Michelle Williams
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on : Thursday, 22 Nov, 2012
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A Race against Time

When ancient sites like Mes Aynak stand in the way of progress

All over Afghanistan, ancient sites sit above the surface of some of the world’s largest reserves of untapped natural resources. Will this newly-discovered mineral wealth spell the end of the region's rich cultural heritage?

One of the Buddhist statues found at the site of Mes Aynak (credit: Brent Huffman)


It sounds like the plot of an Indiana Jones film: a team of archaeologists battling against time and terrorist attacks to save an ancient site from imminent destruction. Yet unfortunately for the many risking their lives to salvage the treasures of Mes Aynak, time is running out. In a matter of weeks, archaeologists may be forced to abandon the site, and all of what lies beneath it could be destroyed so that an estimated $100 billion worth of copper—the world’s second-largest known deposit—can be extracted.

Mes Aynak is in the mountainous Logar Province, a notoriously dangerous Taliban stronghold and the site of aquifers that provide the water supply to Kabul, a mere 25 miles away. The site is incredibly diverse; scattered with gold-plated Buddha statues and over a dozen stupas and frescoes that together represent over 2,600 years of Buddhist history. Archaeologists have also uncovered coins dating from the time of Alexander the Great, and believe that the site may well be the missing link that shows that Afghanistan was on the Silk Route.

In 2007, amidst widespread allegations of ministerial corruption, the Chinese state-owned China Metallurgical Group Corporation (MCC), was awarded a US$3 billion, 30-year contract, making the company the largest foreign investor in Afghanistan. Despite international calls for greater transparency, the contract and its terms remain largely unknown.

In 2009, MCC came under intense scrutiny after the Afghan government made the corporation aware that potentially significant Buddhist statues had been found at the site. Though initially reluctant to delay work on the site, Chinese officials gave in to international pressure, allowing the French-led Délégation Archéologique Française en Afghanistan (DAFA) temporary access to the site to document and salvage the archaeological remains.

One Afghan worker on the site lost his eyes after a land mine exploded (credit: Brent Huffman)

Of the many who have been drawn to the imperilled site, documentary filmmaker Brent Huffman has been one of Mes Aynak’s most vocal supporters. In 2011, he began recording the process of rescue archaeology for his film, The Buddhas of Aynak, and now he hopes he can use the film to raise awareness and hopefully save Mes Aynak.

Huffman believes that local opposition, fomented by disillusionment over the lack of progress, has been one of the biggest threats to both the site and the safety of the archaeologists. Former villagers whose homes have been destroyed by work on the mine “have begun working with the Taliban to place land mines on the road at night, and to shoot rockets at the mining site and at the archaeology dig site.” Attacks by the Taliban have already taken a heavy toll; one Afghan worker on the site lost his eyes after a land mine exploded, and another lost his legs. These violent attacks have hampered efforts to recover precious artefacts from the site and caused the Afghan Ministry of Mines to drastically tighten security.

Huffman spoke of a rare interview he was granted with MCC officials, in which they described the archaeological site as “the problem” and conveyed their willingness to begin full-scale preparations on the mining site.

The mining of Afghanistan’s mineral reserves is a hugely contentious issue and is set to become potentially more complicated after US withdrawal from the region in 2014. Some fear that this will create a power vacuum and allow countries like China, with a history of poor environmental management of mining sites, to further exploit the lack of infrastructure and transparency.

The mining of Afghanistan’s mineral reserves is a hugely contentious issue and is set to become potentially more complicated after US withdrawal from the region in 2014.

As it stands, the Chinese and Afghan governments seem locked in a mutually destructive stalemate, with both exploiting the lack of transparency for their own gain. In a diplomatic cable from 2010 released by Wikileaks, an Afghan commercial attaché described the Chinese as a “cow to milk” for bribes and the Chinese, in turn, described the “mafia” of corrupt Afghan officials.

The Chinese consortiums have been accused of using bribes as a way to circumvent financial and environmental regulations and loosen the terms of the contracts. The most-cited example of this from Mes Aynak is a so-called “non-negotiable” clause, mentioned in leaked diplomatic cables, which was said to guarantee the delivery of crucial infrastructure such as railroads in exchange for the MCC’s mining contract. The Afghan ministry now deny that this clause ever existed, and that the construction of a railroad—along with other rumoured infrastructure projects, including schools—would be at the MCC’s discretion.

Much has been said by both Afghans themselves and by international experts about the importance of developing Afghanistan’s vast mineral resources and freeing the country from its reliance on international aid. Privately, Afghan officials acknowledge that endemic corruption has the potential to jeopardise lucrative mining contracts, and they are increasingly worried about delays at the sites. Some believe that the US has a vested interest in prolonging instability as a way to delay revenue and allow US consortiums to bid for any contracts that collapse from delays.

A tourist takes a photo at the site of Mes Aynak (credit: Brent Huffman)

As well as this, some officials also believe that the Chinese and Indian governments are intentionally delaying their projects, as this allows them to lobby the Afghan government for fewer regulations and conditions that are more beneficial to the mining companies.

In a country desperately in need of revenue, there is much more to fear from the mismanagement of heritage sites and mining resources than delays and corruption. Perhaps more disturbing than the wholesale destruction of Afghanistan’s rich cultural heritage is the potential for catastrophic and permanent environmental damage at these sites. China has a notoriously poor record of environmental management and engagement with local populations, as evidenced by the on-going conflict at Chinese-operated mines like Marcona in Peru.

In his documentary Colony, Huffman captured the destructive consequences of Chinese-owned companies operating in the resource-rich frontier markets of West Africa. He is fearful that the same process could be repeated in Mes Aynak and that “Afghanistan will see absolutely no benefit from this copper mine.” He cautions that the promise of infrastructure and jobs for the people of Logar province may never materialise, and that the more like scenario is that “the Chinese will bring in their own managers so the only thing that local people can hope to get are these low-pay, low-level jobs.”
Archaeological and mining specialists from the Alliance for the Restoration of Culture History (ARCH) have described the situation as a “zero-sum game.”
While mining specialists from the World Bank have praised the commitment to protecting cultural treasures at Mes Aynak and spoken of the positive example it can set, many remain unconvinced. Other vocal opponents of the site’s management are the archaeological and mining specialists from the Alliance for the Restoration of Culture History (ARCH), who have described the situation as a “zero-sum game.” In a report published in June 2012, the ARCH panel argued that the lack of transparency, coupled with an almost complete lack of environmental regulation, was leaving sites vulnerable to permanent damage and local populations vulnerable to exploitation.

Most people can agree on the importance of Mes Aynak in terms of setting a benchmark for heritage protection and the putting pressure on mining companies to establish environmentally sustainable and locally inclusive sites all over Afghanistan. None of this is possible without increased cooperation and transparency between the government of Afghanistan the mining consortiums.

Despite the looming December 2012 deadline, the archaeologists working at Mes Aynak remain cautiously optimistic that they can lobby for more time. Huffman, who will soon return to the site, echoes this sentiment: “Perhaps I will bear witness to the end of Mes Aynak, but I truly hope that is not the case.”

Michelle Williams

Michelle Williams

Michelle Williams is an Australian–English writer who completed a dual bachelor's degree in Journalism and Archaeology from the University of Queensland before working on archaeological sites in Turkey. She now works at Asharq Al-Awsat in London.

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One Comment

  1. M . KHoram says:

    Let me explain , as then Chines described the elements in Afghan Government connected to
    Mafia , they have no sense of patriotism or regard
    For heritage or culture , they are interested how to fill their packet and betray the Mother land ?
    Did you forget that minister of mining was accused taken $30 million bribe from china , I believe there will be lost of Afghans heritage as well as environmental damaged ! If people like you /not disclosing the under table finding . I admire you For interesting the mess Aynac , I am always follow the Mess Aynac as afghan will do whatever
    Is necessary for my birth country ( I born in wardak close to Loger I hope you keep me inform
    I will be ready for any kind of assignment if I assigned Best regard
    Khoram

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