Have we been asleep at the TV, or what. Back in the month of December when Jersey Shore and the continuing saga of the Kardashian sisters dominated the American media psyche, Afghanistan advertised that bidding would open on billions of dollars worth of copper and gold deposits in four areas of the country that together amount to roughly half the size of the Grand Canyon.
Just so you know, the U.S. Defense Department values Afghanistan’s untapped mineral deposits at a tidy $1,000,000,000,000. That’s one trillion U.S. dollars, suggesting a vast wealth of mineral riches lays dormant in the marbled underbelly of the Sistan Basin. Iron, copper, cobalt, goal and assorted rare earth materials used in everything from cell phones to hybrid car batteries are buried throughout the country – but especially in Badakhshan, Ghazni and (you guessed it) Herat provinces. According to the Afghan Minister of Mines, Wahidullah Shahrani, who estimates the value at an even loftier $3 trillion, Afghanistan plans to sell the rights for up to five mines a year until 2014. That should get the geological money pump lubricated.
But who are the proper arbiters of this newly discovered treasure trove of mineral fortune? A clutch of business-cozy Afghan government ministers? The multinational mining corporations who are assuming the risk?
To be fair, Afghanistan has little if no modern capabilities to plumb this potentially obscene amount of earthly wealth on its own, let alone conduct the appropriate geological surveys that can a) isolate the quantity and grade of each precious metal sought, or b) avoid environmental disaster in the international “gold rush” to capitalize on the country’s stunningly large reserves. Still, do conveniently written mining treaties crafted by a notoriously corrupt government to the benefit of foreign mining firms seem like the Afghan people will be reaping an equitable share of the lode?
Slow down, you say. Afghanistan has high hopes that its budding mining industry will generate billions in revenue to help rebuild the nation after 30 years of war. Isn’t this a good thing? Sure, if it was actually based on locally developed infrastructure, clearly defined socio-economic revenue streams attached directly to nation building and the Afghan people themselves managing the entire supply chain, from extraction to project management and financial administration.
Instead, the whole thing whiffs of mortgaging Afghanistan’s future to outside influences all over again, continuing an age-old tradition of occupation begun by Alexander the Great and his Macedonian army or (choose one) the Achaemenid Empire, Indian Maurya Empire, Islamic Empire and Sassanid Empire. Which says nothing of those past 30 years.
Drill, Baby, Drill
To me, government-sponsored corporations marching in under the banner of resource development in order to liberate the Afghan people of their poverty is no less of a foreign invasion and material conquest. Let’s review some of the early agreements, interesting for their absence of explicit U.S.-sponsored involvement.
In late 2007, a $3 billion contract was awarded to China Metallurgical Group Corp. to mine copper at Aynak in Logar province, 21 miles southeast of Kabul. The mine is thought to hold one of the world’s largest untapped copper reserves.
In December 2010, Afghan officials approved a multimillion-dollar contract to mine gold in Dushi district of Baghlan province. It was the first mining project in Afghanistan backed by private investors from the West, who pledged $50 million for the project.
In November 2011, the Afghan government gave investors from India and Canada permission to mine an estimated 1.8 billion tons of iron ore in Bamiyan province.
Call me Chicken Little, but in the history of mankind it has always been dig first, deal with the consequences of human greed (labor rights abuses and ecological crises) later. I’m not saying the projected 4,000 to 5,000 Afghan jobs that mining copper could create in the next five years is a bad thing, nor are the hundreds of millions of dollars Afghanistan’s treasury department stands to gain from this effort. It’s where the fruits of this harvest are falling.
Specifically, the national interests need to be even more largely served (employment numbers and sectors represented) and genuinely felt by the people themselves (revenues legally bound to hard-core issues of provincial or national need, such as rural education and quality healthcare). And that this is achieved only through a transparent democratic process in which the entire voting public plays a role, not something determined by a dubiously elected government agreeing to terms dictated to by multinationals driven entirely by self interest.
Afghans need a chunk of the benefit that mining could bring, not a chip off the ol’ rock. Stay “tuned” to this one.