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Miners risk their lives in black gold rush

Waheed Orya
Despite deadly working conditions and lack of government oversight, poor workers seeking quick wages are flocking to work in the coal-rich regions of Afghanistan.
11.08.2014  |  Samangan

Teen-aged boys have a distinct advantage over the older miners of Dara-e-Suf, a coal-rich area in central Afghanistan's Samangan province. Burrowed into the foothills of the Hindu Kush is a vast network of dark, narrow shafts running as deep as 1.7 kilometers. One must be of medium height to access their veins of "black gold," as the locals call it, without having to crouch. The mine's proprietor, a private businessman, prefers workers like Hassan, 13, over taller and stronger men.

With a whip in his hand and his three donkeys in tow, Hassan works up to twelve hours a day. Every 40 minutes, he emerges from the depths with fresh loads of coal. For this, he scrapes together a monthly wage of 11,000 Afghanis, or one-tenth the national average, on which he sustains himself as well as his animals.

A young miner leads his team of donkeys from a shaft in Dara-e-Suf. Photos: Waheed Orya

Aside from backbreaking labor and pitiful wages, the threat of getting crushed, maimed or buried alive are daily occupational risks for those working the belt of northern Afghanistan’s 11 coal mines, which stretch across the country from Badakhshan in the northeast to Herat province in the west. Afghanistan sits atop between 100-400 million metric tons of high-quality coal according to international estimates, but decades of war and neglect have turned its mine shafts into some of the most dangerous in the world. The government does little to oversee excavation, allowing miners to extract the coal using primitive techniques. Casualties are alarmingly common.

Miner Ghulam Nabi recently lost four of his male relatives in an accident inside the 58-year-old mines of Dara-e-Suf, some 156 kilometers from the capital of Samangan province. The mines here have better conditions than most others in Afghanistan, with sturdy wood columns that prop up the mine shafts to prevent them from collapsing. “Every year, at least ten people lose their lives in these mines,” Nabi says.

Because the mines are not mechanized, miners spend long hours inhaling air dense with carbon dust, which leads to chronic skin and respiratory problems, says Dara-e Suf's public health director Khalid Danish. The provincial government has made limited efforts to improve miners' access to healthcare, but the clinics are overcrowded and out of reach for most workers. People are reluctant to visit the clinics regularly because of cultural barriers, Danish says, but urgent cases have health workers treating over 100 patients around the clock. 

Despite the haphazard conditions, which local officials say claim up to two lives each month, workers who live hundreds of kilometers away come here in search of quick wages. The site lacks technical oversight, and explosions and fires erupt regularly. Once, miners accidentally sparked an inferno that took 15 years to extinguish.

Most workers are poor men from remote villages who toil inside the mine shafts to earn 15,000 Afghanis a month. The coal they mine is used to fuel electricity plants, heat iron furnaces and fire bricks. Sold throughout the country and exported to Pakistan, a single kilogram of Dara-e-Suf coal produces up to 8,500 calories of heat.

Mohammad Reza, who is 20 and unmarried, travels for 24 hours from his native village in Alauddin to Dara-e-Suf. He and his two friends share a team of four donkeys, and sleep in a rented shack on the mines’ outskirts. Though he admits the shafts are dangerous, Reza says he has no choice but go inside, as he is the sole breadwinner of his family. “When we decide to dig deeper into the shaft, we hope that our employer gives us columns to hold it up. But if not, we still go ahead despite the risk,” he says.

After extracting coal from the shafts, miners load the spoils into trucks. Drivers pay 1,600-2,300 Afghani per load. 

Most of Dara-e-Suf’s 300 sites belong to private owners. Businessmen typically spend around 200,000 Afghani to open a new mine shaft, and invest in additional maintenance projects at their own discretion. In return for one-sixth of the spoils, proprietors allow around 10,000 miners to excavate the coal and sell most of it on to truck drivers, said Ahmad Ali Hassani, the governor of Dara-e-Suf-e-Bala District. The government’s policy towards the mines is largely hands-off. Instead of regulating the miners, officials tax each vehicle that carries coal off the site.


Growing business

Ghulam Nabi, a 45-year-old Uzbek, works with his two sons in a mine shaft owned by a man named Salman. By employing six family members and working with a team of four donkeys, Nabi says he is able to earn up to $8,000 a month. Like other miners, Nabi takes special pride in his donkeys. Sustained on whey and straw, mine donkeys are capable of loading up a truck full of coal every four days, and cost almost four times the price of regular donkeys sold at the bazaar. At 15,000 Afghani, the donkeys constitute a hefty investment that only pays for itself if at least three animals are put to work, Nabi says.

After miners like Nabi load up the trucks, drivers pay them 1,600-2,300 Afghani depending on the coal’s quality. Legally, each truck is only permitted to transport 25 tons of coal at a time, but truckers often bypass the regulation by bribing the on-site government official the going rate of 500 Afghani per each illegal ton. After paying the government tax of 1,500 Afghani, the drivers make the three-day journey to Mazar-e-Sharif, where bazaar prices fetch a profit of 10,000 Afghani per truckload.

As interest in mining grows due to rampant unemployment, so too does the rate of tax collection, according to Hassani. Despite rampant smuggling, the Afghan government’s revenue from the mines has climbed 28 percent since 2011, from 1 to 1.7 billion Afghanis.

Many workers travel long distances to work in Dara-e-Suf and spend their nights in makeshift dwellings on the mine's outskirts.

But the country’s wealth of black gold may not go unchecked for long. Spurred by reports of smuggling as well as the high rate of mining accidents, the Ministry of Mines and Petroleum has launched a crackdown on illegal and unregulated mining sites, spokesman Muhammad Rafi Rafeeq told Afghanistan Today. The mechanism moving forward is to give short-term contracts to miners and enlist the security forces and the judiciary to stop illegal practices. The contracts would require miners to adopt stricter safety practices while also giving them access to health facilities and better machinery. “This could be the beginning of professionalizing mines and putting an end to fatalities,” Rafeeq says. 

While policing the mines may cut down smuggling, productivity rates and working conditions are unlikely to improve without major international investment in infrastructure, training and technology. In a March report, the World Bank suggests investment in regional supply chains as a way toward job creation and effective exploitation of Afghanistan’s natural resource wealth. Without such projects, the report suggests that mining Afghanistan’s black gold may remain a hazardous and isolated profession for decades to come.

“The Ministry of Mines and Petroleum makes more than 1.5 billion Afghanis every year, but has done nothing in terms of services or reducing fatalities,” Hassani says. “Engineers should be consulted to make sure the excavations are safe. Clinics should be here to provide first aid, but nothing has been done. These poor people know nothing. They simply go inside [the shafts] to make a living, and end up buried under the mountain or crushed by falling stones.”