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News Link • Afghanistan

The Treasure of the Safit Chir

Early one morning in June, just a week after the New York Times reported claims by U.S. officials that Afghanistan was perched atop enough copper, gold, iron, lithium, and assorted rare minerals and gemstones “to fundamentally alter the Afghan economy and perhaps the Afghan war itself,” I made my way with a local guide to the illegal mines of the Safit Chir, an emerald-rich line of ridges 100 miles northeast of Kabul. After a three-hour climb up trails navigable only on foot or by donkey, we greeted several miners, and one of them led us past the dark maws of the tunnels to the edge of a ridge, the better to see the places where his nation’s wealth might be hidden.

As we looked out over steep slopes dotted with purple delphinium, the snow-capped peaks of the Himalayas all around us, Abdul Latif told me that he had not always been a miner. He had become a mujahideen commander after the Soviet invasion in 1979, he said, and he’d faced the enemy’s artillery and helicopters in these very mountains: land mines and the bones of men were buried out there, and older things too. Haroon, another miner, said that while he was digging a new tunnel several years ago he came across ancient buried walls, the chamber of a house made with neat stone masonry. He found a clay amphora there and smashed it in the hopes of finding gold, but it contained only dust.

Afghanistan’s “artisanal” miners, the gem-seeking equivalent of subsistence farmers, have been extracting and exporting precious stones for more than seven millennia; archaeologists have discovered lapis lazuli from Afghanistan in ancient burial sites as far away as Egypt. For the 3,000 or so artisanal miners working today, the job remains difficult. They have no property rights and keep their operations hidden from the central government, which in any case has little control over the region. Fatal accidents from blasting, cave-ins and avalanches are not uncommon, and the miners survive on a diet of stale bread, tea, chickpeas, rice and hashish, brought up once a week by donkey. In the summer they live in small stone huts with tarpaulin roofs; in winter, they move down into the mines themselves. For these efforts, they produce gemstones with a market value of about $2.75 million annually, and probably keep about a tenth of that for themselves.

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