Afghanistan’s Elusive Mineral Wealth

Mes Aynak Gold Buddha Head

A gold-gilded Buddha statue from the 9th century at Mes Aynak, Afghanistan (Source:

Afghanistan is blessed with a veritable horde of mineral wealth.  In copper alone, Afghanistan may possess up to 60 million tons buried in its arid plains.  From the days of the British Empire to the current day, these riches have remained, for the most part, firmly entrenched in the Afghan soil.  There are many dangers involved in attempting to mine in Afghanistan which remains an active conflict zone.  Transportation, governance, logistical, and environmental protection issues are all concerns for a potential mining company.  Afghanistan has endured decades of armed conflict making many companies wary of operating in the nation due to ever-increasing security concerns.

One area with a legendary copper deposit is Mes Aynak,located in the Loghar Province of Afghanistan about 25 miles southeast of the capital Kabul and currently the subject of intense, global scrutiny.  Mes Aynak translates to “little copper well” in Pashto and has been used for its copper resources since ancient times.  The area around Mes Aynak is not a safe one.  Soviet-era mineral exploratory tunnels in Mes Aynak were once used by Al-Qaeda to hide in and the area is still threatened by active Taliban forces.  Current estimates by U.S. Geologists place the value of Afghanistan’s total mineral deposits in excess of $3 Trillion (U.S.)  The value of the Mes Aynak’s copper deposit is worth an estimated $100 Billion (U.S.), making it one of the most significant deposits of copper in the world.  The deposit drew the interest of the Chinese state-owned company China Metallurgical Group (MCC) which has the expertise to excavate the copper.  The mine would benefit Afghanistan, one of the poorest nations on earth which desperately needs the revenues from the deposit, and the Chinese Government, which seeks new sources of copper.  Questions of potential danger to both the archaeological site, surrounding communities, and the environment have raised concerns. In 2008, MCC bought the rights to excavate Mes Aynak but many complications have, as yet, made the extraction of the copper unfeasible.

Mes Mynak on the Silk Road

Mes Aynak was located on the ancient “Silk Road” in present day Loghar Province, southeast of the capital Kabul (Source:

The Mes Aynak copper deposit has garnered worldwide attention due to the fact that it rests under a massive and most impressive ancient archaeological site. The site was identified in the 1960’s, but extended conflicts have slowed its excavation. The destruction of the famous Buddhas of Bamiyan by the Taliban has made the destruction of Buddhist relics in Afghanistan a particularly sensitive issue.   It was a Chinese couple who donated the money to project holographic Buddhas at the site in Bamiyan bringing the site to life once more.  The site at Mes Aynak is thought to be to over 2,000 years old and covers more than 500,000 sq. meters.   The site contains magnificent Buddhist relics such as temples, hundreds of intricately carved Buddha statues, stupas, ancient coins, and other relics which are of significant cultural, religious, and historical importance.  Archaeologists working at the site have reason to believe that Mes Aynak may cover a bronze-age site which may be older than 5,000 years and contain untold historical artifacts. The significance of Mes Aynak has also drawn attention to the complex issue of mining for minerals in a nation with such a rich cultural heritage.  The cultural significance of the area is a major challenge for MCC and there is now international pressure to save the site from destruction, which would almost certainly happen if the copper is mined by open-pit mining as planned.

The cultural losses which might occur are but one difficulty surrounding the mining of Mes Aynak.  There are the ghosts of  past conflicts lurking underground in the form of leftover Soviet landmines which threaten both the teams of Chinese engineers attempting to survey the area and the team of international archaeologists attempting to save as much of the site as possible before mining begins.  The outlook for the survival of Mes Aynak once full-scale, open-pit mining begins is quite grim.  The site along with several surrounding villages will need to be destroyed, which has caused increasing anger among locals.  The Loghar province is a dangerous area in Afghanistan and Mes Aynak is located within one of the primary Taliban transit areas.  The site is threatened by Taliban rocket bombings and locals are often unwilling or afraid to intervene.  Extraction is only one hurdle which must be surmounted.  Transportation and processing of the copper will also be a difficult task. Processing of the copper will require exponential amounts of water in an area with an already low water table.

The current status of the Mes Aynak mining project is uncertain.  Recently the new Minister of Mines and Petroleum, Geologist Daud Shah Saba, an appointee of President Ashraf Ghani, made the rather cryptic statement that the way MCC was handling the mining at Mes Aynak was “not in the interest of the country.” Minister Saba later elaborated that MCC had failed to take into consideration the “environmental and social” aspects of the project when they prepared their environmental assessments.  Open-pit mining is one of the most destructive methods of mining to the environment as rock is exposed which has been previously undisturbed.  The exposure and excavation of the rock can cause hazards such as radioactive leaks, water and soil contamination, and air pollution from excessive dust and particle creation.  Copper mining is commonly known as one of the most polluting forms of excavation.  An estimated 60% of the Afghan population depends upon agriculture for their livelihoods which could make this environmental damage particularly devastating to local Afghans.  Almost continuous armed conflict since 1979 has made the Afghan agriculture sector exceedingly fragile.

The Ministry of Commerce of The People’s Republic of China sets forth environmental guidelines for enterprises operating in foreign nations in the “Notification of the Ministry of Commerce and the Ministry of Environmental Protection on Issuing the Guidelines for Environmental Protection in Foreign Investment and Cooperation.”  According to these guidelines, a company must take necessary precautions to identify and prevent potential risks to the environment of the nation they are operating in.  Article 9 of the guidelines sets forth the importance of protecting the cultural heritage of a site from potential negative impacts of a project. MCC recently decided not to provide some of the infrastructure for the site which is needed if excavation is to occur.  Previously, MCC had agreed to build the railway and power plant to service the site, but now disputes its obligation to provide these services which would be costly and exceedingly difficult to build in Taliban territory.  Chinese investment in other parts of the world such as Sub-Sahahran Africa has also focused on natural resource extraction, Afghanistan’s current fragile state, and the lack of transparency of the MCC-Afghan deal is concerning.  MCC runs the Ramu nickel mine in Papua, New Guinea and has been accused of dumping tailings (mining waste) into unspoiled waters.  The protection of the environment and the cultural heritage of Afghanistan is mandated by the Ministry of Environmental Protection in China, but it remains to be seen if these guidelines will be followed.

Governance and the lack of a cohesive legal framework for extractive industries also hamper mining in Afghanistan.  Corruption remains a major issue, as Afghanistan ranks as one of the world’s top three most corrupt nations on the 2014 Corruption Perceptions Index. The nation is a candidate for the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (EITI), which would be a step in the right direction for improved transparency.  The nation’s mining laws must also be fully implemented and enforced if Afghanistan is to avoid the “resource curse” by which resource-rich nations, in spite of their bounty of natural resources, often fail to thrive economically due to corruption, weak laws, and government mismanagement.  Enforcement of mining laws is a significant issue for Afghanistan.  It is estimated that there are as many as 1,400 illegal mines currently operating in the country.  Many of the minerals and gems from these mines are almost immediately smuggled out of Afghanistan which will see no revenue from those resources.  The revenues from these illegal mines are often used to subsidize conflict in the region, furthering Afghanistan’s difficulties as a nation.

Afghanistan passed the latest iteration of their Mining Law in 2014 and it has been met with criticism from experts feeling it may be worse than the 2010 version of the law as it fails to meet international standards for security and transparency.  There are fears that the 2014 mining law, in fact, lacks basic safeguards to protect the Afghan people from excessive corruption and the loss of any revenues from the resources.  The governance issues, lack of an effective legal framework, and the richness of the archaeological treasures lying beneath Afghan soil create an incredibly difficult situation for both the people of Afghanistan, who are torn between protecting their past and building their nation with natural resource revenues, and potential investors who do not wish to be the target of worldwide criticism or put their workers in the cross-hairs of a Taliban rocket.


Author: Elizabeth B. Hessami, J.D., LL.M.

Elizabeth B. Hessami, J.D., LL.M., is an alumni of Vermont Law School where she completed her LL.M. in Environmental Law in 2015. She is also a member of the Washington, D.C. Bar and works remotely as a pro-bono visiting attorney for the Environmental Law Institute researching environmental issues. Her work focuses primarily on conflict/post-conflict environmental issues in Afghanistan.

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