My following investigation is published by the Guardian:
Afghanistan faces an existential crisis over its untapped natural resources. After decades of war and insecurity, the Afghan government and foreign investors are pushing to exploit minerals under the ground but real dangers exist with little enforced regulation. Like Papua New Guinea and Haiti, two other nations with natural wealth that are blighted by the “resource curse”, Afghanistan could be seriously considering leaving resources untouched to ensure peace, stability and a clean environment but the economic imperative is too strong.
Taliban territory is less than one hour from Afghanistan’s capital, Kabul. Logar Province has traditionally been an insurgent stronghold and regularly sees violent clashes between Afghan security forces and militants. I went there recently to visit the Chinese-owned Aynak mine, one of the largest copper deposits in the world and set to commence operations in the coming years (though an exact date hasn’t been specified).
Its site is an archaeological treasure trove for Buddhist artefacts, but Afghan president Ashraf Ghani announced this year after a visit to Beijing that his government wanted to move ahead with the mine to earn much-needed revenue for his aid-dependent state. The Buddhist treasures are nearly 2,000 years old and reveal an ancient civilisation that stretched across China, India and Japan. Archaeologists have discovered gold jewellery, silver platters and a human skeleton amidst the ancient town.
A secret contract was signed between Kabul and Beijing in 2007 and only this year the Afghan government finally agreed to release its contents. But insecurity, falling global copper prices and a lack of transport for the minerals has stalled the enterprise. It still remains Afghanistan’s largest project in a nation with trillions of dollars worth of resources under the ground.
Locals in Logar’s Davo village told me that their lives had become hellish since the mine’s arrival including being kicked off their lands, pressured by insurgents and the government to leave the area entirely and little economic development. On a bright, sunny day with Afghan and American helicopters roaring overhead, I sat in a compound with 10 men to hear about the impact of the mine. Nazir Khan, a young man who lives in the house in which the meeting took place, escorted me into the area because it was too unsafe in the afternoon with Taliban and Isis-affiliated groups for outsiders to travel alone.
Chief elder Malik Mullah Mirjan explained that his community was promised many benefits after the establishment of Aynak. “The Chinese company confiscated our property and we have never been compensated or paid by anybody,” he said. “We felt like they invaded and stole our land.”
Mirjan said that there was no “consultation” about the process and very few employment opportunities despite assurances of jobs for the community. He said he would still back the mine but nobody from the government had ever come and explained how they would benefit. Consultation is undeniably difficult in a war zone but all 10 men were offended that it had been assumed by Kabul authorities that they were expendable to the project and could be pushed aside. Environmental destruction was rife, he continued, from the building of dirty roads and polluting of waterways by early mining excavations.
“There’s no good intention on the part of the Chinese or Afghan government. The army protects the mining project and not us,” he said. The police regularly beat and insulted his family and friends for raising questions about the mine; they were told to shut up. Insurgents threatened violence. Some Taliban wanted no mining at all and opposed anybody who tried to secure a deal with the government to benefit from it. Other Taliban were more pragmatic and insisted on a financial cut when the mine commenced operations.
Aynak is symbolic of Afghanistan’s declining fortunes since the 2001 fall of the Taliban and the American-led war. The state was shocked with weapons, money, foreign troops and aid but with little oversight or accountability the results from a long occupation and massive amounts of foreign aid have been desultory. Attacks against foreigners and Afghan civilians are soaring.
With western aid drying up and few foreign troops remaining in the country, the Afghan government is desperately looking for ways to sustain itself. Mining is offered as a compelling answer. Australia funds initiatives to assist Afghan mining but I was told in Kabul that this was little more than helping Australian businesses benefit from the potential gold rush.
In May this year, the Western Australian government supported a summit of the Australian Afghanistan Business Council to discuss development of the Afghan mining sector. West Australian mines and petroleum minister Bill Marmion said at the meeting: “Western Australia is our nation’s resources powerhouse, and I am confident our regulatory and industry experience will help guide positive mining development in Afghanistan.” Afghanistan and Western Australia signed a deal in 2012 to back Kabul’s “sustainable” mining industry.
Canberra assists many resource-rich states, including Papua New Guinea, but the results of this support have been poor for the people themselves. In theory, mining has the possibility of making a country rich but all too often mineral exploitation guarantees poor governance. Rampant corruption, illegal smuggling, warlordism and a lack of regulation are key factors against a sustainable mining sector in Afghanistan.
In Hairatan, a town in northern Afghanistan on the border with Uzbekistan, a railway runs to the nearest major town, Mazar-i-Sharif, to transport oil and gas. The government in Kabul says this relatively safe area of the country is a strong example of resources being managed responsibly to benefit the nation. But local oil traders I met in the area told the opposite story: how they’re forced to pay exorbitant taxes for little return while the insurgency grows around them.
Masoom Qasemyar, a former interpreter for Swedish forces, told me outside the Hairatan oil and gas trading office that earning revenues from indigenous resources was the only way for the state to grow. That said, he had no faith that the authorities would manage them intelligently.
A report in April found that the nearly US$500m granted by the US government to back the Afghan mining industry had failed because both the Afghan ministry of mines was incapable of managing new contracts, while US evaluation of any progress was close to non-existent.
I asked many Afghans about the prospect of leaving resources in the ground to avoid worsening corruption and environmental destruction, and whether alternative ways to raise money could be found. Javeed Noorani is an independent researcher on mining and co-founder of the Natural Resources Monitoring Network, a gathering of communities from across the country to bring national attention to mining issues. He said leaving resources in the ground was the ideal situation if Afghanistan couldn’t provide social and environmental safeguards.
“Communities are so poor living around mines and when powerful people come to extract they’re exposed to violence,” he said. “If the government doesn’t intervene when minerals are being exploited, and they already are across the state, we transition from one conflict to another.”