The wind sweeps over the barren hillsides of Logar province just 25 miles southeast of Kabul, blowing dust over unearthed sections of the ruins of Mes Aynak. A young archaeologist takes a break to show off a latest find at the precious historical site, in a rugged area the size of Pompeii.
“Mes Aynak is the most important discovery in my career,” said Qadir Temori, head preservation archaeologist at Mes Aynak. “We have worked so hard to protect this ancient site, even risking our lives to save it.”
That is not easy in a country that has spent decades riled by conflict. As well as the huge human and economic costs, there has been cultural loss too — most infamously in the 2001 destruction by Taliban authorities of two giant sculptures of the Buddha at Bamiyan.
But it’s not Taliban fighters camped in nearby mountains who are threatening to destroy some 400 Buddhist treasures and a monastery complex dating back several thousand years that lie at the site of Mes Aynak.
Instead it is a gigantic mining operation. A Chinese firm with a contract to dig up valuable copper ore that lies beneath the site is waging a battle against Afghan and foreign archaeologists who are fighting to save ancient Mes Aynak.
International attempts to save the antiquities — only 10 percent of which have already been unearthed, according to Temori — have coalesced around the recent marking of Save Mes Aynak Day on July 1 and the global release of the film Saving Mes Aynak.
The mining work, set to begin imminently, would destroy rare domed temples known as stupas. The Silk Road locale has significant influences from Iran to India, and a Bronze Age copper smelter remains buried. Over 500 workers from the Ministries of Culture and of Mining have been racing to recover artifacts before the industrial-scale digging begins. The unprecedented archaeological campaign could give way to what will be the country’s most sizable foreign direct investment.
At present, the Afghan government is locked in a contractual struggle with the company, Metallurgical Corporation of China Limited (MCC), over royalties from the $3 billion effort, which is said to undergird potential copper resources in excess of $100 billion. Delays have plagued the ambitious project since a deal was inked in 2007, though the government claims 7,000 jobs are being created, with a $1.2 billion impact on the national economy. MCC may not be in a hurry, as it holds a 30-year lease for the site.
The project goes to the heart of a debate about one of the great contrasts of Afghanistan: that a country of immense riches is so dogged by poverty. Five years ago, U.S. government officials revealed numbers suggesting that war-ravaged Afghanistan was sitting on some $1 trillion in mineral wealth. Other studies point to figures as high as $3 trillion.
Massive quantities of copper, iron and gold sit in the earth under Afghanistan. But developing those resources is beset with problems such as the Taliban insurgency, rampant corruption, an underdeveloped private sector, infrastructure woes and environmental concerns.
All of these problems, and more, are present at Mes Aynak, where angry locals also resent forced displacement of six villages.
“Most of the residents have been either forced out, have left, or they’re not allowed to return,” said Javed Noorani of Integrity Watch Afghanistan, a watchdog group that advocates for increased transparency. “They are losing everything, they will have to be compensated, discuss things properly, consulted properly, and then resettled.”
Lal Agha, a local village elder whose community has been relocated by the project, said, “We are all helpless. We don’t have a way to fight for our human rights.”
Agha also draws the connection between locals’ grievances with their own government over displacement and general security woes that plague local police and the Chinese mining effort. “The government is responsible for creating [the security problems] by grabbing people’s lands, beating them up, and humiliating and disrespecting their values,” Agha said. “It’s when people fight back, the government calls them ‘Al-Qaeda.’
“If the people are happy with the Chinese [mining company], then why are missiles being fired into Mes Aynak? People are angry,” he added.
The government is responsible for creating [the security problems] by grabbing people’s lands, beating them up, and humiliating and disrespecting their values. It’s when people fight back, the government calls them ‘Al-Qaeda.’
village elder, Mes Aynak
The escalating level of violence is hampering the project. The mine is located on a transit route for Taliban fighters coming from Pakistan, and Logar province is one of Afghanistan’s most dangerous regions. Reports suggest many Chinese laborers have repeatedly abandoned the site. But it's clear the mine requires basic fortification to proceed.
“The government ordered that we receive 1,500 soldiers for the security of Mes Aynak,” said Sayed Abbas Sadat, a commander of the regional police division, who oversees a series of checkpoints and an aggressive strategy of monitoring the property’s perimeter.
But, despite the reality of the violence, it is the campaign by archaeologists to stop the development that has captured the most international attention.
“Preserving Mes Aynak is an important gesture for Afghanistan. It’s an important gesture for all archaeologists in the world concerned with preserving human culture,“ said Mark Kenoyer, a physical anthropologist from the University of Wisconsin working on site. “The destruction of Mes Aynak itself would be like Atlantis going into the ocean and disappearing from history.”
For its part, the United Nations' global cultural body UNESCO is standing on the sidelines.
“The deadline for the start of the mining operations has been postponed a number of times,” said press officer Roni Amelan, who confirmed that the organization is not directly involved in current preservation efforts.
Meanwhile, as the debate rages over development, security and heritage, local villagers just hope to hold onto their rights.
“I always pray for my family, my children, for their health and safety,” Temori, the lead archaeologist, said. “And now I also pray for Mes Aynak, and for the future of my country.”