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Katanga: Land of Copper by Paula Shackleton

abstract:When Sir Ernest Shackleton was looking for men to join his expedition to the South Pole in 1914 at the outbreak of WWI, the advertisement is supposed to have gone like this: "Men wanted for hazardous journey. Safe return doubtful. Honor and recognition in case of success." My initial thoughts wandered to that when I was asked to travel for a book commission to the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) in the spring of 2006. Just eight weeks shy of the first democratic election in forty years, Global Watch was reporting rebel bands still roaming the eastern countryside, preying on civilians after the civil war that brought rape, starvation and genocide to 4 million people. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) warned of malaria and a host of curable and incurable endemic diseases. What follows is an account of my trip and the fruit of my travels, a 217 page photographic coffee-table book with accompanying essays on - the history, land and people of the richest undeveloped copper region in the world - Katanga: Land of Copper (Marquand Books, Dec 2006) Take a look at this snap shot of a country on the brink of change with renewed optimism for peace and prosperity. There is no Lonely Planet guide to the Congo as yet, but there soon will be!


July 19, 2007

Forever Changed

They say once you travel to Africa you will be forever changed. I first balked at that notion, but after spending six weeks in the company of a driver and translator, a photographer and an ANR guard (the Congo equivalent of the KGB) while traveling the countryside of Katanga, DRC to meet with miners and farmers, villagers and tribal chiefs, educators and students, politicians and businessmen, mothers and children - I have to agree. Despite adversity and hardship resulting from forty years of escalating government kleptocracy, when the world banking institutions and multinational corporations were driven out by an involuting nationalism incited by prevailing economic strategy trends that, sadly, resulted in erosion of the entire infrastructure of the country - socially, economically and politically. There still remains a proud people with the fundamental desire for universal humanitarian rights, and with hope for a better future for their children.

A History of Resource Greed

How do you reconcile a country that has known slavery, colonial exploitation, manipulation of their independence, and was thrust into a post WWII Cold War? Where disease and poverty are rampant despite a wealth of natural resources that should enable first-world medical care and immunization programs? How does the world, or any agency or individual take responsibility? What policies, institutions and strategies exist to bring about stability and change? These were the the questions to which I became aware.

Ironically, the countries in Africa with the least intrinsic resources have made the furthest social and economic progress. The DRC has always been rich in the kinds of resources that brought greed and exploitation: ivory, rubber, copper, gold, diamonds, uranium and cobalt. The desire to control and siphon personal wealth from these ample resources has thwarted progress. It began when Portuguese explorers discovered the land in the 1400's. It was described by Joseph Conrad when Dr. Livingston and Henry Morton Stanley made their mark in history, and when King Leopold of Belgium staked a claim to his private colony via the Berlin Conference in 1885. When reports of butchery at the hands of his private army, the Force Publique, brought worldwide outcry for atrocities committed in the rubber and ivory trade, the colony was turned over to Belgian rule. In the lead-up to WWII, and after Independence was won in the '60s, the iron curtain lifted in Europe and the polemics were transfered to Africa, where they conspired to control the strategic resources of Katanga.

After Independence

Katanga is the richest resource region of all thirteen provinces in the DRC. In the '60s, when newly elected Patrice Lumumba won Independence from Belgium, he had to first deal with Katanga's attempt at secession by local polititians operating as puppets for the old Belgian regime. UN reinforcements came late and Lumumba, already courted by the Soviets, was seen to be a threat to the West by CIA. His murder and the military take-over by Mobutu would result in forty years of escalating corruption and graft. It is little known that the fissionable material for the bombs used in the second world war derived from the uranium mines in a town called Shinkolobwe in Katanga province.

Initially the "Zairification" of the country by Mobutu brought new Africanized names and national pride, and the prosperity continued. There was a pan-African ebullition, as a domino effect occurred in the other forty-nine countries on the continent: each gaining independence from the colonial rule of France, Britain, Germany, Portugal, Spain and Italy. Ironically, the majority of these would fall into the same cycle as DRC over the next fifty years. One of the best sources on this is Martin Meredith's book, The Fate of Africa: A History of Fifty Years of Independence

Autocratic rule of Zaire brought graft and corruption. Infrastructure suffered, public works deteriorated, the standard of living evaporated and Mobutu himself, saddled with so much greed and obligation raped the nationalized resource revenues. It was a public outrage and disgrace. The World Bank and IMF, rife with their own internal difficulties, refused to work in this system and the multinationals considered it too risky an investment. The Belgians had turned the country over to an ill-prepared society; only a handful of Congolese had university educations, and once the engineers and other white-collar foreign expertise left, the country tried desperately to catch up. Universities sprang from parochial based institutions. A small elite demographic studied overseas in mainly French language countries.

New Government: New Transparency and Investment

With the capital of Kinshasa located in the West, the seat of government has always been physically removed from its wealthiest stakeholders. Lubumbashi is the capital of Katanga Province. Today President Joseph Kabila, (son of former leader "Papa" Laurant Kabila) was the leader in democratic elections in June 2006, that was confirmed in a bi-election in October. He precides over a new era of transparency in government that is re-enforced by the world economic community. Mining is the cornerstone to renewed prosperity and development. In a resource-hungry world, the two fastest growing economies of India and China are dependent upon the resources abundant in the DRC. Prices for these commodities are at a historic high.

With the new constitution and mining code, the "sceamble for Katanga" is underway between multinational corporations from Australia, Canada, China, Belgiam, the UK, and other parts of Africa and the world. UN peace-keepers are beginning to reduce, what was their largest contingent of forces, those invested in the DRC. The World Bank and IMF have revised their policies and have renewed grants and loans totalling billions of dollars. There is an alphabet soup of NGO's operating again.

Personal Postcards

Author with the village women of FungurumeThe mining towns that I visited across Katanga are receiving funds and investment to repair and upgrade existing facilities, build schools and hospitals. Environmental standards have been revised with better methods of extraction and processing in both recovery initiatives at old mines and tailings, and with new plant facility construction. Most towns have no reliable, clean running water or sewer systems. People travel on foot for miles to collect water in jerry cans from wells installed by mining companies,
Author with the village women of Fungurume
NGO agencies and charitable organizations. Cholera outbreaks are not uncommon. Immunization efforts are underway to stop the spread of treatable, communicable diseases. Malaria is a fact of life here. It has a debilitating effect on the health of the people, who suffer widely under a vicious cycle of recurring symptomatic illness leading even, to death. The patterns of incidence of HIV and AIDS follows the truck routes and is spread by infected itinerant workers brought in for mining labor from other high-incidence regions. Screening and treatment must be implemented early to stop this devastating trend.

As pertains to basic infrastructure, the roads and railways are in desperate need of work. To the viability of any commerce, particularly a country at the center of the continent, it is essential. In the rainy season roads are almost impassable. When I was there in April and May, the roads were a dry wash-board of undulating ruts and pot holes, with perhaps a strip of paved surface remaining for two wheels of the car to travel on at any one time. There was evidence of frequent wash-outs. Mining vehicles and transport trucks frequently broke-down with flat tires and broken axles leaving people stranded and at risk of bandits. The roads are lined with pedestrian commuters travelling from villages to fields and to markets with baskets and goods on their heads, and babies on their backs. Bicycles with cantilevered loads tied onto the rear fenders must careen into the tall grass when vehicles speed past oblivious. The dust kicked-up when traveling these routes is unbelievable. It chokes your breathing and the silt-like film coats everything. At one point we drove for miles unable to see five-feet in front of our vehicle, and risked head-on collisions with on-coming traffic that was impatient to drive slowly in single-file and who were passing blind.

Copper, cobalt and coltan are what drives economic development and renews hopes in the DRC. Coltan is one of the metals used in aerospace technology, digital intel chip products and the ubiquitous cellular phone. If you are against mining, think twice about everything in your life that is derived from mining and try to do without. From the prosaic - fork, knive & spoon, your watch piece, the screws in your eyeglasses to laptops and technology; pretty much all tools and manufacturing machinery, appliances; planes, trains and automobiles; and building materials across the construction industry - be it a house or a skyscraper. Copper plumbing was discovered in anthropology digs of ancient Sumeria! To hault mining, you'd have to return to something resembling the stone age, or substitute metals with a petroleum product (worse?) or another natural renewal derivative. But stop - all metals are recyclable - end of argument. The answer lies in a combination of each: recycling, new design, and the best possible environmental standards.

Katanga: Land of Copper

Mineral resources happen to be abundant in the ore bodies in Katanaga. The result of paleogeologic forces of tectonic plate shifts and compression that began 800 million years ago along the Riff Valley. This particular region has unique folded formations that make-up the Katanga Copper Belt in the Lufilian arc (which extends down through Zambia.)

Scrambling through ten-foot high elephant grass over the hills and copper clearings with senior geologist, Wolfram Schule, who contributes to the book, is a special experience. Seams of copper and cobalt "erupt" at the surfaces of these unique hills called copper clearings, whose acidic mineral content poisons the soil such that only grass and none of the typical savanah can grow there. In May the hills are carpeted with a distinctive brilliant-blue "cobalt flower" found nowhere else. An eight foot long African cobra stopped us in our tracks as it reared and hooded, and we watched it slither past on its course at a remarkable speed, adding to the excitement of the hike.

Along the roads between major mining towns are skattered villages with huts of grass roofs and red, handmade clay bricks. Soil preferred for brickmaking is frequently derived from twenty-foot high termite hills that are rich in laterite. The chickens and pigs and cattle roam freely and narrowly escape death when brazenly crossing the road. Each time we passed a village the people would wave and smile and call out "Jambo Mzungus," or "Hello white people," and run up to offer us trays of peanuts or tillapia or bananas or other food products. Professor Francois Malais from Belgium has spent a lifetime cataloguing 1,000 edible insects, plants, birds, reptiles, fish and mammals. Pullover to make a purchase of one of these, you become instantly thronged by competing vendors.

Road blocks and military-run tariff points are a frequent reality, though I am told these are abating as men and boys find other paying work. Uniformed soldiers with AK-47s, some little older than children, would demand to see our papers and question my driver. This was where the ANR guard intervened. His studied intimidation was successful with some, but one was never entirely certain that this or that stop would turn seriously troublesome. Small tariffs [read:bribes] were paid in the sum of a few Congolese francs by my ANR guard. Every time we entered a major village with the intension of stopping to photograph, interview or lodge we first had to visit the tribal leader, town mayor or ANR office to obtain permission with an endless variety of stamps on our official papers at official offices by officials who scrutinized, with painful attention, our simple requests. Thank God I had been able to meet the Director of the nationalized mining company, Gecamines, at the beginning of my trip and his offices issued us comprehensive travel paperwork. We would never have gained entry to the numbers of locations listed on my sheet. Even so, we ended-up taking a Cessna-206 to capture distant waterfalls, dams and hydroelectric installations over vast expanses of flood plain reaching into the Kundelungu table mountains. It was spectacular. [Sadly, just two weeks after my return from this trip I received news that this very plane had crashed and all occupants died. It was a reminder of the risks we'd taken, given the aviation regulatory standards.]

Many of our motor-stops included social exchanges between people whose livelihood depend on subsistence farming, fishing or artesanal mining for malachite and cobalt. Nuggets are sold legally or illegally to local middlemen and in-turn to foreign buyers. This semi-formal industry exists with substandard worker safety, no health or disability benefits and frequently, use of illegal child labor practices. The mining code guidelines and responsible mining industry companies are acting to rectify this. New schools will have students, but where there are no schools, there will be child labor.

Opportunity for a New Future

In the final analysis the evolution of the DRC economy will progress similar to any emerging country: primary resource industries will give rise to secondary industries and economies, and the standard of living will improve across sectors of the population. Infrastructure will be rebuilt, investment will continue and expat nationals and the diaspora of Congolese peoples will return to their homeland, bringing with them a new generation of opportunity.

I am hopeful for the people of Katanga and the DRC. If you are interested in seeing their faces, their land, drop us an email at to request a copy of our book, Katanga: Land of Copper. with "Katanga Book Request" in the subject line. A portion of sales go to charity in Africa.

An Important Donation

The mining conglomerate of Lundin Companies, who was the commissioner of our book, has just donated $100 million in matching funds to the Clinton-Giustra Fund, which will be administered via their Lundin for Africa charitable agency, which currently operates in five African countries. It is an exciting time.

To view more photos from the book click here. --photocredits: Paula Shackleton, Roger Moore

Paula Shackleton is available to give presentation lectures to groups on these topics.
+1 310 383-5523 or +1 604 907-2804



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