Mining threatens Afghanistan’s Buddhist treasures

Aynak, one of country’s richest historical sites, faces destruction as Chinese create world’s largest opencast copper mine For almost 2,000 years a monastery has perched on a rocky outcrop amid the khaki moonscape of Aynak in Afghanistan. In it’s heyday a pair of might tourists towered over an affluent community of monks who exploited local copper deposits  and built beautiful place of worship.

Archaeologists describe it as a site of global historic importance and have in recent months been uncovering intricately constructed mound-like structures called stupas with vaulted corridor and painted statues, including a magnificent reclining Buddha.

But the monastery, which is about 20 miles from Kabul, is under threat from the land on which it stands. Directly underneath runs a rich vein of copper for which a Chinese state-owned mining company has agreed to pay 3bn for the extraction rights.

From what was once a courtyard of stupas on top of the monastery. Afghan archaeologists have a clear view a modern fortified camp of prefabricated buildings. With bright blue roofs and housing Chinese workers and technical experts charged with creating the word’s biggest opencast copper mine.

The project, and several others like it, will bring significant revenue to one of the world’s poorest countries, But the mine will also threatens to destroy yet more of Afghanistan’s rich archaeological history, which has already been ravaged by years of civil conflict, puritanical leaders and unscrupulous antiquities hunters.

”It is very shameful for the Afghan government to let the Chines come here and destroy our history,” said Abdul Khalid, one of the archaeologists. ”People around the world only hear of the war in Afghanistan but they do not know that we have the best of things from our forefathers.”

For him what Chinese have to offer is beside the point. ”It will all just wasted ant way. Much more money comes from foreign countries now than will come from this mine but nothing has improved.

Philippe Marquis, from the French archaeological in Afghanistan (DAFA) which is assisting the, Afghan – led dig, said: ”The people need to know more about their own history. If they did that then perhaps would not think that Afghanistan is a doomed country. This site shows how rich it once was and that during parts of its history a powerful country that was able to great things

The arguments is unlikely to impress an Afghan government eager for a copper bounty. When production starts in six years, the government should receive about  250m a year in direct payments; the total benefit to the Arghan economy is estimated at 745m, or 10% of current GDP.
It is unlikely that the monastery, which is Helmand province, will survive, nor the 12 other Buddhist sites that have been discovered in the area in the past year.

One option is to move much of the archaeological material, some to a new museum to be built is nearby Logar and some to the rebuilt  national museum in Kabul.

Unfortunately, the status of Buddha will have to be displayed without their heads, which have been hacked off and sold on the illegal international antiquates market.

The ground is still littered with tubes of the SuperGlue that the thieves rumored to be important officials, used to try to keep the fragile clay status together as they were pulled through holes bored into the then yet to be excavated mound.

The remains, which  include fragments of once extensive city walls, are testimony to the immense wealth the ancient settlement once generated from copper. The surrounding hillsides littered with pules of black, pock-marked stones.

Marquis says metal was probably used to mint coins and that production halted on when all the available trees had been cut down for fuel.

Today Chinese projects will not only transform the area but also Afghanistan. Not only has China committed itself to building two electricity generating plants, it is also creating two rail lines in a country that has never had a rail network.

In an area where insurgency is strong, the Afghan government has already invested heavily in security. That included recruiting 1,500 Policemen to guard the perimeter of the site; previously there had only been 750 officers for the entire province.

Wahidullah Shahrani, Afghanistan’s mining minister, said everything is being done to protect the monuments.

Marquis hopes the government is beginning to think about cultural as well as economic potential to the country.

”This mine is going to be a test” he said. ”Is it possible to develop this country and also preserve its history ?”

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