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An expensive strategic oversight

Melvin B. Miller

Americans have generally paid little interest to Africa in the past. In fact, many people think of Africa as a country rather than a continent. But a recent Sunday New York Times published a huge photo above the fold of mining trucks lined up at the edge of a cobalt mine in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The mine is now owned by China, and it gives China dynamic control over the world’s cobalt.

Most Americans who are technologically old-school probably learned for the first time that cobalt is essential for the manufacture of digital products such as cellphones and automobiles. Any products such as batteries and communication cells will need cobalt to function. One has to wonder how the U.S. lost out on efforts to control the mining and sale of cobalt.

The news is even more distressing. The DRC has the world’s second largest rainforest after the Amazon. Those concerned with global warming should establish controls on deforestation. Perhaps the U.S. has shown little interest in the DRC because of its unsettled politics and the huge size of the nation. With 579,563,185 acres, it is the largest country in Africa. Its land is more extensive than the combined acreage of all of Western Europe combined.

In addition to its huge size, the DRC is rich with natural resources. King Leopold of Belgium claimed the Congo as a personal possession, which he then utilized without any consideration of the welfare of its residents. The first person to bring world attention to Leopold’s slavery and abuse of the people was George Washington Williams, a Black man from Boston who was a minister in the Twelfth Baptist Church.

Williams could not substantially change circumstances for the Congolese before he died, and the nation has now undergone several political transformations. However, the loss of control over an important resource like cobalt suggests that democratic countries are ill-advised to sit on the sidelines during a period of technological change. Undoubtedly, important U.S. officials underestimated the importance and availability of cobalt.

One hopes that racial discrimination will not impair the quality of international judgments necessary to improve the lives of all Americans.

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