Saving Mes Aynak

Half an hour’s drive from Kabul lies a quaint, almost forgotten place which goes by the name of Mes Aynak, which translates to, ‘little mound of copper’.  Mes Aynak though isn’t just a random spot on the map.  This now isolated area has a rich history of 5,000 years and was an important trade route and centre for Buddhist culture and scholasticism.  More recently however, the region is more infamous than famous. Four of the 9/11 hijackers were trained here.  Today though, the debate surrounding the area is quite different.  Afghan and international archaeologists have found a number of sculptures, statues and buildings that cover a complex of almost 200 acres.

These historical and archaeological artefacts are reminiscent of the Bamiyan Buddhas destroyed by the Taliban in 2003.  On the face of this evidence, protection is self evident.  What gives a twist however is that the entire complex sits on a trove of copper ore, a mineral that is an intrinsic part of world trade and something that can bring much needed investment and money to a country that has seen almost half a decade of war and strife.

The question and dilemma that arises then is whether 5000 years of history is to be sacrificed or whether Afghanistan needs Buddha tours more than the tangible and intangible benefits of mining and exporting valuable copper.  This makes the situation a lot more difficult.  To give some background, Buddhism spread to Afghanistan at the time when the inaptly called Indian sub-continent was largely under the rule of Ashoka.  Following on, the Kushanas, whose empire spread till Afghanistan, and who were regularly in touch with the Greeks through trade and commerce kept the religion alive and contributed to a flourishing art and sculpture culture in what is now Afghanistan.  (Evidence of the interaction can be seen in the manner in which the sculptures are done).

Adding to the fear of loss of cultural heritage is the fact that a Chinese mining conglomerate has already been given permission to excavate the copper, but no progress is likely to happen in that direction simply because Mes Aynak does not have access to facilities necessary for mining, namely electricity, roads, an efficient transport system, machinery and water.  Moreover, the approaches to the area are susceptible to Taliban blockades and strikes, making what could be a seemingly profitable business in the future seem like a risky venture in the present.

Afghanistan, due to its years of Taliban rule, has been isolated from international trade and has suffered from the harms of missing out and has not been able to reap the economic benefits of isolationism either.  The country thus lacks infrastructure, industry and foreign exchange, essential ingredients to quick economic growth.   The case for copper mining seems strong.

On the other hand, and surprisingly a case does it exist for the other side, the tourism industry has scores of untapped potential.  With some sort of stability arising on the horizon, tourism might just be Afghanistan’s path of gold.  A country with an abundance of natural beauty, Afghanistan does not lack sights for the seasoned traveller, the rugged backpacker or the travelling romantic.  Furthermore, Afghanistan was a commercially important trade route and has a rich and diverse culture, contributing to structures of various kinds that people around the world can identify with.  For a country associated with extremism, the existence of sculptures inspired by one of the foremost proponents of peace seems like an ideal starting point.

It has been mooted that an open pit mine might allow for mining and preservation side by side.  But mining leads to exposure and a lack of regulation that might result in looting.  The top halves of a number of sculptures are already missing, allegedly already stolen.  Mining might only add to the issues and not fix them.

Cultural heritage of this sort requires protection.  Such a view might be considered as one that comes from a privileged, secondary outlook.  However, it might be beneficial in the long run.  Who knows, we can only wait and see.

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