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Treasure's Curse
"General David Petraeus has said that finding minerals in Afghanistan creates 'stunning potential.' Perhaps. But for who?" David Petraeus
by Kara Miller, 89.7 WGBH
Monday, June 26, 2010
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[2 min 11 sec]
Discovering great, untapped wealth can have a dark underside.

Which is why I winced at the Pentagon’s recent report that Afghanistan likely houses a treasure trove of minerals.Throughout history, treasures have frequently proven to be a curse.

Just ask Sitting Bull, who watched settlers rush into South Dakota’s Black Hills in the 1870s, after gold was discovered in Lakota Sioux territory. By 1876, General Custer had moved in, determined to wrest the Black Hills – and their riches – from the Sioux.

Around the same time, more than 7,000 miles away, the Belgians starting closing in on the tremendous natural resources of the Congo. Belgium’s King Leopold became the Congo’s official head, and soon he was being enriched by huge hauls of ivory and rubber.

And what happened to the Congolese, who lived on the rich land? Mostly, they suffered through a reign of terror, beaten into submission by weapons they didn’t have and, sometimes, sold into slavery by colonists who viewed them as little more than obstacles.

Of course, not all exploitations are so brutal and overt. Britain quietly sought to build its rights to Iraqi oil before WWI, using the Anglo-Persian Oil Company – which would eventually morph into BP – as a maneuvering tool.

Today, oil-rich countries frequently boast strikingly-rich upper classes and underemployed, disenfranchised majorities. Visit Geneva during the summer, as I have, and you’ll see Saudi Arabia’s wealthiest pitching camp in posh hotels and snapping up jeweled-encrusted watches. For most Saudis, though, incomes are low, and unemployment is high.

General David Petraeus has said that finding minerals in Afghanistan creates, “stunning potential.” Perhaps. But for who? For the Taliban, which will undoubtedly want a piece of these riches? (They certainly wouldn't want them falling into American hands.) For the government of Hamid Karzai, whose propriety has already been questioned? Or for America, which has spent billions in Afghanistan and would undoubtedly like to recoup some of that cost?

The value of natural resources tends to blind us to abuse – environmental, economic, and cultural. If we think we’ve got a tough fight in Afghanistan now, just wait until we throw some lithium, gold, copper, and iron into the mix.