Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Riches Lie Below the Surface in Afghan Province

Locals say that precious assets are being squandered.
By Benafsha Benish
  • An expert examines emeralds from an Afghan mine. The mineral resources of Afghanistan are relatively unexplored even with Afghanistan's wealth of coal, copper, gold and iron ore, with precious and semiprecious stones. (Photo: Paula Bronstein/Getty Images)
    An expert examines emeralds from an Afghan mine. The mineral resources of Afghanistan are relatively unexplored even with Afghanistan's wealth of coal, copper, gold and iron ore, with precious and semiprecious stones. (Photo: Paula Bronstein/Getty Images)

Officials in Badghis complain that the province’s vast mineral resources are being wasted due to administrative incompetence and a lack of security.

Across Afghanistan, there are abundant deposits of extractables including copper, iron, lapis lazuli, barite, sulfur, chromium, magnesium and marble.

In Badghis, there are believed to be reserves of coal, petroleum and marble as well as precious and semi-precious stones.

It’s not only the ongoing insurgency that has made exploiting these reserves increasingly difficult. Local officials say that Kabul’s decision to increase transparency by ensuring that all mining contracts are approved by central government has served to further slow down development.

Mohammad Nasir Qadiri, acting director of the mines department in the northwestern province, said that Jowand, Ab-e Kamari, and Bala Murghab districts all had petroleum reserves. His department’s engineering team had also recently discovered reserves of coal in Laman, gypsum in Muqur and limestone in Qalah-e Naw.

Russian surveyors first identified extractable deposits in the province 20 years ago, and in 2007 a United States Geological Survey was conducted in specific, mineral-rich areas. Officials say that the reserves that were discovered ten years ago are just the tip of the iceberg.

“According to surveys of the mineral reserves of Badghis province, only 20 to 30 percent of [these resources] have been discovered so far,” Qadiri said.

Across the country, the Taleban earns millions of dollars from revenue on illegal mining, and in Badghis some locals report that precious and semi-precious stones such as lapis lazuli were being illegally mined in Ab-e Kamari, Qadis as well as some parts of Bala Murghab and Jowand districts.

Qadiri agreed that some illegal extraction of precious stones was ongoing, but played down its significance.

“Illegal mining in Badghis hasn’t been that considerable or widespread, but it’s said that some precious stones have been discovered by local people while digging and in excavation works [for building] and these have been taken to Herat province to be sold,” Qadiri said.

Badghis officials complain that a process intended to increase transparency in the mining sector has served to further hamper progress.

In 2016, the Kabul government decided that Afghanistan’s high economic council and national procurement commission would need to approve all mining contracts nationwide. This seems to have slowed down the process considerably.  

The ministry of mining and petroleum reported earning around 86 million US dollars in 2017, 19 million dollars more than in the previous year. However, no new major contracts were signed in 2017.

Qadiri said that impact of this decision had been felt in Badghis too.

In September 2016, the Rahmani Ghaibitani company won a 97 million Afghani contract to mine gypsum in Muqur district. However, after the presidential decree just weeks later, all work on the project stopped.

Ghulam Sakhi Sharifi, a representative of Rahmani Ghaibitani, confirmed that no mining or excavation work had been done since then.

“Apart from one contract which has been signed but not implemented, no mining contracts have been signed since 2016 when the president ordered that contracts can only be approved by the national procurement commission and the country’s high economic council,” Qadiri confirmed.

Abdul Qadeer Mutfi, the spokesman for the ministry of mines and petroleum, said that the 2016 legislation had been an essential move to fight corruption.

“Most of these contracts haven’t gone through a transparent bidding process, and the companies have ignored or not taken into consideration the conditions, terms and laws of mining,” he said.

Mutfi said that five committees had been formed at the ministry to evaluate all contracts, and the results would be published on their website.

He added that the gypsum mining project in Badghis province would be implemented after it was properly approved, unless the terms of the contract had expired.

All parties do agree that Afghanistan’s mining sector could be a central means of economic development.

Waheedullah Shahrani, a former mining and petroleum minister, said that investment in this sector was key to lifting the country out of poverty.

Economic expert Tariq Aziz agreed, adding, “Mineral extraction can both solve the unemployment problem and prevent our budget deficit.”

However, he said that Afghanistan had long lacked a consistent or focused policy regarding its resources.

The frequent changeover of often inexperienced ministers had not helped, and deteriorating security made mining even harder.

“Firstly, a specific and coherent strategy as well as ideal conditions are required for mining across a country,” Aziz said. “In addition, large and active international companies with a good record should be invited to the country so that they can extract the mines and minerals of Afghanistan in the best possible way by using modern science and methods."

This report was produced under IWPR’s Supporting Investigative Reporting in Local Media and Strengthening Civil Society across Afghanistan initiative, funded by the British Embassy Kabul.