Experts Show How to Preserve Ancient Mes Aynak Ruins While Safely Mining Copper Near Kabul, Afghanistan
Mes Aynak is one of the largest copper deposits in the world, located 20 KM south of Kabul in Logar Province. The huge site looms as major revenue source for Afghanistan, a country deeply in need of economic growth.
Mes Aynak is also a vast complex of over twenty ruin locations, including numerous 5th-6th century Buddhist monasteries, a fortress, and evidence of even older Bronze Age settlements buried beneath the rubble of ancient copper mines. Archeologists from around the world hold that Mes Aynak represents a cultural heritage site of immense importance.
The Aynak region also sits on top of the underground water sources serving agricultural areas and population centers, most notably Kabul and Jalalabad but extending into Pakistan. Open-pit copper mining on this scale will have a direct and profound environmental impact that must be assessed and mitigated beforehand and carefully monitored throughout.
Mes Aynak’s unique cultural heritage, coupled with its strategic environmental characteristics and its vast mineral wealth under contract to be mined by the MCC Corporation of China, make it a complex international issue where the potential for economic growth abuts the huge risk of an environmental catastrophe and the irreparable loss of Afghanistan’s world-class cultural heritage. But must the choice be that stark?
To answer this question, ARCH International and the Central Asia Caucasus Institute’s Silk Road Program at SAIS/Johns Hopkins, convened a group of highly experienced experts in the fields of geology, mining engineering, archaeology, history and economic development to study the specific situation in Mes Aynak. On June 4 and 5, 2012, the experts met at SAIS in Washington, D.C. to develop realistic strategies to ensure real economic benefit to the Afghan population, safeguard their environment and health, consider livelihoods during and after the mining, and preserve the cultural treasures at Mes Aynak. The meeting was co-chaired by ARCH’s founder Dr. Cheryl Benard and CACI Silk Road Program Chairman, Fred Starr.
Other experts included Philippe Marquis, an archaeologist with DAFA, the French Government’s archaeological mission in Afghanistan; Paul Craddock, of the Department of Conservation and Scientific Research at the British Museum; noted Dutch archaeologist Hans Curvers, the University of Vienna’s professor of Asian Art History Deborah Klimburg-Salter, Mark Weber, Senior Field Projects Director at the World Monuments Fund, Brent Huffman, assistant professor at Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University and an accomplished documentary filmmaker, Said Mirzad with the U.S. Geological Survey, and several other experts in the field.
The group’s final Conference Report will be shared with the World Bank, MCC and the Afghan government, among other interested parties. What the experts discovered is provisionally encouraging – but only if certain key provisos, currently not in place, are met. Their key findings:
1. Mining, environmental protection and heritage preservation can and must be part of one integrated plan and effort, with shared and transparent planning and information. Openness, transparency, and information sharing amongst all parties is absolutely critical.
-- With current dearth of information, it is not possible to evaluate the scope of the project and connect the dots between mining operations, environmental protection, and respect for cultural heritage sites.
-- Much necessary information required by Afghan laws and international norms is not publicly available and needs to be released immediately.
-- This includes the mining contract itself and various other operational and environmental assessment plans.
-- This is the only way to ensure all environmental and other dimensions of Aynak are taken into account and that the interests of the Afghan people are protected.
2. A realistic timetable for mining operations, environmental impact assessment, and protection of heritage sites is needed.
-- This timetable must clearly spell out MCC’s plan on infrastructure, opening blocks of site, etc. for conserving all other resources, particularly the heritage sites.
-- When this conference was convened, we were in crisis mode and focused on discussing rushed/savage archeology.
-- After consulting with leading experts, we are of the view that the immense size of the Aynak cannot and will not be exploited except through a phased mining approach.
-- Candor on this front – not repeated statements about a two-year start to mining -- will open up possibility of responsible archeology that does not impede progress on essential mining.
-- This is a long-term project, it is not a 1-2 year emergency plan. We need 10-year/permanent plan that reconciles these different issues, nothing less will do.
3. New coordination mechanisms are needed.
-- At present, the only mechanism to coordinate these various is the Inter-ministerial Commission (IMC) of the Government of Afghanistan.
-- This body is responsible for overseeing all minerals projects in the country and does not have the bandwidth to give adequate attention to Aynak. Also, the IMC does not involve all stakeholders, given the global scale of this project.
4. Greater engagement by MCC
-- It is also crucial that MCC play a more active role engaging with different stakeholders, especially those focused on the environmental and cultural dimensions of this project.
-- This includes MCC dedicating long-term financial resources to the effort to protect cultural heritage sites. It also includes similar long-term financial support to establish a local museum to house and protect artifacts recovered from the Aynak site.
-- Such funding represents a very small percentage of overall revenue expected to flow from this immense mining project and reflects international best practices.
ARCH’s Cheryl Benard summarizes the group’s over-all focus on the issue: “The dominant narrative has it that Afghanistan needs resources right away, that mining can commence immediately and money will begin to flow into government coffers shortly and in large amounts. Because the need is so great, some believe that losses to cultural heritage unfortunately have to be accepted.”
Currently in Mes Aynak, mining operations are temporarily on hold while a salvage archaeology effort rushes to remove the most valuable artifacts that can be carried away.
“In fact this storyline is false,” Dr. Benard states. “The real-world timetable for mining is far more extensive than the ‘magic bullet' version would have us believe. It will take at least 5 years for mining to begin at Mes Aynak, and an estimated 10 years before a serious revenue stream commences.”
“Nor are archaeologists and mining engineers mutually exclusive actors. The meeting experts saw no reason why the two efforts should not, and could not go ahead in parallel,” she said.
The experts’ 30-page meeting report is in preparation. In it, they balance keen interest with caution -- Mes Aynak has the potential to become a positive model for mineral extraction that respects and preserves cultural heritage, but it can also become a costly and irreparable failure.
As the United States and NATO prepare to scale down their mission in Afghanistan, and with it the massive international funding that has essentially been subsidizing the country and its government for the last ten years, the country has appeared to face a tragic choice. It truly possesses rich mineral resources. But due to its ancient history, these typically lie under priceless archaeological remains. Mes Aynak, where the Chinese company MCC obtained the contract to mine copper, perfectly represents this dilemma. Copper is extremely lucrative – but how do you put a price on a 5000 year old buried city containing multiple monasteries and settlements possibly going back to the Bronze Age, a site at least as significant as the tragically lost Buddhas of Bamiyan?
Are culture and commerce here locked into a zero sum game? Or can there be a way forward that gives both their due?
The Alliance for the Restoration of Cultural Heritage (“ARCH”) International, Inc. is laying the groundwork for a major public campaign to prevent the decimation of ancient Buddhist temples and Bronze Age metal foundries at Mes Aynak, a major site on the ancient Silk Road that is endangered by a current plan to mine copper from this historic location. We understand that Afghanistan is in great need of the funds that would flow from this projected mineral extraction, so we are working with engineers and other experts to find the means of balancing new methods of copper mining with the careful preservation of our priceless cultural heritage.
In November 2007, a 30-year lease was granted for the copper mine to the China Metallurgical Group for $3 billion, making it the largest foreign investment and private business venture in Afghanistan’s history. The vast site covers roughly 400,000 square meters, encompassing several separate monasteries and a commercial area. It appears that Buddhists who began to settle the area almost 2,000 years ago were drawn by the availability of copper.
Mes Aynak’s history spans the Bronze Age through the Buddhist era, up to the early Islamic period. This continuity of habitation across millennia is virtually unparalled. In Central Asia, the Bronze Age is dated at 2300 – 1700 BC. During this epoch, many foundations of human civilization were developed: the ability to smelt ire ores such as copper, the invention of writing, agriculture, and early systems of law and social stratification. This is a site where early technology and society unfolded for over 5000 years. The site is known to contain coins, glass, tools and other artifacts, including manuscripts that may date from the time of Alexander the Great.
“Preserving our heritage is so important,” said Abdul Khalid Khorshid, and Afghan archeologist working on the Mes Aynak site. “The relics we find don’t just belong to the Afghans—they belong to the world.” Other experts describe Mes Aynak as “one of the most intriguing ancient mining sites in Central Asia, if not the world.”
All of this historical material is in imminent danger of destruction by the mining endeavor, although a plan for minimal salvage archaeology was put into place. This plan still foresees the destruction of the site and everything still buried beneath it, but it does allow for removal of whatever smaller statues and artifacts can be carried away by a small archaeological team lead by DAFA, the French archeological mission to Afghanistan.
ARCH International’s mission is to achieve a partnership of cultural conservation, economic interests, and national development that can rescue and restore Mes Aynak and become a model for the many projected future situations where archeological remains and mineral deposits share the same physical location.
Mes Aynak: The Need for Responsible Development
The Wall Street Journal ran an article recently about the Aynak copper mine in Logar Province, Afghanistan entitled, “Delays Imperil Mining Riches Afghans Need After Pullout.” Aynak is one of the richest copper mines in the world, which is why the WSJ article focused on Aynak’s importance to Afghanistan’s future economic development. Yet the lengthy article misses a critical part of the story by dedicating only two sentences — or 33 of its nearly 1800 words — to the danger posed to Afghanistan’s cultural heritage and its economy by the development of the Aynak copper mine.
Immediately on top of the copper mine sits Mes Aynak, a sprawling complex of ruins, the majority of which have not yet been excavated. Mes Aynak not only includes Buddhist shrines, monasteries, statutes, and frescoes from the 5th-6th AD, but also a hill-top fortress, and very likely Bronze Age commercial and residential buildings. Several archeologists have described Mes Aynak as a potential Pompeii, if properly excavated and preserved. Sadly, Mes Aynak is scheduled for destruction in six months’ time, as soon as mining operations commence in January 2013. A brief video about Mes Aynak is available here.
Natural resources do hold promise for Afghanistan’s future, but they are not the panacea the WSJ article appears to suggest. Extracting Afghanistan’s copper, iron, oil, gas, and other resources and converting them into much-needed Government revenue will take years if not decades. Afghanistan lacks even the most basic infrastructure needed to do so. Electricity roads, rail, pipelines, etc. cannot be conjured out of thin air. Likewise, capacity within the Afghan Ministry of Mines to manage a multibillion dollar mining project will not built overnight.
The WSJ completely ignores the economic importance of Mes Aynak. The site – along with Afghanistan’s other impressive vestiges of the past – constitute a potentially large source of revenue for the state and employment for the local population. Afghanistan used to be a popular tourism destination in the 1960s and 70s, in large part because of its archaeological and artistic riches. The Bamiyan Buddhas drew tourists from around the world until their destruction by the Taliban. There are numerous examples of formerly war-torn countries, such as Cambodia, using tourism (e.g. Angkor Watt) to drive economic growth once hostilities abate. There is no reason why Afghanistan cannot do the same.
The question the WSJ article should have asked is how to maximize Afghanistan’s potential economic growth? Is there a way to extract copper without destroying Mes Aynak? Like the WSJ, the Government of Afghanistan (GOA), the World Bank (which is helping to oversee the mining project), and the international community all failed to ask this question, too. They assumed wrongly that mining and protecting heritage sites are mutually exclusive.
According to an expert’s conference hosted by Dr. Fred Starr and the Alliance for the Restoration of Cultural Heritage (on whose Board of Directors I sit) and attended by leading mining engineers and archaeologists, Afghanistan can indeed reconcile the protection of his history and extraction of copper. The conference report asserts that there are a host of measures that can be taken to protect the cultural treasures of Mes Aynak before and after mining commences. This is positive news.
However, to implement these measures, all key stakeholders, including government, the private sector, and civil society alike, must be open and transparent with each other. To date, information about the details of mining plan for Aynak have been scare; even basic documents like the contract between the GOA and the Chinese mining consortium are not publicly available. Without accurate information about mining timelines, it is impossible to make a sound archaeological excavation and protection plan.
Development of Afghanistan’s extractive industries is important for the country’s economic development, but so too is protection of its cultural heritage. Mes Aynak may hold the key to a resurgent Afghan tourism industry – that like mining – could resuscitate Afghanistan’s economy. It would be a pity if key stakeholders continue to adhere to the misguided view expressed in last week’s WSJ article and the country sacrifices its cultural treasures in an unrealistic rush to develop its copper resources.
Eli Sugarman is a Truman Security Fellow.
To register for this Joint Roundtable of the Alliance for the Restoration of Cultural Heritage (ARCH) and the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute (CACI) and please click reply and email your name and affiliation to SAISCACIForums@jhu.edu by noon, Monday, June 4, 2012.
With questions about this or other CACI Forums, kindly email firstname.lastname@example.org or call 202-663-7721
Media contact: Tom Lauria at ARCH (703) 887-4056
"Cultural Heritage vs. Mining on the New Silk Road? Finding Technical Solutions for Mes Aynak and Beyond”
Experts from Afghanistan, Austria, France, Netherlands, U.K., and U.S. who convened for a two-day ARCH/CACI symposium on Mes Aynak under the direction of Dr. Cheryl Benard, President of ARCH
S. Frederick Starr, Chairman, Central Asia-Caucasus Institute, SAIS, Johns Hopkins U.
Tuesday, June 5, 3:00 p.m. to 5:30 p.m.
Rome Auditorium, The Rome Building
SAIS, Johns Hopkins University
1619 Massachusetts Avenue, N.W.
Washington, DC 20036
Sponsored by Ludus
Two generations of invasions and civil war have exposed Afghanistan’s fabulous archeological sites to rapacious plundering and ecological demolition. Our focus today is the important Buddhist site of Mes Aynak, soon to be destroyed as the massive copper deposits beneath it are exploited. This roundtable offers the audience an opportunity to hear a review of the proceedings of the two-day symposium on Mes Aynak and to view a short film by the award winning filmmaker Brent Huffman about the site.
The roundtable will take place from 3:00 p.m. to 4:30 p.m. followed by a reception, 4:30 p.m. to 5:30 p.m. featuring refreshments, courtesy of ARCH and Ludus.
The Central Asia-Caucasus Institute is a primary institution in the United States for the study of the Caucasus, Central Asia and the Caspian Region. The Institute, affiliated with Johns Hopkins University-SAIS, forms part of a Joint Center with the Silk Road Studies Program, affiliated with the Stockholm-based Institute for Security and Development Policy. Additional information about the Joint Center, as well as its several publications series, is available at www.silkroadstudies.org.
The Alliance for the Restoration of Cultural Heritage (ARCH), a non-profit organization, stands with those who are working to make, protect and revere the great accomplishments of civilization. In ways large and small, it is committed to the promotion and defense of culture marred by crisis and war. ARCH has headquarters in Washington, DC. ARCH’s Virginia Chapter played a key role in the organization of this conference. For more information about ARCH, please visit www.archinternational.org
Ludus is a lifestyle brand for women. It designs and produces fashion-forward eco-conscious athletic and lifestyle wear. Ludus promotes compassion and encourages individuals to give back to their communities. It encourages harmony and is committed to helping improve the quality of life of individuals around the world. It is proud to support the discourse on economic development in Afghanistan, and preserving historic cultural treasures.
“CULTURAL HERITAGE VS. MINING ON THE NEW SILK ROAD? FINDING TECHNICAL SOLUTIONS FOR MES AYNAK AND BEYOND” June 4-5, 2012 – Washington, D.C.
A major cultural heritage site on the ancient Silk Road, Mes Aynak in Afghanistan’s Logar Province, is acutely endangered by the plans of a Chinese company to stripmine copper. Because the presence of this metal has been known and has been a source of wealth and work since antiquity, Mes Aynak has been inhabited for thousands of years, making it a repository of relics from ancient foundries to an entire Buddhist urban complex. All of this will be destroyed starting in 2013, when blasting is scheduled to begin.
There is no doubt that Afghanistan needs to benefit from its mineral reserves. But its historic patrimony is irreplaceable and can one day provide a steady source of tourism revenue. In addition, given the location of Mes Aynak atop Afghanistan’s principal aquifer and agricultural breadbasket, means that any mismanagement of the environmental impact will be catastrophic to the country’s economy and its public health.
Typically, situations of this kind devolve into adversarial stances, with the advocates of world heritage, environmental safety and economic gain squaring off against one another. We intend to pursue a new and different course. Is there a solution that maximizes all three of these legitimate areas of interest: economic development, cultural heritage and environmental safety? What if leading subject matter experts from the fields of mining, archaeology, geology and engineering put their heads together in a creative and collaborative effort to identify solutions?
ARCH (The Alliance for the Restoration of Cultural Heritage) is convening an Expert Symposium in collaboration with SAIS, (Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies) and CACI (Central Asia Caucasus Institute’s Silk Road Studies Program) that will meet on June 4 and 5, 2012 in Washington, D.C.
Exploring the possibilities for finding a technologically feasible, cutting edge means of mining copper in the 21st century, with minimized impact to ancient heritage and the environment, the gathering is hosted by SAIS’ Fred Starr and ARCH’s Cheryl Benard. Participants include experts working on the ground in Mes Aynak. Attendees are DAFA’s Philippe Marquis, Solidere’s Hans Curvers, the British Museum’s Paul Craddock, the University of Vienna’s Deborah Klimburg-Salter, Zafar Paiman from the French National Institute of Preventive Archaeology, Jack Medlin and Said Mirzad from the U.S. Geological Survey, Brent Huffman of Northwestern University, the Montana University of Leoben’s Peter Moser and other key experts.
These deliberations will lay the groundwork not only for saving Mes Aynak, but also for the many projected future situations where archeological remains and mineral deposits share the same physical location.
After losing the Bamiyan Buddhas, Afghanistan now faces the possible loss of a treasure so important it was recently listed as the fifth most endangered global heritage site in Asia. We invite your participation, interest and coverage of this important issue.
For more details, please visit the ARCH International website at www.archinternational.org and contact Tom Lauria, ARCH’s communication director, at 703 887 4056 or email@example.com or Dr. Cheryl Benard at 202 670 7087 or firstname.lastname@example.org
Brent Huffman, a documentary filmmaker and assistant professor at the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University, is currently working on a film about a Chinese state-owned copper mine in Mes Aynak, Afghanistan. The mining operation, which Huffman says is a precursor to potentially $1 trillion worth of extraction potential in the country, uncovered a 2,000 year-old religious site with over 200 Buddha statues, devotional temples called stupas, and a monastery complex.
In the following account, Huffman gives an update about the historical site under threat in Mes Aynak, as well as the dangerous environment the mine has created for archaeologists, Chinese workers, and local Afghans. The piece adds to Asia Society Blog's ongoing coverage of the site.
The Buddhists that picked the location of a religious center in Mes Aynak, Afghanistan, some 2,000 years ago did so in part to make ornaments and coins from the copper at the site. Today, a Chinese mining company may destroy what they left behind to extract that same resource.
That is, unless a team of Afghan archaeologists led by Philippe Marquis, director at the French Archaeological Delegation in Afghanistan (DAFA), can put a stop to it. While making a documentary film about the mining project from July 2011 to April 2012, I filmed Marquis and his team frantically searching for artifacts and others attempting rescue preservation with limited equipment like cloth wraps and plastic tarps.
“We have only discovered the tip of the iceberg, a mere 10 percent of the site,” said Marquis, who believes this could easily be a 10-year excavation project.
Efforts to save and preserve the massive site have been drastically scaled back to a project whose best hope is to merely document the site before the China Metallurgical Group Corporation (MCC) begins copper excavation in 2014. The remaining cultural relics and immense structures, which are both too large and fragile to be moved, will all be destroyed.
MCC, for its part, said it did not know the archaeological site existed when they took on the project, and that the site will not stand in the way of the excavation of copper valued at over 100 billion dollars. “We believe it will not take long for the problem to be solved,” Executive Deputy President Zhenguo Liu told me in an interview.
Meanwhile, the archaeologists fear for the future of the site. Lead Afghan archaeologist Abdul Qadeer Temore has been tirelessly working at the excavation site for nearly a year. He told me last July he hadn’t received any pay for the past four months from the Afghan government while struggling to feed his three young children.
“I feel like a mother and the artifacts feel like my children,” Temore said. “We work so hard uncovering the pieces and protecting them. When they get destroyed, it will feel like losing a child.”
To make matters worse, the Mes Aynak site is located in the heart of Taliban country. Abdul gets regular death threats from the Taliban on his cell phone demanding cash for his life. Early this year, two Afghan workers were severely wounded when they dug up a land mine buried at the archaeology site. One worker lost his eyes and another lost his legs in the blast. Abdul stressed to me that despite the extreme risk, he and his team of Afghan specialists would keep excavating on the site until they are forced to quit.
The Chinese workers are also in constant danger. In 2011, an SUV full of MCC workers hit a land mine on one of the winding gravel roads, killing all passengers in the vehicle. The compound itself is often a target for rockets fired from the surrounding mountains. As a result, the Chinese MCC compound looks like a military fortress complete with bomb-resistant barricades filled with sand outlining the area, numerous outposts where armed guards keep watch, and concrete walls topped with razor wire around the compound itself.
Six Afghan villages in Logar province, most with a 500-year history, have to be relocated because of the pending excavation at the copper mine. Many of these villages have already been leveled and residents have been forced to move into other areas. Due to poor negotiations with rural Afghan elders, many of the former inhabitants of the now destroyed communities feel angry and disenfranchised by MCC and the Afghan government.
“We are helpless,” said Akbar Khan from the nearby village of Adam Kaley. “We do not have the means to fight for our rights. When people ask for their rights the government comes to coerce them, beat them, humiliate them and take their property. We are forced to fight the state with violence.”
Khan and other villagers had signed petitions from the Afghan government promising them compensation for the destruction of their villages and livelihood, but so far the men say they have not been adequately reimbursed.
“These villages were everything to us,” said Abdul Raham, a village elder from Bar Chinaria. “Our families have lived off this land for hundreds of years and now we are begging in the streets.”
As archaeologists scramble to save what they can from the site before the 2014 deadline, it has become clear to me that another cultural wonder in Asia will be lost to a future focused on resource extraction, ultimately benefiting countries like China over the citizens of Afghanistan.
Huffman will be attending a conference in Washington, D.C., June 4-5 hosted by the Alliance for the Restoration of Cultural Heritage about solutions to save Mes Aynak.Source Link: www.asiasociety.org
By Marie Khalili Nasiri
This article first appeared in the January 18, 2012, issue of the Omaid Weekly from Washington DC.
Lately, a number of Archeologists and mineral experts have been talking and writing about the mine exploration in Afghanistan. Some interesting articles on this subject have appeared. The Logar’s Mes Ayanak (copper) exploration has been awarded to the Chinese, the Hajigak Iron ores have gone to India and the extraction of the marble stone to an Italian investor.
I am not an archeologist, nor a metallurgist and nor a mineral expert however I worship every inch of my beloved Afghanistan.
The noble people of Afghanistan for years have been exploited by a bunch of opportunists and politicians. The Afghan women have been raped, the children maimed and killed and men subjected to torture. Many women and children have been sold in the markets of Pakistan. Their towns and villages have been pillaged and destroyed.
“ They have wounds already, don’t spray salt on their wounds”
These minerals are part of the Afghan soil and the people of Afghanistan own them. As it has been established the Mes Aynak is located on top of rare Archeological find of Bronze age which dates back to 5000 years in history.
As an Afghan, I urge the government of Afghanistan to go forward carefully. Before finalizing they should appoint a team of experts (local and foreign) to further study the fallout from this mineral exploitation. People’s health should take priority. The result of this study should be broadcasted to the nation.
Will extraction of these minerals is in the interest of the people of Afghanistan, or it is in the interest of a few who have approved this contract?
Will extraction of these mines may lead to deterioration of people’s health from its bi-products and become a source of Cancer?
Will the ecological system be destroyed or damaged as to affect the health of the humans, the fauna and the flora of Afghanistan?
In the end I would like to repeat this couplet from my father Khalilullah Khalili:
If every particle of my land could speak
It would have a story to tell from around the world
Hidden in the creases of my ancient land
are the crowns and heads of conquerors.
Posted on November 21, 2011
EXCAVATIONS AT MES AYNAK UNEARTHING TREASURES BUT SITS UPON A COPPER MINE THAT CHINA AIMS TO EXPLOIT
The gold still glistened after a more than 1,000 years underground; the gemstones glinted at their first touch of sunlight, undimmed by a millennium in the dirt. “It’s a necklace,” said a Polish archaeologist breathless with excitement. “They’ve found a gold necklace!”
For the rest of the story go to: archaeology brief