If you glance at the earnings results of Rio de Janeiro-based Companhia Vale do Rio Doce (NYSE: RIO), better known as Vale, you might come to an unreasonable conclusion. So I'm going to render my opinion up front on the company: Despite an earnings dip, Vale is an excellent way to play the world's progressively more voracious appetite for raw materials.

Vale, which leads the world in iron ore production, earned $2.02 billion, or $0.41 a share -- down 9% on the net income line from the $2.22 billion in the first quarter of 2007. Those are the perhaps not-so-good numbers. But it makes almost as much sense to focus on Vale's gross revenue growth of 4.8% and its hike in adjusted EBITDA, which was up 17.1% in the quarter.

The culprit in the company's lower earnings was a combination of reduced nickel prices and trading losses in some commodities. For the current quarter, however, I'm betting that an increase in iron ore prices will improve both revenues and earnings.

The key to Vale is that it's a significant player in the progressively more action-packed world of metals mining. It ranks behind only Melbourne-based BHP Billiton (NYSE: BHP) in the group, and immediately precedes Rio Tinto (NYSE: RTP). It has a worldwide employment roster of nearly 125,000 and has increased its revenue tenfold during this decade.

Two years ago, the company spent nearly $19 billion to buy Canada's big nickel producer, Inco -- a move that clearly hurt it in the most recent quarter. Nickel prices were down almost 50% from their recent highs.

Going forward, however, I see Vale as increasingly important in its sector's efforts to meet the global demand for metals. Beyond that, it doesn't strike me as absurd to envision an ultimate combination of Vale and Phoenix-based copper, molybdenum, and gold producer Freeport-McMoRan (NYSE: FCX).

In the meantime, it seems that Fools would be well advised to pay close attention to the mining sector, certainly including the ascendant Vale.

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Fool contributor David Lee Smith doesn't own shares in any companies mentioned above. He does, however, welcome your comments. The Motley Fool has a well-mined disclosure policy.