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Ainak: Mining model that promised the earth

Rahmat Alizada
The Ainak copper mine was to be a showpiece for ventures to tap Afghanistan’s vast mineral wealth, while providing opportunities for local communities. Five years after the almost three-billion-dollar investment…
24.03.2012  |  Ainak
Barely on the map, villages like this are being controversially resettled as Ainak Copper Mine gears up for production. (Photos: Alizada)
Barely on the map, villages like this are being controversially resettled as Ainak Copper Mine gears up for production. (Photos: Alizada)

A giant, gleaming venture that will bring hundreds of millions of dollars revenue to the Afghan state coffers, provide thousands of jobs and fair compensation for hundreds of displaced families. 

That was the bright picture painted by the Afghan government about the development of the Ainak site, which is located 35 kilometres south of Kabul and holds an estimated 13 million tons of copper. But even before production is expected to start in 2014, the reality is shaping up bleakly for some locals who were turfed off their land to make way for the miners.

Families moved from five villages in the first phase of resettlement say they did not receive compensation or new infrastructure, which bodes ill for others yet to be moved.

“We used to have water right in front of our houses and now we have to bring water from two kilometres away,” said Gulzar, a tribal elder whose family was forced to vacate its home and now lives on a plain in Logar Province’s Mohammad Agha district. 

“We do not have a mosque. We do not have a cemetery. We have no place here to share our happiness - or grievances,” he told Afghanistan Today.

Families from vacated villages built new houses. While they once had water sources by their homes they must now fetch it from afar.  

Mara Jan, a 51-one-year old man representing Wali Baba village, told a similar story: “We were among forty-two families that left their houses [in late autumn 2010]. We hoped that the government of Afghanistan would provide us with new properties and that our lives become better, but it did nothing for us and we built the houses for ourselves.”

The authorities insist that while slow, the compensation process is underway and just. But while the sides bicker, there is a conspicuous lack of delivery on local infrastructure also promised,  say critics.

Logar Province parliamentarian Shakila Hashemi believes the Chinese side, aided by corrupt Afghan partners, is trying to renege on its side of the deal. Revenues from the mine are supposed in practice to benefit much of the province’s  population but show few signs of doing so, she noted.

“Although we live 60 kilometres from the centre of Logar, we do not have electricity; we do not have TVs, roads and schools,” Hashemi said.

Golden child project slips into “mess” category

The huge Ainak copper deposits were first surveyed by the Soviets three decades ago. But they defied earlier exploitation because of armed conflict, which left the area heavily sown with explosive mines, as well as the complexities of  a bidding process attracting large international investors to work the site.

The mine project has created jobs for workers and carers on ancient sites unearthed at the site.

In 2007, the Metallurgical Corporation of China Ltd (MCC) beat 13 other foreign companies in a  tender to operate the mine. But movement was slow on implementation of the deal, which is also supposed to include a four-hundred-megawatt power station that will serve the region and Kabul. 

For its part, MCC has blamed delays in production that was planned to start by 2012 partly on the Afghan government's handling of the resettlement issue. Land issues in Afghanistan are prone to conflict as the past regime changes have resulted in conflicting and overlapping land titles. 

As for clearing the site, the first steps were only taken in 2010. The first few of 11 villages slated for compulsory resettlement were vacated in a fashion that alarmed observers of the process.

Nok Frick, the former head of the South African Geological Survey and an advisor to the Afghan government, sees land rights in general as a major challenge for the exploitation of natural resources in Afghanistan: "The expropriation law is sound in principle, but there is no property cataster, there's been a lot displacement due to war, landgrabs, traditional land rights. It's a mess."

Big sums are available to the little people, in theory

Regarding money owed to the Afghan state under the Ainak agreement, MCC has so far paid 133 of 808 million US dollars of an advance payment due by 2014 before it can start extracting the copper, Minister of Mines Wahidullah Shahrani said in February.

Down in the arid plains of Ainak, tensions are building over sums that are far smaller but constitute major wealth in local terms. While some displaced families claim to have received nothing, Logar Governor Attiqullah Lodin told Afghanistan Today that compensation has been correctly paid out.

“We do not have a mosque. We do not have a cemetery. We have no place here to share our happiness - or grievances,” says Gulzar.

Families received 300,000 (6,000 dollars) afghanis per jerib (0.2 hectare) of land, up to a maximum of 20 jerib, said Lodin, adding that some claims were spurious since they concerned mountainous rather than arable terrain. And each family that loses its house receives an additional 375,000 afghanis to build a new home. 

There are bonuses, such as an additional gift of ten acres of farming land for every family member who is 18 years old or married. But much of the trouble seems due to the de facto usage of land over generations by families who may have no documentation of ownership, or only local forms of agreement that are not recognized by the state. But they still expect compensation.

For example, Hajji Akbar, from the now vacated Adam village, demands compensation for 150 jeribs of agricultural land with accessible water and a staggering 5,500 jeribs with no water. “I want the government to pay me the price of my property in cash or in agricultural land,” he said.

Jalil Jumriany, Director General for Policy and Promotion in the Ministry of Mines, insists that all residents will be compensated according to World Bank regulations but that claims can be unrealistic: "Our people think that if a foreign company is involved they can ask for a lot of money," said Jumriany, acknowledging  that the documentation issue is a hotbed of disputes. 

Regarding families already moved from the village of Wali Baba in the first phase of resettlement, Governor Lodin stood his ground: “Each of the 41 families has been given three hundred and seventy-five thousand afghanis in return for their house. In total, eight million afghanis have been distributed to these families,” he said.

Corruption allegations abound

Jawed Noorani, a researcher at Integrity Watch Afghanistan, an Afghan NGO, called the resettlement situation at Ainak “worrying”.

“People who have left their houses currently live in houses that they have bought themselves or that they have rented,” Noorani told Afghanistan Today. “The government has not yet delivered on the promises it made. Instead, it accuses people of having connections with anti-government forces.”

"Corrupt people from the project should be removed and replaced with people who work honestly.” Tribal elder

At the same time, Noorani concedes that the government has been learning in the process, trying to engage the residents.

Abdul Wali, a member of the Logar Provincial Council, claimed the project was rife with corruption, starting with backhanders allegedly paid to members of the council and the Ministry of Mines five years ago.He also believes that after the “land mafia” have had their piece of the pie, the families moved from their homes will be the ultimate losers.

“A lack of good procedures addressing all the problems and corruption when the project was contracted out have created a host of problems for the families who have left their houses or are going to leave their houses,” Wali said.

What people have gained in Ainak

Meanwhile, officials cite the many new jobs that appeared as a result of the project. About 2,700 Afghans are employed at the copper mine, according to the government, including a security force of 1,600 and staff supporting archeologists digging out  ancient sites that were found in the area.

Far-flung posting: a camp for Chinese mine workers at Ainak.

Overall, MCC has committed itself to provide 3,000 jobs at the mine itself, 85 per cent of which must be held by locals after 8 years of production. But Western geologists, pointing to the track record of Chinese mining companies, warn that so far MCC has done little to train the needed workforce and might justify the use of Chinese workers with a lack of skilled Afghan labour. 

Despite the compensation disputes, many locals acknowledge that jobs have appeared.

“I am happy that dozens of young people of our area who either were unemployed or had part-time jobs are now permanently employed with good salaries,” said local tribal elder Mara Jan. “But corrupt people from the project should be removed and replaced with people who work honestly.”

Ghazi, a resident of one of the villages in the area, is also satisfied with the project and its spinoffs. “I was in Iran. When work on Ainak Copper Mine was started, my family called me to come back to Afghanistan, where I now work in the ancient sites.”

What next? 

There has been no reported violent unrest in the Ainak area over alleged defrauding of locals, But some residents are getting increasingly belligerent about perceived threats to their lives and families. 

“I warn the government of Afghanistan that it should first solve problems of families who were already moved out of their houses and have no where to live, before moving us out of our houses,” said Haji Dowlat, a representative of Abdul Rahman village which will be cleared in the second phase. 

The resettlement process in Ainak  is the first major test of government's capability to deal with Afghanistan's natural resources and the conflicts of interest that arouse from their exploitation. But as an indication of the government’s ability to manage exploitation of the vast wealth in untapped natural resources across the land, it is hardly textbook material.