“A voice of one crying out in the desert…” (Luke 3:4)

“Hands off the Democratic Republic of the Congo! Hands off Africa! Stop choking Africa. It is not a mine to be stripped or a terrain to be plundered. May Africa be the protagonist of its own destiny.” 

Almost as soon as Pope Francis arrived in Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) earlier this month, he spoke these startling Jeremiah-like words. They were aimed at the two overriding forces which consistently maintain structures of poverty and exploitation throughout what is called the Global South: international economic power intertwined with corrupt national leadership. The DRC is a classic example of both.

For years, demand has grown for ever more sophisticated computers and smartphones, and now electric automobiles as well. Cobalt is an essential element in producing these ultra-modern gadgets, and the DRC has incredible deposits of this metal – in fact, the DRC has more cobalt than all other countries of the world combined.

In 2009, before other countries seemed to have noticed this rising demand, China – promising huge economic assistance – arranged deals with the Congolese government and gained control of the cobalt mines there and consequently the market for our electronics. Chinese companies took ownership of 15 of the 19 primary industrial cobalt mining concessions in the DRC and now hold 70-80 percent of the refined cobalt market and fully 50 percent of the battery market. (It is reported that the development assistance promised has lagged considerably.)*

This example of widespread international imperialism is exactly what Pope Francis cried out against when he said: “Africa is not a mine to be stripped or a terrain to be plundered.”

These arrangements (organized not only by China) do immense damage on a macro level to every country that gives away huge chunks of its precious resources. The pope might also have pointed out that the horrific fallout from these arrangements inevitably reaches to the most vulnerable people. In the DR Congo, tens of thousands of women, men and, yes, children (many of them trafficked from other parts of the country to toil in the mines) work for ridiculously low wages. They are the poorest of the poor who will work for a dollar a day and the huge mining companies are only too happy to take advantage of their situation.

In addition, the mining industry has ravaged the landscape of the DRC. Literally millions of trees have been cut down, and the air around these enormous mines is hazy with dust and grit of poisonous “cobalt air.” The miners and people living near the mines are breathing and touching it on a daily basis.

“A cry in the wilderness.” Surely Pope Francis knows better than anyone that his denunciations of this monstrous culture of international plunder fall on the deaf ears of their perpetrators who take away incalculable economic gains from them. He has been down this road continually during his decade as the Holy Father – and before – citing situation after situation of enormous global injustices. We have only to remember the Synod of “Beloved Amazonia,” his preference to visit poorer rather than affluent nations, his continual call for humanity to “move to the peripheries” of the world, and his severe criticism of capitalism as it functions in our time.

Still, he continues to sound his prophetic voice to the whole world, demands which neither he nor anyone alive today will ever see fulfilled. We of Pax Christi know this and still, like Francis, we will continue to “speak truth to power” in our own areas of activity, our circles of encounters. As Saint Oscar Romero famously said: “We are prophets of a future that is not our own.”

This faithfulness is an expression of the vital gift of hope.

Watch this 30-minute documentary recently released by Pax Christi International about its ongoing work to promote active nonviolence in the Great Lakes region of Africa. In French with English subtitles.

*Data taken principally from Cobalt Red: How the Blood of the Congo Powers Our Lives by Siddharth Kara.

Photo of Congolese miners: Julien Harneis, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Joe Nangle OFM is a Pax Christi USA Ambassador of Peace. As a member of the Assisi Community in Washington, D.C., he is dedicated to simple living and social change. Joe also serves as the Pastoral Associate for the Latino community at Our Lady Queen of Peace, Arlington, Virginia.

4 thoughts on “Pope Francis denounces culture of international plunder

  1. Thank you for leading on this issue. We are grateful that Pope Francis shines a beacon on the practices that have ravaged our brothers and sisters in the Congo (DRC) for half a century. Our obsession with devices powered by lithium batteries and the extraction of rare-earth minerals results in environmental devastation, child slavery, diminished health and nutritional status in the DRC and elsewhere. Even when promised, environmental remediation and community healthcare seldom happen. Beyond our carbon footprint we need to be aware of the long carbon shadow our consumption casts and include that in our consumer calculus. Climate change is a threat multiplier, but environmental desecration is disobedience to God.

  2. Thank you, Fr. Nangle, for this posting. In our rush to electrify, just maybe we haven’t thought through the consequences as regards the basic cobalt and other rare-earth metals that we will need for our batteries. Of course, we as a world community could insist on safe working conditions and just pay for the African miners or, understanding that this would make batteries very expensive, we just might conduct business as usual, i.e., exploitation of the worker. That remains to be seen.
    David-Ross Gerling, PhD.

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