Jeff Bezos, Bill Gates, and other masters of the universe are betting big on Greenland as mining in the Congo gets too dirty for even Elon Musk.
As the bankers from J.P. Morgan’s London offices stepped off the two-hour private flight from Johannesburg onto the hot runway, soldiers sporting sunglasses and semiautomatics watched them closely. The Democratic Republic of the Congo’s brutal civil war had ended several years earlier, but peace remained tenuous, and the Lubumbashi airstrip was still heavily militarized.
It was the summer of 2006, the height of a period that became known as the commodities “Super Cycle,” in which a hardy vanguard of investors sought to sate industrializing China’s seemingly endless appetite for raw materials, particularly metals. Relying on low-cost financing, dealmakers at Credit Suisse, First Boston, HSBC, Goldman Sachs, and Morgan Stanley scoured the world for once state-owned mining assets in need of fresh funds or those primed for privatization.
But the capital markets group at J.P. Morgan had proved more adept than its peers at this international treasure hunt, earning tens of millions in fees thanks to a series of mining-company flotations that grew ever more exotic, remote, and risky. And the sortie into the DRC—one of the world’s wealthiest nations in terms of natural resources but among the poorest by gross domestic product—sat at the riskiest end of that spectrum.
Once their customs paperwork was handled, the bankers reboarded the Challenger for a 45-minute flight northwest, to a dust-choked mining settlement called Kolwezi. Before they landed, the pilot circled the prize: Kamoto Oliveira Virgule, known simply by its initials KOV, a rain-flooded mining pit named for its biggest three ore bodies, as geologists call deposits, each one the size of an underground Manhattan skyscraper.