I do not usually write posts like this, but I find this issue quite disconcerting and thought I should raise more awareness about it. Please note that there is a petition at the end of this post in case you would like to do something.
Recently while looking through my WordPress reader, I stumbled upon a post about an archaeological site in Afghanistan. Though I have keen interest in that region, including its history and culture, I had never heard about that particular archaeological site.
Mes Aynak, an archaeological site, is just an hour away from Kabul. Archaeologists are discovering now that it is a hugely important site not only for Afghanistan, but for the world as well.
Mes Aynak is a 2600 year old Buddhist site (with pre-history dating back some 5000 years) and contains hundreds of identified Buddha statues, many of them life-size, as well as numerous frescoes and stupas (shrines). According to Philippe Marquis, director at the French Archaeological Delegation in Afghanistan, what has been uncovered at the site is only 10 percent of what exists at the site. He believes that the excavation could take up to 10-30 years in Mes Aynak.
But now, getting even 10 months is a challenge for the team of archaeologists.
It is impossible to forget the deliberate destruction of the Buddhas of Bamiyan, a terrible act of cruelty and intolerance at the hands of the Taliban. The world condemned that act of violence which the Taliban tried to justify by deeming the statues un-Islamic. However, Mes Aynak now faces a similar fate, not from religious fanaticism, but from corporate greed. China, with the backing of the USA, is going to be destroying the heritage site of Mes Aynak.
The crime of Mes Aynak is that it is situated on one of the world’s largest copper deposits. A $3 billion deal between China’s Metallurgical Group Corporation (MCC) and Afghanistan has sealed fate of the site. It is going to be destroyed forever for the extraction of copper.
Afghanistan has always been an important country in history. During the 3rd to 9th centuries, the country served as a crossroads for Buddhism to travel from India to China. Mes Aynak is one such site that is a testament to the history from that time. Buddhism in Afghanistan had an influence on the religion’s growth in Central Asia as well. But now ironically, China itself is going to destroy something that is also a part of its own history.
The copper at the site is estimated at more than $100 billion, but whether or not that money will go for the actual development of Afghanistan is a question many are asking. As with all copper mining, there will be immitigable consequences for the people and environment as well. Already, six Afghan villages (also with a very long history) have been relocated because of the imminent mining. Many of these villages have already been destroyed and though the Afghan government had promised to compensate these villagers, they say they have not been reimbursed properly.
Mining will have detrimental effects on run-off and ground water, which will become contaminated. Heavy metals such as lead and cadmium, present in water in the mines in a dissolved form, can easily leak into local groundwater, making it undrinkable. And Kabul is quite close to the site too.
No details of the deal between MCC and the Afghan government have been revealed so far, so there is no indication if the mining of this site will actually bring about any significant help for Afghanistan. What is clear at this point is that it will destroy irreplaceable archaeological artifacts and displace more people and create environmental problems. The future consequences of this mining venture are unforeseeable, but presently, the impending destruction of this historically important site is making some brave archaeologists take the plunge to save whatever little they possibly can. The archaeologists have until before 2014 to save artifacts, before the site will be destroyed.
These archaeologists are doing a lot in this impossibly short time to save whatever relics they can. Since Mes Aynak is in Taliban territory, they have also been the targets for death threats and violence. Landmines in the territory have caused severe injuries to these archaeologists, but they are still adamant on saving the site.
Increased Taliban attacks and landmines have also resulted in many Chinese casualties, such as one in 2011 when an SUV with MCC workers hit a landmine, and all were killed. Philippe Marquis worries that if these Taliban attacks continue the Chinese might flee the site and leave the area without security. In which case, the site may fall prey to looters and pillagers.
UNESCO has not stepped in to decry the destruction of the site either. Makes one wonder why it is so hard to stand up to corporations, especially those that are exploiting the resources of a poorer country at the expense of its environment and its cultural heritage. Is it because it is Afghanistan – a country most do not seem to care about?
Afghanistan has surely gone through terrible times in the later part of the 20th Century and now in the 21st Century, but if countries really wanted to help it ‘develop’ in some way, I do not think mining copper would really be the answer. The real money here would go to the corporations, not the country.
So while we decried the destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas by the Taliban or the destruction of the tombs at Timbuktu by Ansar Dine, why are we accepting the destruction of another exceptional historical site? In all cases, all groups concerned have justified their reasons to destroy these sites. Maybe someday if Mes Aynak is salvaged, we would see a renewed interest in Afghanistan and its history, and hopefully a surge in the number of interested travellers and historians and archaeologists.
The copper mine will only yield a finite amount of copper, but a historical treasure such as Mes Aynak will yield an infinite flow of knowledge of our past and awe for many generations to come.
Also I’ve never put up any petition on this blog, but I feel very strongly about this issue. If you feel the same way, or if you think there’s any relevant point in this post, please do sign this petition to save Mes Aynak.
P.S. I think it’s quite obvious but I thought I’d mention anyway that I did not take these photos.