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James North has reported from Africa, Asia and Latin America for thirty-seven years.
The 73 million human beings who live here in the Democratic Republic of the Congo continue to struggle through one of the greatest humanitarian disasters on the planet since the end of the Second World War. By one estimate, more than 5 million people have died since the Second Congo War broke out in 1998. Fighting has just started up again in eastern Congo; hundreds are already dead, and there may already be more than 200,000 refugees, adding to the 2 million Congolese already displaced by war. Doctors Without Borders has just warned that the renewed violence is blocking efforts to control an outbreak of cholera.
Far more people have died in Congo over the years than in Syria or Libya, but the mainstream Western press is barely paying attention to the resurgent fighting — and it has mostly ignored other dangerous developments, like the botched presidential election last November and the possible theft of billions of dollars from the country's mining industry.
The DR Congo's future depends greatly on what happens here, in southeastern Katanga province. Katanga has tremendous reserves of copper and cobalt, which Belgian colonialists began exploiting nearly a century ago. Then, after independence, the dictator Mobutu Sese Seko seized power. He turned out to be a vicious and incompetent kleptomaniac, but he was supported for decades by the United States, other Western countries, Citibank and the International Monetary Fund. Mobutu looted the mining industry, which had all but collapsed by the time he finally fled, in 1997.
Now, foreign mining companies are coming back to Congo. If the Congolese people can force the mining giants to pay their government fairly, this country has a chance. The government has no other significant source of potential revenue. With the rising earnings from mining, it could slowly but steadily create a professional army to replace the current bands of unpaid uniformed looters who rape and kill civilians with impunity. The government could invest in education and health. It could reduce the 70 percent rate of undernourishment. It could start to raise a potentially rich country, in which there is no shortage of intelligent, hard-working people, from last place — 187 out of 187 — in the Human Development Index.
Here in Katanga, despite a few signs of hope, the outlook is still grim. President Joseph Kabila has repeatedly promised both the international community and his own people that his government will make public the amount of money the mining companies are paying it. But Kabila continues to stall, even as information has surfaced of a shocking new deal that may have cheated the Congolese people out of more than $5 billion — a lot of money anywhere, but a stupendous amount in a country with an annual budget of only $7.2 billion, half of which is international aid. And there is every depressing indication that the international community will not call the government's bluff, just as it has already let Kabila get away with fraud in the November 2011 elections.
The DR Congo government strongly deters journalists from visiting mining areas, so I showed up here in the high plateau country of Katanga as a "tourist." A remarkable 40-year-old teacher named Michel Dibwe showed me around, at some risk to himself; Mobutu's old spy network, the National Information Agency, is still in business, and we had to keep our distance from its minions during my visit.
In 2007, the American mining multinational Freeport-McMoRan gained control of the copper and cobalt mine outside town, which is known locally as Tenke Fungurume Mining (TFM). Freeport invested $2 billion to start the mine up again, which is the largest single foreign investment in the entire country. Right away, this raw town with just a single paved road attracted a flood of migrants from elsewhere in Congo looking for work. By one estimate, the population has quadrupled, to 100,000, as reddish mud brick shacks sprang up along the dusty, rutted side streets.
The Freeport-McMoRan corporate website includes a slick twelve-minute video, in which it boasts about its contributions to welfare in this area. But the reality is completely different. Over several days, I met a wide range of Fungurume residents, including local government officials, out-of-work miners, traditional chiefs and independent journalists, and they were uniformly angry at Freeport. At some stage, their grievances will once again spill over into protest, and possibly violence. Already, in 2009 and 2010, hundreds of demonstrators blocked the highway here and shut off mineral exports. (Freeport has trouble elsewhere in the Third World. Its huge Grasberg gold and copper mine in Indonesia has long been under attack for environmental destruction and other ills [see Eyal Press, "Freeport-McMoRan at Home and Abroad," The Nation, July 31/August 7, 1995]. Just last year, a bitter three-month strike in Indonesia, combined with sabotage, halted operations and threatened the company's stock price.)
The irony is that Freeport is grudgingly recognized here as the least bad of the international enterprises that are reviving the mining industry in Katanga. The company is starting to disclose publicly how much it has paid in taxes to the government. Last year Freeport announced that since 2006, its tax bill was $370 million. So far, the other mining companies have not done the same.
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