Friday, December 6, 2013

Mining in Afghanistan: Huge Economic Gains At the Expense of Human Rights?

The government of Afghanistan is desperately looking to revenue from its mineral wealthvalued at least $1 trillionto replace the foreign aid currently bankrolling the country, claiming that the sector will provide more than 500,000 new jobs and 50 percent of the country’s gross domestic product by 2030.  In the short term, the revenues are to come from oil fields in the north and smaller gold mines, but in the long term, revenue is to come from the country’s two largest known deposits:  the Aynak copper deposit worth an estimated $46 billion in Logar province, and the Hajigak iron ore deposit worth an estimated $340 billion in Bamiyan province. 

Aynak communities were forcibly resettled five years ago when development of the copper mine started, but since a rocket attack by the Taliban in August of last year, the Chinese state-owned company operating the mine has halted all work.  A consortium led by an Indian state-owned company has won the tender for the Hajigak deposit, although no development will take place until the consortium has secured funding.  Another key stumbling block for any mineral development in Afghanistan is resolving the critical question of infrastructure to transport the minerals out of the country, including geopolitical concerns for agreements to build railroads or pipelines; oil in the north is today being exported by truck through Turkmenistan. 

Whether small- or large-scale, government-licensed or insurgent-operated, the human rights price tag of mineral development in Afghanistan will be high unless the right steps are taken now. Left unaddressed, the environmental, social and human rights costs to Afghanistan’s peopleand especially local mine-affected communitiesof such massive economic development could be unjust and irreversible.  Without a foundation based on good governance and social justice, this key to economic sustainability runs a high risk of increasing conflict and insecurity in an already fragile country, in turn threatening the very economic returns the government desperately seeks and needs.

In January, local civil society organizations and resource-rich communities organized and joined forces to form the Civil Society Natural Resources Monitoring Network, with a mission to pursue the goal of promoting effective, transparent, balanced, sustainable, and peaceful utilization of natural resources for economic and social development of Afghanistan.  It was one of the Network members, Afghanistan Watch, which invited Global Rights’ Director of Natural Resources and Human Rights, Lien De Brouckere, to Afghanistan in early November to train local civil society organizations, members of resource-rich communities, as well as geologists and minerals experts on the social and human rights impacts of large-scale mining, and various strategies to manage mining-related issues.  After a four-day training in Kabul, Lien traveled with Network members on a field visit to listen to resource-rich communities in Bamiyan province, including those in Bamiyan city, the village of Syadara, and Hajigak.

This province also has a rich cultural history and is the site of the Buddha statues destroyed by the Taliban in 2001.  The network members met with Bamiyan civil society organizations, where community members were concerned about corruption, security and whether mining would actually generate new jobs for them.  Network members also traveled for several hours to the more remote village of Syadara to meet with community council members, stopping on the way to visit former small-scale marble and iron ore sites, as well as another of Afghanistan’s natural jewels, Band-e-Amir, a stunning lake in a mountainous area that showcases Afghanistan’s natural wealth and beauty.

Communities around the Hajigak mine have vowed not to let what happened at Aynak happen to them, and civil society activists from Logar are generously sharing their experiences and lessons with Hajigak and other community members, all coordinated through the Network in an attempt to bridge the information gap between Kabul and the other provinces. 

Front and center for any civil society or community member with whom Lien spoke was the issue of security. Past troubling incidents and other security concerns include: Aynak communities’ forcible resettlement by soldiers in armored vehicles that resulted in two deaths; recent beheadings of several provincial leaders and kidnapping of foreigners in Aynak; insecure roads to Hajigak where engineers have disappeared over the past few years; threats to human rights defenders from government, business and insurgents; US-supported commercial extraction of chromite by Afghan Local Police in Kunar province; ethnic conflict resulting from laborers who come from other provinces; and  general worry about what will remain after NATO forces leave Afghanistan in 2014.  

Corruption was another major concern cited repeatedly, and Transparency International’s latest report  released Tuesday has a three-way tie again with Afghanistan, North Korea and Somalia for most corrupt country in the world.  These corruption concerns touch all aspects of resource governance, including the tendering process, employment and training opportunities, contract negotiation, government independence, political leaders owning private companies, and misusing recruitment of mine workers for fraudulent voter registration in the upcoming elections.  

Aside from security and corruption, civil society and community members also voiced grave concerns about local hiring.  For instance, at the Aynak mine it was promised that at least 70 percent of newly created jobs would be reserved for people from Logar; however, today only one manager at Aynak comes from Logar.  Many other concerns were also voiced, including concerns about whether the government and foreign companies will consult with communities about the mining process. (It is incredibly telling that communities around Aynak, civil society organizations and provincial council members only learned through the media that the contract for Aynak had been signed.) Other concerns pertained to land tenure and property rights (especially resettlement, and absent or woefully inadequate compensation), impacts on women, a host of social and environmental concerns, adequate working conditions, and rampant child labor.  

Global Rights has a wealth of experience working with local communities that have suffered injustices at the hands of the extractive industry.  Today, we are working in Nigeria, Ghana and Uganda to increase the knowledge of civil society, host communities, industry, and government officials about the human rights implications of the extractive industries that are, in part, fueling Africa’s current economic growth. We have also worked in the Republic of Congo, Democratic Republic of Congo, Guinea, Liberia and Equatorial Guinea, where we helped local organizations monitor violations in extractives operations, and trained them on their economic, social and cultural rights.

Global Rights will continue to monitor the status of mining in Afghanistan. We welcome the opportunity to continue working with Afghan civil society to raise awareness in the country about land rights and to connect Afghan organizations to our broad, international network of community organizations that are engaged in the same human rights work.


  1. The Afghanistan’s natural resources are considered to be a silver lining for the economy of Afghanistan, as the NATO-led international coalition
    security forces are preparing to leave the country.
    The withdrawal of the NATO troops and reduction of international community’s aid to Afghanistan has created fears of economic crisis among the Afghans, however, there are optimisms that the natural resources of Afghanistan could play a vital role in economic development of the country.
    U.S. agencies estimate Afghanistan’s mineral deposits to be worth upwards of $1 trillion. Afghanistan’s copper, cobalt, iron, barite, sulfur, lead, silver, zinc, niobium, and 1.4 million metric tons of rare earth elements (REEs) — may be a silver lining.
    A classified Pentagon memo called Afghanistan the “Saudi Arabia of lithium.” (Although lithium is technically not a rare earth element, it serves some of the same purposes.)
    Jim Bullion, who heads a Pentagon task force on postwar development quoted by The American said, the maps reveal that Afghanistan could “become a world leader in the minerals sector.”
    There are optimisms that Afghanistan’s mineral wealth may be able to help knit the country back together after decades of war, having Rare Earth Elements (REEs), which are high in demand.
    The REEs are are essential to the manufacture of a host of modern technologies, including cell phones, televisions, hybrid engines, computer components, lasers, batteries, fiber optics, and superconductors.
    According to the American, congressional findings have called rare earth elements “critical to national security,” and understandably so. REEs are key to the production of tank navigation systems, missile guidance systems, fighter jet engines, missile defense components, satellites, and
    military grade communications gear.
    Currently, China is considered to be one of the major suppliers of Rare Earth Elements, and produce 97 percent of the world’s REEs. However, the global market has reportedly been manipulated by China.
    The overall exports of REEs were reduced to 72 percent in the second half of 2010 following a maritime dispute with Japan, and China stopped supplying REEs to Japanese customers.
    There optimisms that Afghanistan can be part of the long term solution to the REE supply problem in the long term. However, concerns regarding the corruption and security remains a challenge.
    The rule of law, human capital, and infrastructure which are critical to attract foreign investment is yet another challenge, which prevents to build a rare earth mining system from scratch in the short term.
    In the meantime, china is considered to be a vital player and can play an important and constructive role in Afghanistan, as the country is is eager to develop Afghanistan’s mineral wealth.
    China is one of the major foreign investment in the mining sector of Afghanistan, it has so won exploration rights for copper, coal, oil, and lithium deposits across Afghanistan.

  2. Thank you for sharing your perspective of the rich mineral deposits in Afghanistan, and some of the demand-side issues driving the minerals sector globally. These are also important to understand when looking at the impacts on communities and Afghanistan of developing the sector.