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Lucky for some: Where goes the lapis wealth?

Khushqadam Usmani
Mined in Badakhshan, the royal blue lapis lazuli gemstone has for thousands of years won favour around the world in jewellery designs and carvings. Exquisite yet affordable and said to bring luck and happiness, it…
10.05.2012  |  Faizabad
Dark tunnels, shadowy control of mining operations. Lapis wealth has been spirited away for decades in Badakhshan. (Photo: Ministry of Mines) 
Dark tunnels, shadowy control of mining operations. Lapis wealth has been spirited away for decades in Badakhshan. (Photo: Ministry of Mines) 

When a nationally-owned mine that has been producing valuable minerals for decades makes its first contribution to the state budget only in 2010, you know the intrigues there probably run deeper than its deposits.

Prior to these 230,000 dollars, says Mohammad Akbari, head of the Mining Department of Badakhshan Province, there is no record of revenues from the Sar-e-Sang mine, which is located on the world’s largest concentrations of lapis lazuli. Last year, taxes on licensed miners added another 26 million afghanis (538,000 dollars) to state coffers.

But the numbers don’t impress the local population, which has for years been largely bypassed by the lapis wealth.

“We are the poorest and most backward people in the world, hardly able to feed ourselves,” says Abdul Mahdee Amiri , a resident of the mining area in the Karan and Manjan district. “We, the locals, have received zero benefit from this mine, only people in power use it illegally for their own gain.”

Rich legacy

Lapis lazuli is one of the oldest of all gems, with a history stretching back more than 7,000 years, having adorned the courts of the Incas and the Egyptians. In the 13th Century, Marco Polo traversed what is now Badakhshan and wrote: “There is a mountain in that region where the finest azure [lapis lazuli] in the world is found. It appears in veins like silver streaks.”

Lapis from what is now Badakhshan was popular with the pharaohs of ancient Egypt,. (Photo: Didier Descouens) 

Badakhshan is also known for its deposits of rubies, turquoise, emeralds and gold, laid down across desolate and remote mountain terrain. The Sar-e-Sang lapis mine alone, situated 150 kilometres from Faizabad, is 300 kilometres long and 47 kilometres wide. Since the reign of the late king Mohammad Zahir Shah, it has been illegally exploited by various factions.

When President Hamid Karzai came to power a decade ago the locals hoped the lapis bounty would finally be made to work for them. If anything, things got worse, say those who have dug the gemstone.

“At the time of the resistance [to the Soviets], the people of Badakhshan still benefitted from the mine, even though there was a war going on,” said shopkeeper Noor-ul-Ameen Amani, who spent four years down the lapis mines. 

Local strongmen took the lion’s share but at least provided funds for infrastructure, he recalled, citing the Karan and Manjan road built with lapis proceeds during the 1990s.

 “Now nobody knows where and to whom the money from the mine goes.”

Reform is easier said than implemented

No single company has exclusive rights to work the mine, says the mining department, which put its known reserves at 1,300 tons. Rather, small-holders receive licenses and are required by the department's representatives on site to pay a 15 per cent tax on the yield.

“Mines in Badakhshan are exploited very primitively by a certain group of people and these mines are being ruined.”

Critics, however, claim the mine’s formal management is cosmetic, and that the real control lies with its powerful security detachment commander. The brother of a member of the national parliament who is close to Karzai, he is reputedly shielded from all attempts to remove him.

“The mine produces millions of dollars. High ranking officials of the government of Afghanistan are involved in the illegal exploitation of this mine,” said Mawlawi Zabihullah Ateeq, chairman of Badakhshan’s Provincial Council. 

According to Ateeq, he and the provincial governor took a group of senators to see the mine last year. The senators looked at how it was run, then urged the dismissal of the current management and steps to properly contract the mine out to the private sector, he said. 

“After they returned to Kabul no action was taken in response to their recommendations, which shows that high-ranking government officials are involved in the illegal exploitation of the lapis mine,” he said. “Mines in Badakhshan are exploited very primitively by a certain group of people and these mines are being ruined.”

The underlying wealth of the region jarrs with its poverty. Here, mud houses are clustered in the mining area. (Photo: Ministry of Mines)

Fingers are uniformly pointed at the lapis mine’s security chief, Assadullah Mujadidi, who heads an armed force of 120 men and is accused of running the issuance of licenses as he wishes and the collection of “taxes” independently of legitimate government control.

His alleged heavy-handedness is creating bitterness. “If this person is not relieved of his position, it is possible that the people will turn to the Taliban,” said a local resident who did not wish to be named.

The commander's own nominal superior, Sakhi Dad Haidari, head of security division at the Badakhshan Police Headquarters, rejects claims that Mujadidi is reliant on his influential brother’s support. “Local conflicts are due to what happened here in the past, these types of conflicts are everywhere in Afghanistan,” he said.

If any instruction came down to remove the commander for improper behaviour it would happen immediately, he stressed, but there has been no such order.

Haidari’s predecessor at the police headquarters, General Sayeed Hossein Safawi, has been quoted by media as saying the provincial government has lost control of the mine to highly-placed individuals in Kabul. Now local officials keep quiet about the workings of the mine for fear of losing their jobs, Safawi claims.

Denials, intrigues and a wasted asset 

Mujadidi himself says he has brought an end to illegal mining and smuggling at the site during his five years in this job. He rejects the accusations against him as a smear campaign by those he has pushed out of the illegal business.

Lapis set in silver earrings, mined in Badakhshan, sold in Tajikistan, worn in Germany. (Photo: Ela Przeciszewska)

“I do not have anything to do with the revenues of the mine since it is not my duty. My duty is to provide security to the mine and those who work here,” he told Afghanistan Today. “If the government wants me to work here, I will, if not I will work elsewhere.”

His brother, the parliamentarian Zalmay Mujadidi, did not return calls requesting comment on the situation at Sar-e-Sang. 

Meanwhile, the head of the provincial mining department, Akbari, said work is underway to regulate the sector and that a team of engineers would soon survey all the mines in Badakhshan.

Despite the controversy surrounding the lapis mine in particular, he emphasises that budget contributions are ongoing amid plans for change: “We are trying to contract out the mine as soon as they can so that it can be used in a better way.”

The economist and head of the international relations committee of the Afghan Chamber of Commerce and Industries, Azarakhsh Hafizi, remains critical about the protracted mismanagement of one of the country’s prime assets.

“Lapis of Badakhshan has been found in the pyramids of Egypt,” he said. “It shows that the people of Badakhshan were then better in terms of the exploitation of their mines and they also had trade relations with other countries.

“Lapis in other countries, especially in Europe, is called the stone of luck, which means it brings happiness, But unfortunately the government of Afghanistan has not yet done anything to address this.”