Saving Mes Aynak: The Perils of Development

Behind the visceral violence and chaos of armed conflict, Afghanistan’s economy is on a precipice. The majority of the Afghan economy—approximately 95% of its GDP—is dependent on foreign aid [3]. But with aid setting to decline in the post-occupation period, Afghanistan will need a new source of economic growth [8]. Natural resources may be the key for the beleaguered country.

Extractive industries are expected to become Afghanistan’s largest economic asset and its gateway to stability, security, and development. Current estimates place the value of Afghanistan’s mineral reserve at more than $3 trillion USD [4]. With the support of the World Bank and foreign investment, Afghanistan is poised to become a regional “Resource Corridor” in Central Asia [3, 4]. This would induce multi-sectorial growth, expanding extractive industries, infrastructure, services, and trade, boosting Afghanistan’s domestic revenue [8].

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Map of Afghanistan’s Mineral Wealth (Global Witness, 2012).

In 2008, Afghanistan signed its first large-scale mining contract with Chinese state-backed consortium, China Metallurgical Group Corporation and Jiangxi Copper (MCC‐JCL), to mine the country’s largest-known copper mine in Logar province—the Aynak concession [8]. Aynak has the potential to anchor Afghanistan’s “Resource Corridor.” MCC-JCL estimates the deposit contains $100 billion USD worth of copper. The benefits of such an investment are significant. According to the World Bank, with an estimate of 4,500 direct, 7,600 indirect, and 62,500 induced jobs, and $250 million annually for 250,000 tons of copper per year [10].


MCC-JCL Aynak Camp in Logar Province—Afghanistan’s Largest Copper Deposit (Starkey, 2013).

However, the viability of Afghanistan’s future threatens its past. Nested atop Aynak is one of Afghanistan’s most prolific archeological sites—Mes Aynak [7]. Mes Aynak is a spectacular collection of Buddhist monasteries, residential and commercial areas, Bronze Age remnants, and ancient fortifications that surrounded a once prosperous city [1]. It is a treasure trove of art and architecture [6]. Archaeologists regard it as potentially comparable to Pompeii, if properly preserved and excavated [2].


An archeologist examines the remains of a Buddah status at Mes Aynak (The Guardian, 2013). 

Even though it was discovered in 1963, and has immense cultural and historical importance to the country, strangely, the Aynak concession between the Afghan government and MCC-JCL makes no reference to the existence of the archeological site [8]. Further, the final results of the environmental and social impact assessment remain inaccessible to the public; therefore, it is unknown how the impacts of mining on Mes Aynak will be mitigated. What is known is that the copper deposit cannot be accessed without destroying not just the ruins, but the entire hill. Thus, efforts to develop the mine have often been cast as a battle between the miners and archaeologists [3, 5, 6, 11].

Pressure from the worldwide cultural heritage community forced MCC‐JCL and the government of Afghanistan to allow a group of “rescue” archeologists to conduct salvage work, which is completely inappropriate for an archaeological site of this magnitude [2]. Further, the archeologists were told they had six months to complete their work before blasting would commence in the “Red-Zone,” the core area of Mes Aynak, blasting would cause severe damage, either directly or as a consequence of the powerful underground vibrations from mining detonations [2]. Unfortunately, in the rush to develop Aynak, Afghanistan is jeopardizing its unique heritage.

The significance of the Aynak concession is pivotal for Afghanistan’s future. However, Mes Aynak could become a model example with a win-win outcome, developing methods to extract resources in a way that is culturally and historically responsible while meeting development needs [2, 3, 8]. Afghanistan’s National Environmental Impact Assessment law is nascent and untested to a project of this grandeur; therefore, it is pertinent that MCC-JCL and the government of Afghanistan agree that a feasibility study should take into account the potential impacts of the Aynak concession and the cost of properly relocating the archeological finds [3]. Further, the process must become transparent and collaborative, ensuring that management plans take account of the need to minimize and mitigate impacts on Mes Aynak. In addition, clear operational procedures must be established in the event that other archeological findings are identified during the lifetime of the project [8]. Ultimately, for future concessions, the Afghan government must consider potential cultural and historical risks relevant to proposed projects from the outset, enabling and regulating extractive industries and associated infrastructure, while avoiding impacts on archaeological resources [3]. For now, Mes Aynak is safe, but for how long?


[1] Benard, Cheryl, and Eli Sugarman. 2012. “Afghanistan’s Copper Conundrum.” Caucasus International 2 (3).

[2] Benard, Cheryl, Eli Sugarman, and Holly Rehm. 2012. “Cultural Heritage Vs. Mining on the New Silk Road?: Finding Technical Solutions for Mes Aynak and Beyond.” Stockholm: Silk Road Studies Program, Institute for Security and Development Policy.

[3] Global Witness. 2012. “Copper Bottomed? Bolstering the Aynak Contract: Afghanistan’s First Major Mining Deal.” Global Witness.

[4] GIRoA Media and Information Center. 2011. “30 Per Cent of Afghanistan’s Soil Mineral Reserves Worth Three Trillion USD, [press release]. Islamic Republic of Afghanistan. mineral-resources-worth-three-trillion-usd-&catid=38:news&Itemid=87.

[5] Glasse, Jennifer. 2013. “Afghan Archaeology Site Faces Rocky Future.” Aljazeera, May 20.

[6] Graham-Harrison, Emma. 2013. “Mes Aynak Highlights Afghanistan’s Dilemma over Protecting Heritage.” The Guardian, May 23.

[7] Lawler A., 2010, “Copper Mine Threatens Ancient Monastery in Afghanistan”, Science Magazine, July, 30.

[8] Noorani, Javed. 2013. “Aynak: A Consession for Change.” Integrity Watch Afghanistan.

[9] Peters, S.G., King, T.V.V, Mack, T.J., and Chornack, M.P., (eds.), and the U.S. Geological Survey Afghanistan Mineral Assessment Team. 2011. “Summaries of Important Areas for Mineral Investment and Production Opportunities of Nonfuel Minerals in Afghanistan: U.S. Geological Survey Open-File Report 2011–1204.” U.S. Geological Survey. pdf.

[10] World Bank. 2014. “Q&A: Aynak and Mining in Afghanistan. World Bank.

[11] Yavazi, Ferhad. 2013. “Mes Aynak Archeological Project”. Islamic Republic of Afghanistan—Ministry of Mines and Petroleum.


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