Copper Mine Threatens Ancient Afghan Monastery

mes aynak afghanistan buddha statues photo

Statues at the Mes Aynak site. Photo: Nikki Diana Marquardt. Used with permission.

A decade ago, the Taliban's destruction of two 1,500-year-old Buddha statues in the Bamiyan Valley drew worldwide attention to Afghanistan's rich archaeological heritage. Now, 10 years later, another ancient Buddhist site is at risk of being lost -- not to war, but to the process of rebuilding the country.While digging a copper mine in Mes Aynak, south of Kabul, workers with China Metallurgical Group Corp. (M.C.C.) "discovered" a 2,600-year-old Buddhist monastery dating back to at least the 4th century, full of ancient statues, frescoes, pottery, gold and silver coins, and domed shrines.

Race To Save Archaeological Treasures
Afghan archaeologists had known about the site since the 1960s but conflict had kept them from excavating it. Since the discovery last year, they have been rushing to salvage what they can before the open-pit mine is completed. An informal agreement between the company and the firm gave them three years to do so, an amount of time experts say is insufficient, especially given the lack of funds and personnel. Archaeologists also told the Los Angeles Times earlier this summer that the deadline to finish the salvage excavation keeps changing.

mes aynak afghanistan statue restoration photo

Fragments from the Mes Aynak site being reassembled. Photo: Joanie Meharry. Used with permission.

"That site is so massive that it's easily a 10-year campaign of archaeology," Laura Tedesco, an archaeologist brought in by the U.S. Embassy to work on sites in Afghanistan, told the Daily Mail last year. "Three years may be enough time just to document what's there."

Mine Raises Environmental Concerns Too
Exploited for its copper since ancient times -- Mes Aynak means "little copper well" -- the mine stands to generate tens of billions of dollars and bring much-needed jobs and economic activity to the war-torn country, though government corruption will likely limit how much of that trickles down to its people. The Association for the Protection of Afghan Archaeology has started a petition to get Mes Aynak included on UNESCO's World Heritage List and List of Endangered Sites to ensure its protection.

Though cultural heritage is most prominently at risk, the mining work raises environmental concerns as well. In a January 2008 report, the European research group Integrity Watch Afghanistan noted that environmental impact and the involvement of local communities had "not yet been approached as a major issue" despite the "potentially disastrous consequences" of failing to appropriately deal with the highly toxic wastes produced by copper mining and the water consumption involved in the project. A copper mine run by M.C.C. in Pakistan is "widely said to have serious environmental problems," the New York Times reported in 2009.

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Copper Mine Threatens Ancient Afghan Monastery
A decade ago, the Taliban's destruction of two 1,500-year-old Buddha statues in the Bamiyan Valley drew worldwide attention to Afghanistan's rich archaeological

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