Chinese Mine Threatens Afghan Buddhist Site

In Afghanistan, a planned Chinese mine at the site of the world’s second largest deposit of copper is threatening an ancient Buddhist settlement including the remains of a 100-acre monastery. Archeologists are currently excavating the site in an effort to save as many historical treasures as possible, but according to some reports they only have until June to complete the process, which experts say would take decades if done thoroughly. In the New York Times last month, documentarian Brent Huffman wrote about the situation:

In 2007, the Chinese state-owned China Metallurgical Group Corporation (M.C.C.) won the rights to mine copper at a site called Mes Aynak. Situated in volatile Logar Province, Mes Aynak is home to one of the world’s largest untapped copper deposits — worth more than $100 billion. Yet, as this Op-Doc video shows, the site also houses the astonishing remains of an ancient Buddhist city, which archaeologists are now racing to save. An international team has only until June to finish the excavations, which began in 2009. So far they have uncovered golden Buddhist statues, dozens of buildings and fragile Buddhist manuscripts buried within temples. Yet perhaps 90 percent of the site remains underground and unseen. To finish the job could take decades. In all likelihood, the destruction of the Buddhist sites will begin later this year. The Afghan government is letting this happen — it’s a tragedy that echoes the notorious destruction of the Buddhas at Bamiyan in 2001. [Source]

See Huffman’s Op-Doc here:

The Independent reports on the cultural and historical significance of the site, and the political forces that are allowing the deal to move forward:

Mes Aynak also satisfies the criteria for becoming a Unesco World Heritage Site. Yet, unlike at Bamiyan, the process has never been initiated. Campaigners insist it is not too late. However, a valid proposal can only come from government officials, and herein lies the tragedy. No one with the power to save Mes Aynak will or, perhaps, can defy the Ministry of Mines to contact Unesco or another conservation body, such as the International Council on Monuments and Sites.

It is hard to explain how echoes of Mes Aynak’s magnificence bewitch its self-appointed protectors and increasingly rare visitors. Imagine an intricate complex of Buddhist monasteries and settlements, bustling with a religious and civil life, as early as the 1st century BC, that thrived for a millennium.

Now consider these centuries of vigorous and diverse human activity lying excellently preserved, above and well below ground, mere miles from the capital. Lastly, bear in mind that general lack of access, resources and time mean that, to this day, no one knows how far the site extends or how revelatory its historical secrets could prove. The only firm conclusion to be drawn so far is that Mes Aynak represents a people’s history waiting to be discovered which could, perhaps, reinforce an embattled national identity and pride. [Source]

Political and economic interests are at work on both sides of the debate. An article in the Guardian reports that some parties trying to save the site are doing so partially because they have connections to the U.S. mining industry and do not want Chinese to gain control of the copper reserves. One such person is Zalmay Khalilzad, a former US ambassador to Afghanistan:

Khalilzad has been openly critical of China’s mining companies and a bidding system that he argues favours them in Afghanistan, the country where he was born and later returned as the first US ambassador after the fall of the Taliban. “The performance of Chinese companies is improving but they have a long way to go,” he wrote in a 2011 opinion article for Foreign Policy entitled How many ways can we lose in Afghanistan, which criticised Chinese firms on issues including protection of cultural heritage. “It is certainly ironic that Chinese firms are at an advantage over western companies due to defence department procedures,” he wrote, before ending on a slightly less gloomy note: “It is not inevitable that Afghanistan’s valuable resources fall into the hands of the Chinese.”

Afghan archeologists and experts working on mining have a more complex view of the mine’s impact than Arch. Abdul Qadir Temori, head of the Afghan Institute of Archeology, who has committed his entire team of more than 30 graduate archaeologists to Mes Aynak, says the site is so complex and fascinating that experts could easily spend two decades picking over it.

In an ideal world that would be the case, he says. But Afghanistan is desperately poor and has suffered 30 years of violence, which means leaving artefacts in the ground offers little guarantee of preservation.Desperation and lawlessness have fuelled a ruthlessly efficient looting industry, and before the mining guards sealed off the site, looters stripped Mes Aynak of treasures that had been buried untouched for centuries, and destroyed beautiful buildings and crucial archeological evidence in the process. Just a few dozen miles away is Kharwar, another ancient site that may be even richer in remains, but has been described by the UN as “in danger of complete destruction”. Without security or funds for excavation, only looters are picking through its treasures. [Source]

The latest reports indicate that the June deadline for archeologists to cease excavation work may be extended due to political developments, including the upcoming elections. A petition to President Hamid Karzai urging him to prevent the destruction of Mes Aynak has received 50,000 signatures. Read more about the Mes Aynak site and China Metallurgical Group’s mining deal there, via CDT.