For the people of the eastern Nangarhar province and others across Afghanistan, a solution to high local unemployment may lie beneath their feet as rich and unique marble deposits start to win favour abroad
The machines used to extract and cut the marble are not state-of-the-art. (Photos: Sharifi)
Quarried in one of the most beautiful and troubled parts of Afghanistan, the dazzling white marble of Nangarhar is tipped to emerge as a new star of elegant design and construction in Europe and the Middle East.
Most of the around 5,000 tons produced here annually currently goes to the domestic market or to Pakistan. But samples shipped abroad are making their mark, say producers, while geologists sing the praises of the country's largely untapped underground bounty.
The white Chesht marble of Herat and Nangarhar’s Khogiani “have been favourably compared to Carrara marble, an Italian marble recognized to be one of the best quality in the world,” a team from the British Geological Survey wrote after conducting a study of the sector with the Afghan Ministry of Mining four years ago.
Then add the soft, dappled pink marble of Samangan, the cream, black and brown tortoise shell effect Dehnow marble of Logar province, the gentle flowing green onyx of Helmand, plus dozens more distinctive varieties from numerous provinces, and the potential is huge.
This has not escaped attention in Kabul. Minister of Commerce Anwar-Ul-Haq Ahady identified marble as one of seven key sectors for export promotion, others being gemstones, fruits and carpets.
“Our marble is competitive,” he said in a recent interview in his office. “Turkmenistan is a major buyer, and Italy has shown interest.”
However, problems in export remain, Ahady said. The lack of a rail and road routes pushes up transport costs, and energy shortages make it difficult to apply modern extraction methods.
So far, most of the Afghan marble is used locally.
Security has also deteriorated in many areas in the past few years. But at the same time, determined producers are taking advantage of precious pockets of stability that have appeared around prime quarrying spots, and Nangarhar is a prime example.
Shirzadu is the only one of the province's seven marble-rich districts that sees much activity at present. As local businessmen point out, this only happened after the land was wrested back from insurgent control by government and international forces.
“Three or four years ago the marble mines of the Shirzadu district were in Taliban-controlled areas,” said Aimal Mohmand, the head of the Jalalabad-based National Marble Production Company. “During mining the Taliban used to demand taxes and we inevitably had to pay up.”
But exports are now growing. Of the 1,000 tons quarried last year by the Sahel Marble Production Company, more than 300 tons were sold in-country and around 200 tons were exported to Pakistan.
Just as important are the samples being shipped further afield. Interested parties in Kuwait took 50 tons of Sahel's marble in 2010, another 26 tons went to Germany, and 13 tons to UK and China. The company is currently finishing an 18-ton order for Saudi Arabia.
Like most industries in Afghanistan, marble production is undergoing some painful birth throes. Because of the armed conflict and lack of facilities, marble was in recent years mostly exported - often illegally - as rough hewn blocks to Pakistan where it was processed and then transported back to Afghanistan. This imported finished variant has dominated the market as local producers have been unable to compete with the low prices and high quality goods fromthe neighbouring country.
"An almost unlimited supply of marble."
But local and foreign experts still have faith in the growth prospects.
“Afghanistan has massive resources of dimension stone and consequently has the potential to supply Middle Eastern and Asian markets with an almost unlimited supply of marble,” noted Clive Mitchell, one of the original British survey team who came to advise their Afghan counterparts in the mid 2000s. “However, the Afghan marble industry has suffered from a chronic lack of investment and poor access to international markets over the past few decades.”
Foreign investors have so far been understandably wary of taking the plunge in a country rocked by war. Most will likely wait for a few years to see what happens. But one Norwegian company already signed a contract to mine and process marble in Nangarhar, the provincial government’s mining supervisor Khan Agha said, while declining to name the company.
On the technical side, a main source of inefficiency is widespread blasting using ‘black powder’ that is typically imported from Pakistan. This causes micro-fracturing throughout an entire quarry and results in up to 50 per cent of wastage at the quarrying stage. Further wastage occurs at the marble factory where blocks often break up during the cutting and polishing stages of production.
But companies are gradually introducing better cutting equipment and quarrying techniques, while opening sidelines to minimize waste. For example, the Nangarhar-based Aryan Marble Production Firm will soon launch a project to construct decorative items like flowers from broken pieces of marble, said director Sangar Khan. The project will provide work for 200 widows.
As well as large slabs and blocks for construction and large-scale fashioning, the industry yields plenty of opportunity for other spin-offs such as gravestones, vases and other ornaments, all vital sources of employment. While illegal quarrying still hampers efforts to regulate and improve the industry, more legitimate companies are appearing, with positive effects for the local economy.
Sahel employs 80 of around 4,000 people legitimately engaged in mining in the Shirzadu district. Every day its workers and hundreds more from other firms go into the field and use machine tools to excavate large blocks of raw marble which are loaded onto trucks and taken to the factory. The blocks are cut with 80-bladed saws, then evened on grinders before they are polished up for the final cut according to customers’ orders.
Akramullah, a craftsman at Sahel, used to work for a marble company across the border in Pakistan where he earned the equivalent of $106 a month. Now he earns $142 without having to leave his family for long periods, and he is convinced that things are looking up in the sector.
“Compared to before, my economic situation has greatly improved,” he said.