Early one morning in June, just a week after the New York Times reported claims by U.S. officials that Afghanistan was perched atop enough copper, gold, iron, lithium, and assorted rare minerals and gemstones “to fundamentally alter the Afghan economy and perhaps the Afghan war itself,” I made my way with a local guide to the illegal mines of the Safit Chir, an emerald-rich line of ridges 100 miles northeast of Kabul. After a three-hour climb up trails navigable only on foot or by donkey, we greeted several miners, and one of them led us past the dark maws of the tunnels to the edge of a ridge, the better to see the places where his nation’s wealth might be hidden.
As we looked out over steep slopes dotted with purple delphinium, the snow-capped peaks of the Himalayas all around us, Abdul Latif told me that he had not always been a miner. He had become a mujahideen commander after the Soviet invasion in 1979, he said, and he’d faced the enemy’s artillery and helicopters in these very mountains: land mines and the bones of men were buried out there, and older things too. Haroon, another miner, said that while he was digging a new tunnel several years ago he came across ancient buried walls, the chamber of a house made with neat stone masonry. He found a clay amphora there and smashed it in the hopes of finding gold, but it contained only dust.
Afghanistan’s “artisanal” miners, the gem-seeking equivalent of subsistence farmers, have been extracting and exporting precious stones for more than seven millennia; archaeologists have discovered lapis lazuli from Afghanistan in ancient burial sites as far away as Egypt. For the 3,000 or so artisanal miners working today, the job remains difficult. They have no property rights and keep their operations hidden from the central government, which in any case has little control over the region. Fatal accidents from blasting, cave-ins and avalanches are not uncommon, and the miners survive on a diet of stale bread, tea, chickpeas, rice and hashish, brought up once a week by donkey. In the summer they live in small stone huts with tarpaulin roofs; in winter, they move down into the mines themselves. For these efforts, they produce gemstones with a market value of about $2.75 million annually, and probably keep about a tenth of that for themselves.
That there is mineral wealth in Afghanistan is as obvious as the stone in Haroon’s hand. But no one knows just how much. The Times cited a newly arrived Pentagon task force to support the claim that Afghanistan possesses “nearly $1 trillion in untapped mineral deposits,” and the Afghan government itself puts it closer to $3 trillion. But such numbers can’t be found in any published scientific papers. “You can read every one of our reports, and there’s no dollar figure attached to them,” says Jack Medlin, the geologist who coordinated the 2007 U.S. Geological Survey work in Afghanistan that informed the Pentagon estimate.
“From what we can tell, someone took the estimated tonnage and looked up commodity prices for that particular mineral at that time,” Medlin says. “You begin to go through a multiplication and addition process, and someone arrived at a trillion-dollar figure.”
The Pentagon task force estimate also obscured another important fact: Knowing about something is not the same as having it. Geologists and mining professionals carefully distinguish resources—the actual amount of a given material that exists in the ground—from reserves, the amount of that resource that can be extracted at profit with current technology under current conditions. The Pentagon, however, had simply tallied up the current market value of all the minerals buried under one of the most rugged, remote, undeveloped and lawless countries on Earth.
The result, not uncommon in Afghanistan, was the promise of a rich reward with no accounting of what it would take to obtain it. The country desperately needs the resources to rebuild, but future investors will demand a far more careful analysis of the costs and benefits. If scientists can determine what really lies beneath the ground—what can be extracted under the challenging “current conditions” of poverty, chaos and war—perhaps Afghanistan can negotiate its own fate.single page
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