What Does Mes Aynak Mean for Afghanistan?

Relic at Mes Aynak in Afghanistan (Photo available on Save Mes Aynak Facebook page)

On the surface, Afghanistan is a poor, war-torn country struggling to distance itself from its terrorist camps, extremist groups, and poppy fields. But there’s more to the country than meets the eye. Afghanistan has a rich and diverse history, abundant natural resources, and a strong desire to create a better future.

The past, present, and future come together in National Geographic magazine’s recent article, “Rescuing Mes Aynak.” The article describes archaeologists’ speedy excavation of the ancient Buddhist complex before a Chinese copper mine obliterates it. The reader is invited to imagine a different Afghanistan from what we know today and consider what can make it prosper again — the treasures of the earth or the treasures of the past.

Harsh Conditions in Afghanistan

President Ashraf Ghani’s year-old administration is struggling to create a secure and prosperous Afghanistan. The official unemployment rate in the country is about 35 percent — four times as high as it was in 2013 — and economists say it is closer to 50 percent when the large numbers of underemployed are added.

Add to the economic woes, the threat of Taliban militants who are expanding their reach into new areas of Afghanistan. Earlier this year, Afghan soldiers reported a 70 percent higher casualty rate than in the same period last year, and civilian casualties have increased 10 percent over the same period. In Ghowr province in central Afghanistan, most residents of two major districts fled their homes because of fighting.

It’s hard for Afghanistan to create a better future when it’s so hard for the government to find stability in the present. Many Afghans hope to find security from outside the country’s borders.

Kabul (Photo by Heinrich-Böll-Stiftung available on Flickr)

China to the Rescue?

China is one potential savior for Afghanistan. The superpower of the Far East is renowned for flooding the world with its consumer goods. To do that, China has relied on steady imports of raw materials, which it gets from developing countries like Ecuador, Chile, Mongolia, Sierra Leone, and Gambia.

Afghanistan could be posed to be another big raw materials exporter. There are nearly $1 trillion in untapped mineral deposits in the country including iron, cobalt, gold, and critical industrial metals like lithium, which are used in batteries for electric cars, portable laptops, and iPhones. An internal Pentagon memo stated that Afghanistan could become the “Saudi Arabia” of lithium.

Mining for Copper Outside Kabul

In 2007, the Beijing-based China Metallurgical Group Corporation (MCC) won rights to extract an estimated 20 million tonnes of copper on a site south of Kabul, near the Pakistan border. The Chinese offer to invest $3 billion in the project beat out four other bids from Russia, the United Kingdom, Canada, and the United States, and surprised some analysts in Kabul who expected the tender to go for less than $2 billion.

The deal with MCC represented the largest foreign investment in Afghanistan’s history. Not only will it provide jobs for Afghans and money for the government, but the Chinese company will also develop energy and transportation infrastructure to support the project.

There’s only one problem with the MCC deal: the copper mine is located beneath the remains of ancient Buddhist treasures.

Buddhist Monks and Miners

Beautiful Mes Aynak, Afghanistan (Photo by Simon Norfolk available on Save Mes Aynak Facebook page)

The name of the site is Mes Aynak, which means “little copper well” in Pashto. Surprisingly, it’s not a name coined by people eager to exploit the site’s rich natural resources today. When Mes Aynak flourished between the third to eighth centuries, AD, it was a spiritual hub and key industrial center because of its copper. At least seven multi-story Buddhist monastery complexes containing temples and monks’ quarters, sit right on top of the copper ore.

“I do not know of any other site where monasteries coexisted in perfect [symbiosis] with production or industrial centers,” said Zemaryalai Tarzi, an Afghan archaeologist. “These kinds of tight relationships between Buddhist monasteries and the industrial or commercial exploiters of natural resources have no precedent.”

The uniqueness of Mes Aynak makes it such a treasure. While Buddhism doesn’t believe nature is sacred, it does espouse detachment from materialism and over-consumption as a means to a more enlightened life. But the people who lived in Mes Aynak burned huge quantities of wood to extract copper from the ore, which led to a completely deforested landscape and reduced water supply. They were Buddhists who didn’t care about the environment.

An Argument for Exploitation

The site is important for scholars interested in studying the relationship between Buddhism and industry 1,500 years ago. But is it important to Buddhists? Will the global community actually be able to travel to the Taliban-controlled province to see it? And is it worth preserving at the expense of jobs and money the Chinese company is promising Afghanistan?

Given the dire economic situation in Afghanistan and security threats, the current practice of excavating, documenting, and removing the artifacts at Mes Aynak makes sense. Even if the Chinese company doesn’t mine the site, the artifacts would face threats from looters and the Taliban. (The Taliban blew up two colossal, sixth-century Buddha statues carved out of a cliff face in 2001 at Bamian because they were not Islamic.)

Plus, would the ancestors who once lived at Mes Aynak really fault this generation for mining the land they cared so little about themselves?

An Argument for Preservation

But there’s something that feels wrong about not preserving the story of Mes Aynak in its current location. Perhaps it’s because the economic and security benefits that come with the Chinese mine are just short-term. In 30 years, when MCC has mined all the copper, all that may be left is an open-pit, contaminated water, an aging infrastructure, and less marketability to foreign countries.

And if UNESCO lists Mes Aynak on the List of Endangered Sites and the World Heritage List, the site will gain some security from looters and the country will get some funding from the international community. (You can sign a Change.org petition here to encourage UNESCO to list Mes Aynak.) The problem: only Afghanistan has authority to ask UNESCO to list the site.

An Enlightened Future for Afghanistan?

The ancient site of Mes Aynak presents Afghanistan with an opportunity to shape its future. Its people and its land have been tortured by war and conflict for generations. Foreign countries have dominated its government and resources. While China isn’t invading Afghanistan with tanks and trucks, it will exert power merely by controlling the country’s purse strings.

In the end, what will be left? While the benefits of jobs and money are hard to resist, Afghanistan needs more than short-term solutions. It needs to remember its glorious past and strive to create a glorious future.

And even if the Buddhists of Mes Aynak didn’t care about the environment, it doesn’t mean that the Muslims of Afghanistan shouldn’t.

Pre-Islamic Afghan shrine (US Embassy Kabul Afghanistan available on Flickr)

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About the Author

I'm an organic-eating, energy-saving naturalist who composts and tree hugs in her spare time. I have a background in environmental law, lobbying, and field work. I believe in God; however, I do not call myself a Christian or a Jew or a member of any religion. I am merely someone who finds a spiritual connection to all humans and the environment. You can find me on Twitter, Facebook, and .