In 1993, economic geographer Richard Auty coined the term “resource curse” to identify a paradox: nations with great natural resources often suffer underdevelopment compared with countries that lack natural resources. While phenomena like the “Dutch Disease” make good sense when you study them in macroeconomic terms, the resource curse is a deeply counterintuitive phenomenon. How can having a wealth of natural resources possibly be a bad thing for a country?
Before you wish for diamond-littered soil in your nation, take a close look at the Democratic Republic of Congo. No nation in the world has been as richly blessed as the vast country… and perhaps no nation has seen quite so much misery in the past two centuries. Belgium’s King Leopold II turned Congo Free State into his personal fiefdom to generate rubber (which became a critical industrial component with 19th century electrification) through forced labor and brutal exploitation of the population (all the while arguing that he was “protecting” the natives from “Arab slavers”.)
Leopold was interested in what grew out of the ground – subsequent exploiters of the Congo have been more interested in the 18 major natural resources that lie under the topsoil. Joseph Mobutu’s 32 year rule over DRC was made possible by his kleptocratic strategy of selling off natural resources and using the proceeds to bribe politicial supporters, rather than rebuilding infrastructure. When Mobutu was overthrown, the resulting war became “Africa’s World War” as nine bordering nations took part… and in many cases, helped themselves to all the minerals they could loot.
As DRC prepares for upcoming elections – slated for July 30th – controversy over mineral wealth looms large again. International companies are investing heavily in Katanga province in southeastern DRC. The region has some of the world’s richest cobalt and copper mines, many of which are in disuse due to crumbling infrastructure. With global copper prices on the rise due to demand in China and India, investing in the rehabilitation of these mines looks like a good bet for international mining concerns. And firms like Canadian Katanga Mining are saying all the right things, offering plans to process the minerals locally, keeping jobs within DRC rather than just exporting raw ore.
But things are seldom that simple in the DRC. Hundreds of thousands of people work the Katanga mines by hand, digging out rough nuggets of ore and selling them to “entrepreneurs” who spirit the ore out of the country for processing in Zambia, South Africa or China. Few of these brokers pay the appropriate export duties to the government, costing the nation revenue it can ill afford to lose.
A recent report by Global Witness – a UK-based pressure group which does some of the best research available on the connection between natural resources, corruption and human rights abuse – makes it clear that government officials are well aware of informal mining that’s taking place and exploit the miners at every possible opportunity, demanding a variety of payments to allow the mining to continue. Global Witness suggests that these payments are lining the pockets of senior Congolese politicians, including President Joseph Kabila, and that these monies are being used to fund campaigns in the upcoming election.
Like the election needs any more problems. Anticipating possible electoral strife, Kofi Annan has asked for an additional 2,500 peacekeepers to be stationed in DRC. But UN forces haven’t been able to fully stabilize parts of the eastern Congo, where rebels from the MRC (Revolutionary Movement of the Congo) recently retook the town of Tchei. In a much less bloody – but still unsettling – development, the government in Kinshasa expelled Ghislaine Dupont, a Parisian commentator for Radio France Internationale. If this augurs a widespread crackdown on press freedom leading to the elections, it will be very bad news indeed.
News in the DRC isn’t easy to follow, even when it makes it into northern media. There are numerous political parties, perpetual accusations of foreign interference and lots of incomplete and bad information. Alice Backer – Global Voices’s editor for La Francophonie (herself a child of Haitian professionals moved to the DRC to support an independent Congo) – does an excellent job of navigating these difficult waters in our Congo coverage. Some notable posts she’s pointed to recently:
– Sokari Ekine of Black Looks on historical progress in the DRC – she observes that a contemporary analysis of Congo’s geopolitical significance reads the same way today as it did 100 years ago…
– AfriQueen, with a photo essay on the life of child miners in Katanga.
– Bush pilot Carl, on internally displaced person camps in Katanga.
Finally, The Salon is required reading for any non-Francophone trying to follow goings on in Kinshasa… the next month should be very interesting… and globally important, even though you’ll likely hear next to nothing about it in the North.
(In case that last sentence sounds like hyperbole, let me point out:
– Congo is the size of Western Europe
– The two wars after Mobutu’s overthrow caused 2-3.5m deaths, a death toll exceeded in recent history only by WWII
– Many of Africa’s least stable nations – CAR, Sudan – and those recovering from major conflict – Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi – border DRC
It’s hard to imagine a stable, prosperous African continent without Congo becoming significantly more stable, peaceful and developed.)