Golden Buddha

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-Mes Aynak, in Afghanistan's Logar Province, boasts one of the largest undeveloped copper deposits in the world. But it is also home to vast archeological ruins, including 5th century Buddhist monasteries and even older Bronze Age settlements. Preservationists -- working furiously to excavate the nearby ruins before they are buried under mining rubble -- have urged restraint in developing the copper deposits. But those focused on Afghanistan's economic development have urged the country to move full speed ahead, citing the dire need for the $1 trillion in revenue that the mine could bring to the impoverished country. Is the potential for economic growth worth more than the loss of cultural heritage? Professor Brent E. Huffman, a documentary filmmaker and assistant professor at the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University who has been making a film at Mes Aynak, says there is little hope that much will be saved when the mining begins in earnest. Here, we take a an inside look at the 2,000 year-old Buddhas, temples, and other relics that could soon be destroyed. Above, an Afghan archaeologist drapes a fabric across the remains of Buddha statues discovered inside an ancient monastery in Mes Aynak on Nov. 23, 2010. Image Courtesy-Shah Marai/AFP/Getty Images

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- In 2007, the Afghan government sold the China Metallurgical Group (MCC) a 30-year lease to develop the Mes Aynak deposit for $3 billion dollars. Beside its proximity to archeological artifacts, the deposit is also located over the ground table that provides drinking water to Kabul's 3 million residents. According to a petition protesting the mine on Change.org, an international network of activists, the MCC has not released any environmental impact statement or plan to minimize contamination of the water supply. Huffman says he worries the mine will "create an enormous toxic crater" of pollutants from the copper excavation. "My fear is that Mes Aynak will set a precedent, that this is how mineral excavation...will be done in the future. Cheaply with permanent damage to cultural heritage and the environment." Above, an Afghan worker walks at the site of an ancient monastery discovered in Mes Aynak on Nov. 23, 2010. "We are helpless," Akbar Khan, a villager from nearby town Adam Kaley told Huffman. "We do not have the means to fight for our rights. When people ask for their rights the government comes to coerce them, beat them, humiliate them and take their property. We are forced to fight the state with violence." Although the inhabitants of Mes Anyak were unhappy about moving, many told Huffman they were neither given a choice nor reimbursed. "These villages were everything to us," another man said. "Our families have lived off this land for hundreds of years and now we are begging in the streets." Image Courtesy-Shah Marai/AFP/Getty Images

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- But Huffman notes that some locals also support the mine. "Those who have found employment (albeit at a very low salary) at MCC or at the archaeology dig site are relatively happy," he says. "They can provide for their families. However, due to the terribly mismanaged relocation of six villages, there are many very angry locals who are currently attacking MCC with rockets and land mines demanding cash payments." According to the New York Times, doubts about the government have also contributed to antagonism toward the mine. "There is deep skepticism that the weak state and notoriously kleptocratic ministries can build a functioning mining economy that will help ordinary people," the newspaper reported. Image courtesy-Brent E. Huffman

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-A Buddha statue sits above a road to Mes Anayk on Nov. 23, 2010. The Chinese government-backed mining company gave archaeologists three years to finish the excavations. Image Courtesy-Shah Marai/AFP/Getty Images

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-Above, a gold-plated seated Buddha overlooks the China Metallurgical Group Corporation mine. Image courtesy-Brent E. Huffman

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- The excavation work has not gone smoothly. Above, Abdul Qadeer Temore, the lead Afghan archaeologist, works on uncovering a large standing Buddha. Temore told Huffman he was struggling to feed his three young children, but hadn't been paid by the Afghan government in four months. "I feel like a mother and the artifacts feel like my children," he said. "We work so hard uncovering the pieces and protecting them. When they get destroyed, it will feel like losing a child." Temore faces occupational hazards that archaeologists elsewhere in the world would never dream of. He has gotten death threats from the Taliban, and other workers have discovered land mines buried throughout the site. Image courtesy-Brent E. Huffman

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- It's dangerous work for the archeologists and the miners alike. Eleanor Nichol, campaign leader at Global Witness, told the New York Times, "If you were to pick a country that involves high risk in developing a new mining sector, Afghanistan is it. But the genie is out of the bottle." Huffman says that Chinese workers have also been killed by land mines, and that the Taliban has fired on the MCC compound with rockets. Above, Afghan police guard the compound using 1970s-era Soviet weapons. Image courtesy-Brent E. Huffman

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-De-miners detonate an anti-personnel landmine buried near the MCC compound in Mes Aynak. The compound, Huffman says, "looks like a military fortress complete with bomb-resistant barricades filled with sand outlining the area, numerous outposts where armed guards keep watch, and concrete walls topped with razor wire around the compound itself." Image courtesy-Brent E. Huffman

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-Above, Huffman films one of the temples fated for destruction. The ruins extend over about a quarter of a mile. The Buddhists who first migrated to the area 2,000 years ago also seemed to have been attracted by the copper deposit, which they likely used to make tools. During the Bronze Age -- from 2300 B.C. to 1700 B.C. -- humans learned to smelt copper, invented writing, and revolutionized agriculture. Coins, glass, tools, and manuscripts dating back to the time of Alexander the Great have been found here, although archeologists estimate that only 10 percent of the ruins have even been uncovered. Image courtesy-Brent E. Huffman

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-Afghans workers take a break from excavating an ancient monastery in Mes Aynak on Nov. 23, 2010. Image Courtesy-Shah Marai/AFP/Getty Images

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-An aerial view of an ancient monastery at Mes Anyak on Nov. 23, 2010. Image Courtesy-Shah Marai/AFP/Getty Images

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- It's not easy to balance the preservation of Afghanistan's cultural patrimony against the pressing economic needs of this impoverished, war-torn country. "If the mine doesn't come," a local villager told the New York Times, "we will be like those people who live on treasure but they cannot use it." Huffman, for his part, is willing to put off the opening of the mine in order to protect these priceless historical artifacts. "The best situation for the Buddhist site is that the archaeologists are given more time," he said. "[T]his should be a 30-year excavation, project not a three year one." Image Courtesy-Shah Marai/AFP/Getty Images

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