Searching for King Leopold’s treasure

Searching for King Leopold’s treasure

Today’s Tuesday Map comes via a fascinating story by John W. Miller in yesterday’s Wall Street Journal. It’s subscriber-only, so I’ll have to summarize.

Suddenly, the musty Royal Museum for Central Africa has become a hot locale for international mining corporations eager to cash in on the global commodity boom. Why? Because in its collections, virtually ignored for decades, are dozens of hand-drawn maps from the heyday of the Belgian Congo. Here’s an example:

It’s too dangerous to do much on-the-ground surveying in the highly volatile Democratic Republic of the Congo, so would-be prospectors hope the old maps can provide clues to the whereabouts of the country’s legendary reserves of copper, cobalt, gold, and tin. And at $332 a day, access to the museum is relatively cheap.

DRC officials, who didn’t manage to safeguard their own copies of the map archives, are peeved at being cut out of this bonanza. The country needs vast quantities of aid in order to recover from its devastating 1998-2003 civil war. So I have a wacky utopian scheme: Rather than squabbling (or worse, killing) over the Congo’s mineral wealth, why not share it?

Belgium has a historical debt to pay the Congo. But if the museum turns over the maps to the DRC, they may get lost, destroyed, or misused for personal gain by corrupt officials. So why not do as Canada’s GoldCorp famously did, and put all of its data up on the Internet for experts and enthusiastic amateurs to pore over?

Today Goldcorp is reaping the fruits of its open source approach to exploration. Not only did the contest yield copious quantities of gold, it catapulted [CEO Rob McEwen’s] under-performing $ 100 million company into a $9 billion juggernaut while transforming a backward mining site in Northern Ontario into one of the most innovative and profitable properties in the industry.

I’d do the same for the DRC. Let the “wisdom of crowds” do the work, and then, under U.N. stewardship of some kind, allow companies to bid for mining rights. In exchange for easy money, they’d agree to share the proceeds equally and transparently with everyone in the DRC, via the United Nations. It’s so crazy, it just might work.