Mes Aynak is an ancient settlement containing Buddhist temples, statues, relics, manuscripts and beneath that a Bronze Age chamber that is almost 5,000 years old. All this is smack-dab in the middle Afghanistan’s Logar province. The issue is $100 Billion Dollars of copper lies underneath the monastery complex that a Chinese mining company, China Metallurgical Group Corporation or MCC, has acquired the rights to. In 2009 archaeologists were given three years to attempt to excavate the site, but they say it’s a 30-year job and they currently have limited tools at their disposal.

As a last ditch attempt to preserve the site, Brent Huffman, a documentary film maker who has done previous films about China’s role in mineral extraction and development is putting his skills to use once more as a director and activist in order to try to save Mes Aynak.  He was nice enough to spare some time to let me interview him about the issue and gain a better understanding of what the situation in Afghanistan really is.

After speaking with Brent there is only one real way to explain the situation and that is “complicated.” It is not simply an issue of big corporation vs. anyone…more so it is a multilayered problem involving the Afghan government, Chinese government, various NGOs, the global North and disenfranchised locals who are not being given the right information. Each side has a point, but no one is really thinking in the long term for Afghanistan or Mes Aynak. The environmental toll this project will take on the land will be irreversible leaving once flourishing villages unfit for life.

Photo Credit: Brent Huffman

Photo Credit: Brent Huffman

Despite the Afghan government knowing about the existence of Mes Aynak since the early 1960’s, nothing was really done to preserve its cultural heritage. Then as times became more turbulent it seemed the MCC, whether through ethical channels or not, acquired the site for a little under 3 Billion US dollars for a 30 year lease in 2007 with the existence of Mes Aynak completely unknown to them.

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Photo Credit: Brent Huffman

With fear of a public relations nightmare in 2009 a 3 year window was allowed for archaeologists to examine the site. This year rising protests in many Buddhist nations such as Thailand, Vietnam and Sri Lanka has brought further attention to this issue. Brent has been using this time to document the site in case the worst is to happen.

So you may be asking yourself why the U.S government, UNESCO or some other major organization has not stepped in to help. Well it seems that it all comes down to 2014, when U.S. troops pull out. With the security of the area being fragile and most likely only to get worse, UNESCO will most likely just pull out of the whole country.  In respect to the U.S., well it seems they welcome the MCC. There is a $100 Billion dollars worth of copper under Mes Aynak. This mining operation would be a major step in developing jobs, revenue and income for the country and many western nations welcome it. But with China’s track record in such projects, the only people who are probably going to benefit are the MCC.  The foresight that Afghanistan may need these recourses is just not present and will cost them more than they could ever imagine in the long run. To make things more complicated the MCC is not an absolute evil in this situation. Since there are still issues of capacity and nepotism in the Afghan government it has been the MCC’s security protecting the site.

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Photo Credit: Brent Huffman

One thing that Brent really cleared up for me was who these looters are. Of course due to my ignorance and over-exposure to the news the first thing that came to mind was the Taliban. But it is not as clear cut as that. I think the best way to look at those attacking the site is “people angry for a good reason.” They are those who have been evicted from their village in order to be part of MCC’s other operations, or villagers promised jobs and money and a return to life as it was never delivered.  With weapons and a more than understandable amount of anger they have added to the complexity of this issue.

I read in another interview that Brent ideally wanted Mes Aynak to get the same tourism status as sites like Machu Pichu. I had thought this idea was promising too since while in Tajikistan I heard of small scale tourism being run in Northern Afghanistan. Apparently though these projects were short lived and any hope for tourism in the region is just not possible. Brent feels the danger every time he goes to visit, and it only seems to get worse.

On a positive note the Kickstarter campaign “The Buddha’s of Mes Aynak” reached full funding on December 15. The goal to fund a full length documentary, with segments already appearing on CNN. With continuing awareness of this issue growing worldwide the Ministry of Mines in Afghanistan has allowed an additional 6-9 months for excavation to take place.  Unfortunately the site is still marked for demolition in 2014. Let’s hope the release of the documentary will be enough to save the site.

Photo Credit: Brent Huffman

Photo Credit: Brent Huffman

If this article has inspired you, then don’t forget to “Like” The Buddhas of Mes Aynak on Facebook. Brent and I both agreed that North American society all to often associates Afghanistan as a war zone and a land of terrorists while the human and cultural capital of the region is forgotten. Afghanistan is rich in Silk Road history and beautiful people. The Afghans themselves do not always know about the treasures in their own country, let’s help to raise awareness for local and future generations alike!

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the author

Michael Soncina is an editor of Travel Culture Magazine and a sustainable tourism enthusiast from Toronto, Canada. He has lived in Singapore and spent time WWOOFing and working with youth groups as a volunteer throughout Japan. His love for adventure has taken him to Central Asia where through a series of good and very bad experiences fell in love with the region. Michael has become a self-made ambassador for eco and sustainable travel, particularly in Kazakhstan and Tajikistan. When he is not traveling he is defining himself as the executive director of Sonchy's Adventure, a responsible tourism marketing and media company.

  • http://www.facebook.com/melissamaejackson Melissa Jackson

    Very informative. I hope that Mes Aynak can be protected from being destroyed and I look forward to watching the documentary.

  • Gilad

    Great article. Super informative!

  • Matt

    I really appreciate you shedding some light on this issue – great article. I have some thoughts. The idea that the US or UNESCO needs to come in and interfere with the project seems like a misguided intent. Western nations like the US have no problem coming into countries in the name of stopping so called terrorists. And as well as if they can manipulate in the situation for their own political gain. UNESCO and other agencies are certainly guided by the similar “what’s in it for me mentality” – although much more subtlely. This usually manifests are more control over a particular ‘site’ of which they have little connection to otherwise.
    How can seeking to interfere and control these people from taking advange of the same riches and minerials that we have for so long benefitied from – been seen as moving forward towards a free and accepting world? Does it make sense for westerners to make decisions for Afgans ? If Afgans have a more favourable and fruitful relationship with the Chinese then who are westerners to stop it.

  • http://twitter.com/JvT2012 Joe van Troost

    Wow, I had no idea! Thanks for posting this.

  • Caedmon Ricker-Wilson

    Gracious, what a mess. It’s amazing how chaotic and miserable a situation like this can get, when someone with a lot of money starts making decisions with big impacts on a lot of people, without thinking about those people. I don’t have any idea how to smooth this out, other than to say that, if you’ve created a situation where people are willing to kill and die to oppose you, maybe you should slow down and listen to their needs.

  • Chris

    Not only people in North America who have these stereotypes about Afghanistan. I think it’s mainly a result of mainstream media reporting, too often following government policies.