Lack of regulation limits Afghan gem mining

Lack of regulation limits Afghan gem mining

The lack of clear industry rules is hampering the growth of Afghanistan’s mining sector. Blessed with mineral wealth, Kabul remains unable to utilize it.

Afghanistan lacks the major gas and oil reserves of its neighbors, but nonetheless possesses a potential source of underground wealth. Below the surface of Afghanistan’s mountains lies vast mineral wealth, including precious gems. International mining corporations in Afghanistan are preparing to build new mines to access minerals like lithium and copper. They should learn from the struggles of Afghanistan’s traditional gemstone mines, where lack of regulation has led to smuggling, corruption and environmental degradation. Only a significant increase in regulation will allow the success of Afghan mines.

Beginning at least six thousand years ago, traders from across Eurasia prized lapis lazuli, a bright blue stone found in the mountains of Badakhshan, a region divided between modern-day Afghanistan and Tajikistan. The greatest of the ancient lapis mines, located at Sar-i-Sang in Afghan Badakhshan, is still in operation today. Besides lapis, Afghanistan is also home to some of the world’s most highly valued rubies. The most prominent ruby mines, located in Jegdalek, south of Kabul, have supposedly operated for at least five hundred years.

While Afghan lapis and rubies have been prized for centuries and even millennia, more recently, the U.S. pentagon discovered other precious mineral deposits in Afghanistan. The new discoveries include gold, copper and lithium, along with untapped reserves of rubies and other gems. Since the discovery, Afghan and American officials have both expressed hope that the Afghan economy will be transformed by the creation of massive lithium mines, and China has rushed to develop a major copper mine in Afghanistan.

International attention has concentrated on developing the technology and skilled labor to mine Afghanistan’s lithium and copper reserves. However, these developments take time, and as international corporations and the Afghan government debate contracts for the new mines, Afghans continue to mine for lapis and rubies, as they have done for centuries. According to the World Bank, the development of large mines in Afghanistan will take several years and will require major improvements in infrastructure. As such, in the short run, smaller and traditional mines are more likely to contribute to Afghanistan’s economic development.

The lack of security and regulation in the traditional mines means that the gem trade has yet to enrich the Afghans who work in the mines, or stabilize the Kabul government’s control over mining regions. Instead, the profits of the mines line the pockets of corrupt officials and warlords, and the mines have become targets for thieves and raiders. The Afghan Ministry of Mines struggles to prevent illegal mining, even in Kabul province, and tribal fights have broken out over illegal mines.

Mining in Afghanistan faces further hurdles

Two major problems plaguing the traditional gemstone mines are smuggling between Afghanistan and Pakistan and the failure of the Kabul government to get local buy-in for its plans to privatize and formalize mines, which were traditionally divided between various tribal groups. Smuggling across the border to Pakistan means that Afghanistan loses tens of thousands of dollars in possible revenues daily. The lack of local buy-in to federal plans similarly undermines Afghanistan’s development. Groups that traditionally controlled the gemstone mines sometimes turn to illegal mining or join groups like the Taliban in hopes of recovering lost land and power.

Compounding these problems is the fact that the gemstone mines rarely provide decent livings for Afghans who work legally. Poor workers continue to flock to the mines in hopes of building better lives for their families. Their wages are based on the amount of precious stones they successfully find, meaning that many return home empty handed. Furthermore, the miners are untrained, and have almost no access to safety equipment, despite working with explosives like dynamite. While the World Bank and other organizations study the possible environmental issues associated with the new mines, the proliferation of illegal mining and lack of training for miners also means that environmental degradation has already taken its toll around Afghanistan’s gemstone mines.

As international corporations and organizations begin investing in Afghan mineral extraction, they should look to the mismanagement and insecurity that plagues the traditional gem industry as a lesson. The U.S. pentagon and Chinese corporations have both heralded Afghan minerals as a potential source of wealth in the region. However, the lack of regulation and security in Afghanistan’s traditional gemstone mines has led to destabilization, smuggling and corruption. Before new mines can be successful, solutions must be found to these problems. Otherwise, Afghanistan’s young lithium and copper mines will face the same issues as its millennia old lapis lazuli and ruby mines.

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