Africa: Mining Vs. Geekdom

Sunday morning.   I am in the living room, with my wife and kids.  We have a large screen LCD hooked up to the laptop, where we were surfing "google earth" for places we've all lived... my wife's apartment in Rosny-sous-Bois, my old home on Frances Drive in Columbia, Missouri.  The home in Milton MA, where the twins lived when they were born.  High School in Arkansas.  Junior High, Fresno.

In cruising over to Ngaoundal, Cameroon, where I was professeur d'anglais, the satellite imagery is pretty fuzzy.  But it looks like they have been digging more at the Mount Ngaoundal site, where everyone spoke about finding "bauxite" in the 1980s.  I remember my hikes up the mountain were "controversial", as some at the military camp were afraid I'd be "stealing the bauxite".  Bauxite of coarse is the heavy rock which needs extremely high levels of electricity to polarize the aluminum to make it extractable.  A single scrap aluminum can is worth 50 times its weight in bauxite rock.

Today, the Cameroonian dictator is promoting mining as the solution to Cameroonian development.

Back in the 1980s, my mind was already fixed on a life purpose... to reduce mining, promote recycling, conservation and reuse, and to figure out a way to do it with sustainable world development.   The poverty in Africa represented both a vulnerability and an opportunity.  Mining is the most toxic activity on the planet, and it was headed for the poorest in the forest.  Fortunately, recycling is the economy of the poor.

Dictators may decry reuse and repair by their homegrown geeks, nerds, techies, and refurbishers.  They may pretend to be anxious about "e-waste" pollution.  But they are more anxious because the internet provides instant access to truth, instant navigation around their 50 year old state-controlled radio and newspapers.

Environmentalists should be 50 times as concerned about the mining of copper anodes, aluminum bauxite, and iron than they should be about "e-waste" dumping.  They should be 900 times as concerned about silver, tin, and alleuvial gold mining.   Instead, righteous ecological concerns have been hijacked by anti-gray-market corporations (who want poor people to cease and desist copying Windows XP, or refilling ink cartridges), by dictators concerned about internet cafes, and by legitimate concerns of corruption, bribery, smuggling, and criminal enterprise.   Interpol is correct that all of those criminal activities are found in the "ewaste" trade.  But we create those problems when we make legitimate supply and demand expensive or illegal... that is the opportunity for corruption.  

Hand-disassembly is simple and can be environmentally sustainable, and clean as a job.   "Fair trade recycling" can build small business partnerships, entrepreneurial economies, digital access to internet, and sustainable carbon-neutral sources for raw materials. 

In ten years, I wonder what it will be like to wake up and to realize your goodwill was hijacked, that the people you had arrested were the good guys.  I look back on my time 25 years ago, and it's amazing how well environmentalism and trade can fit together.   The best job I could have wished for, I thank God for the direction.  Let's take our friends hands as they raise their hopes and aspirations, let's go to work making fair trade recycling a way to exchange knowledge, world peace, best practices, and partnership.

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