Equinox Resources Ltd.'s Lumwana project, with two large copper-cobalt-gold-uranium deposits (Chimiwunga and Malundwe), had resources of 1 billion tons that contained 0.67% copper, and 481 million tons of ore (1% copper). The Kalimba Group's Nama and Ngosa areas had a resource of 950 million tons. More than $2 billion was expected in investments to rebuild the copper industry between 1998 and 2008, with corresponding production increases of refined copper, from 233,000 tons per year to 620,000 tons per year, and of refined cobalt, from 4.2 tons per year to 20 tons per year. This would return Zambia to the position of largest cobalt producer and one of the top five or six copper producers.
Zambia also produced gold, refined selenium, silver, cement, clays (including brick, china, and ball), gemstones (amethyst, beryl, emerald, red garnet, and pink tourmaline), calcined lime, limestone, sand and gravel, stone, sulfur, and talc. No iron ore, tin, aquamarine, citrine, feldspar, magnetite, or nitrogen has been produced for several years. Exploration was being carried out for zinc, and for diamonds in western Zambia.