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The Killid Group
Stalemate at AynakWritten by Hamid Kohistani
Saturday, 22 October 2011 10:34
An ambitious project to mine copper just outside Kabul has been delayed and will not start producing before 2014.
Extraction work at the Aynak copper mines has been postponed for more than a year, according to officials in the Ministry of Mines. A Chinese joint venture, which won the international bid in 2007, had expected to begin production by the end of 2011.
The Aynak mine in Logar province is believed to contain the world's second largest copper deposits.
On paper the multi-billion dollar Chinese 13 billion USD investment - between the state-owned majority partner China Metallurgical Group Corp. (also known as MCC) and Jiangxi Copper Corp. - is Afghanistan's largest-ever infrastructure project.
Government officials expect the copper mine to earn hundreds of millions of dollars in royalties and taxes as well as provide jobs - direct and indirect - for nearly 40,000 people. The project is so designed that by the seventh year the entire work force will be Afghan. Training will be provided to the Afghan workers so they can take over more skilled jobs. However, this figures cannot be confirmed because the Ministry refuses to make the contract public.
On the ground
The reality is the work in the Aynak mines has not started. There are security concerns because of insurgent activity, which is precisely why the mines have been dormant since their discovery by a joint Soviet-Afghan team in 1974.
Authorities in Logar province including Atiqullah Lodin, the provincial governor, say foreign countries particularly Afghanistan's neighbours do not want the project to succeed. The provincial governor says Iran and Pakistan are interfering in the project but he does not give details. Under the terms of the deal, Afghanistan would have rights to half the initial output of 180,000 tonnes of copper that will eventually grow to 320,000 tonnes.
However, officials in the Ministry of Mines say they are not aware of foreign interference. According to engineer Nasir Ahmad Durani, deputy minister of mines, the delay was the result of lack of experience of the former minister of mines. Aynak is filled with the ruins of 5th century Buddhist monasteries. Teams have been working to save the artefacts before Chinese bulldozers start the open-pit mining for copper in the area. Khair Mohammad Khairzadah, an official in the Ministry of Culture and Information, confirms the excavations will stop by end-2013. There have been delays also in land acquisition and because of land mines from the years of conflict in Afghanistan. Durani insists the project is back on track since the change in the leadership of the ministry, and production at the Aynak mine will start in 2014.
Killid interviewed the previous minister of mines engineer Mohammad Ibrahim Adil to ascertain his opinion. He dismisses the charges made by Durani. In his opinion, "lack of expertise, inefficiency and lack of technical and administrative skills in the Ministry of Mines have led to the postponement of copper mining." He says the land for the project was acquired and handed over to MCC, which has to pay the compensation as agreed under the contract. "We carried out some acquisitions of lands occupied by people. The remaining part needed the approval of President Karzai, which did not take more than a month to get."
Adil was more forthcoming than officials in the Ministry of Mines regarding the charges of foreign meddling made by provincial authorities. As long as Afghanistan remains in poverty, he said, foreigners would try to interfere and influence the government.
Questions are being raised about the project's long-term impact on the environment. Afghanistan Transparency Watch has warned of ground water depletion unless the MCC and the Ministry of Mines take precautionary measures like building dams for water collection. Engineer Nasir Ahmad, also deputy minister of mines, maintains the smelter plants use advanced technology to minimise the damage to the environment. Abdul Wali Mudaqiq, coordinator of UNEP, says mining companies have to get environmental approval before large mining projects can begin. Meanwhile, MCC is still finalising its environmental assessment report.
Engineer Ghulam Mohammad Malakyar, Technical Deputy in the department of national environment says they have raised concerns about pollution and toxic wastes with the MCC. The MCC will not be allowed to use ground water. The mines ministry is responsible for providing water to the company. The ministry's Durani says they have "examined several wells in the Aynak area and all of them have enough water."
Najibullah Ziar of Transparency Watch says the government should make public the copper contract signed with the Chinese joint venture. "In order to avoid occurrence of repeated problems, it is important for us to have access to the contract," he said in an interview.
Mohammad Akber Stanikzai, MP from Logar, also has complaints about the lack of information about the public utility projects being undertaken by MCC. "Even I as an MP don't know," he says. How much land has been acquired and has everyone received compensation, he asks.