What's the Big Idea?
After the United States dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945, a new arms race was joined with the Soviet Union. This arms race led to the proliferation of nuclear weapons. It also led to the development of the first lightweight automatic rifle, the AK-47. This breakthrough weapon, Автомат Калашникова (Automatic Kalashnikov), named after its inventor, Mikhail T. Kalashnikov, gave the Soviets and their allies the upper hand in many battle situations throughout the Cold War. For instance, while this is still a hotly debated subject, many argue the US-issued M-16 proved frustratingly unreliable in Vietnam, in comparison to the Kalashnikov.
The AK-47, a.k.a, "Everyman's Gun"
In his book The Gun (recently released in paperback), Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist C.J. Chivers examines in fascinating detail the mass production, distribution, and global spread of the AK-47. Chivers recounts how this killing machine became the favored weapon of totalitarian regimes from the Middle East to Africa. At the time of the Iraq War, Chivers writes:
After almost six decades, the long travels of the Kalashnikov assault rifle had achieved the inevitable state: full saturation. Decades earlier the first AK-47s had left Soviet hands, and in the years since they had become the hand weapon of choice for strongmen, criminals, terrorists, and messianic guerrilla leaders...What does saturation mean? It would be naive to think that war would stop without these weapons. It wouldn't. It would be just as naive to think that many of the consequences of war as it has been waged in recent decades might not be lessened if these rifles were in fewer hands, and not so available for future conflicts. For how long will battlefields be so? The answer is straightforward -- as long as the rifles exist in the outsized numbers the Cold War left behind.
Enter Peter Thum. In a previous post, Big Think documented this social entrepreneur's launch of Ethos Water, a bottled water company that he used as a "funding and communications platform" that addressed the world water crisis. Thum's latest venture, Fonderie 47, launches today. Fonderie 47 acquires and destroys AK-47s in Africa, then brings some of the metal back home where it is transformed into rare jewelry, watches and accessories. The sale of each piece of their jewelry funds the destruction of more weapons. As Thum says, his company is out to fund "the rapid destruction of these weapons."
Watch the video here:
What's the Significance?
According to Thum, he and Fonderie 47 co-founder John Zapolski traveled extensively in Africa, and both witnessed firsthand the far-reaching effects of assault rifle saturation. Not only were these weapons a tool for rape and murder, in a much broader sense they stood in the way of progress for an entire continent.
In partnership with NGOs working in Africa, Fonderie 47 already has destroyed more than 6,000 assault rifles. "Does a charity or do charitable efforts exist to exist or do they exist to achieve something specific?" Thum said to Big Think. It's a particularly valid question to ask. After all, his immediate efforts will not eradicate all of the AK47s in Africa. As C.J. Chivers pointed out, it would be naive to think such an act would put an end to war, but it would also be naive to think that fewer rifles in fewer hands wouldn't lesson many of the consequences of war.
Fonderie 47: Transforming killing machines into jewelry
"I think demonstrating for people that something is possible is the first step" says Thum. "I think people generally, if they were to look at the problem would consider the issue of arms in Africa as sort of an impossible issue."
Where does Thum think this effort will eventually lead? He tells Big Think:
I think if we can start to draw down some of the numbers and demonstrate that it’s possible and show people that what kind of difference it makes in someone’s life that weapons are being removed, then we can start to attract interest from other funders, from other NGO’s, from international organizations and ultimately from governments who will see this as a way of facilitating stability and ultimately higher economic activity.
Learn more at www.fonderie47.com
Follow Daniel Honan on Twitter @DanielHonan