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Chinese Threat to Afghan Buddhas

Documentarian reports on a threatened ancient Buddhist city

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April 30, 2013

This article originally appeared in The New York Times on April 24, 2013.

By Brent Huffman

When I first traveled to Afghanistan in 2004, I immediately fell in love with the country and its people, and I was optimistic that the young people in Kabul would soon have better lives. Yet my hopes dimmed as I learned about a revolving door of exploitation at the hands of the Russians, Americans and now the Chinese — who have begun mining Afghanistan’s plentiful natural resources and threatening priceless national heritage sites.

In 2007, the Chinese state-owned China Metallurgical Group Corporation (M.C.C.) won the rights to mine copper at a site called Mes Aynak. Situated in volatile Logar Province, Mes Aynak is home to one of the world’s largest untapped copper deposits — worth more than $100 billion. Yet, as this Op-Doc video shows, the site also houses the astonishing remains of an ancient Buddhist city, which archaeologists are now racing to save. An international team has only until June to finish the excavations, which began in 2009. So far they have uncovered golden Buddhist statues, dozens of buildings and fragile Buddhist manuscripts buried within temples. Yet perhaps 90 percent of the site remains underground and unseen. To finish the job could take decades. In all likelihood, the destruction of the Buddhist sites will begin later this year. The Afghan government is letting this happen — it’s a tragedy that echoes the notorious destruction of the Buddhas at Bamiyan in 2001.

Yet, even after four trips to Afghanistan to report this story, it’s difficult for me to know for sure what will become of Mes Aynak. Recent repeated attempts to contact the M.C.C. to confirm the mining timeline for this story have gone unanswered. There is widespread corruption and virtually no government transparency in Afghanistan, and the M.C.C. contract has never been made public.

I have heard arguments in favor of the mining. The copper deal is the largest foreign investment and private business venture in Afghanistan’s history. There is hope among some Afghans that this Chinese deal will bring real and positive change to Afghanistan — jobs, infrastructure and money to help fuel economic growth. Some of the Buddhist artifacts are being rescued, and it’s possible that not all of the ancient sites will be destroyed by the mining.

But I worry that nothing positive will come from this mining project. I fear the mineral resource is being undervalued, that money will be lost to corruption in the Afghan ministries and that jobs at the mine will go to Chinese immigrants. Geologists tell me that, as a result of the open-pit style of mining, the site will most likely become so toxic that nothing can ever live there again. Money can come and go, but these precious historical artifacts will be gone forever.

- Brent Huffman is a documentary filmmaker and assistant professor at Medill.

Topics: Opinion