Time is running out to save one of the world’s great archeological sites. On Christmas Day, archeologists who have been working to preserve Mes Aynak, a stunning archeological site in Afghanistan with more than 5,000 years of history, will be forced off the site to make way for a Chinese mining company that plans to extract copper from beneath the site.
The Chinese government owned company, China Metallurgical Group Corporation (MCC), plans to destroy Mes Aynak’s temples, monasteries, thousands of Buddhist statues, and a mountain range in order to extract what they believe is $100 billion worth of copper. But Brent Huffman, a Chicago-based documentary filmmaker and others are still hoping for a last-minute solution that could preserve the site.
Huffman, 33, is making a documentary about Mes Aynak and we caught up with him before he departed for what may be his final trip to Mes Aynak before it’s completely destroyed to learn more about this site and to find out if there’s anything that can be done to save it.
What is the historical significance of this site?
The top layer of Mes Aynak is a Buddhist city that is about 2,400 years old. There are monastery complexes, temple structures, and over 400 life-sized Buddhist statues. Underneath that, there’s a 5,000-year-old Bronze-Age site. Archeologists are just starting to make discoveries in the Bronze Age site.
I can’t spend the night there because it’s in Logar province, which is Taliban country, so when the sun goes down, it’s too dangerous. The Afghan archeologists don’t stay the night either. It’s about 25 kilometers southeast of Kabul, but because the road is so crude, it can take an hour or an hour and a half to get there. And it’s dangerous, you have to travel through a few villages that are supportive of the Taliban and have a history of firing rockets at cars passing through or placing landmines on the road. So it’s nerve-racking just getting to the site.
Is it easy for Americans to visit Afghanistan?
People are surprised how easy it is. I go on a tourist visa. You need a letter of recommendation from your employer, but that’s about it. Emirates flies there, Turkish Air flies there. I’m going back to Afghanistan in December and I’ll take Turkish Air through Istanbul, then a direct flight from there to Kabul.
In your piece on CNN, you compare this site to Machu Picchu. Is it as awe inspiring as that?
Yes. The first time I saw it, I was blown away. Awe-inspiring is the right phrase. It’s a very Indiana Jones feeling. It’s an enormous site in a very isolated location.
Why isn’t Mes Aynak a UNESCO protected site?
I can’t really say for sure. This is just a rumor, but I’ve heard that UNESCO is going to leave Afghanistan altogether in 2014, which would leave the Buddhas of Bamiyan completely unguarded. A lot of NGOs in Afghanistan think it’ll be too hard to operate in the country after the troops pull out, so that may be part of their thinking.
Does the fact that this is a Buddhist site explain why the Afghan government hasn’t protected it?
Not exactly. The copper that is under the city is worth more than $100 billion. For a country where some citizens are starving, any economic activity like this sounds pretty good.
So this Chinese company, MCC, plans to destroy the site to extract what could be $100 billion worth of copper?
The contract was signed in 2007 for a 30-year lease of Mes Aynak and MCC paid a little under $3 billion for the exclusive rights to mine the site. MCC paid a first installment of $800 million and they were accused of bribery. The former Minister of Mines was allegedly paid a $30 million bribe in Dubai but he’s no longer in the government. The Chinese were never told that the Buddhist site exists before they signed the contract.
How could they not notice it?
I don’t think they actually visited the site.
And MCC eventually agreed to allow archaeologists to have three years to excavate the site?
Yes. There was a highly critical story about their plans in the Wall Street Journal, and MCC saw it as a PR nightmare, so they gave a three-year reprieve starting in 2009. And for the archaeologists, it’s been a sporadic three years because the area the site is in is so dangerous.
Who are these archaeologists?
There are three groups. The main group is a French organization, DAFA. And then there’s a team of Afghan archaeologists who are doing all the work, they are kind of the heroes in this story. They are the ones risking their lives every day to excavate the site. And then there’s an international team working underneath the Ministry of Mines, who are staying inside the Chinese MCC compound and you can see the conflict of interest there. The three groups are all doing different things and not working very cohesively together.
And now they need more time to excavate the site?
Right. Philippe Marquis, who is heading the DAFA team, said it should be a 30-year project to properly excavate and preserve the site and to discover these layers of civilizations.
I assume that there is no way to mine copper while preserving the site?
It might be possible to save the structures by using a different mining method but MCC proposes to use the open pit mining style, which is the cheapest and fastest, but most environmentally destructive method. Mining experts are telling me the Buddhist sites and the mountain range will be destroyed and they’ve already destroyed six villages in the area to prepare the site.
Were the people in the villages bought off?
Right now, the locals are extremely angry and they’re part of the violent attacks that have occurred at the site – rockets have been fired, land mines have been placed in the road – MCC and the Ministry of Mines negotiated with the villages, but the people were promised money and I don’t think they were ever paid, so now you have a lot of angry, homeless people in the area that used to live there and are now fighting back.
Have the archeologists themselves been attacked?
Yes. When MCC came in, they brought in members of the Kabul police force, so they have some officers protecting the mine. Eleven of those officers were killed recently and a landmine killed four Chinese workers. And one of the Afghan archeologists accidentally dug up a landmine at Mes Aynak. It blew up in his face and he lost his eyesight.
What about you, aren’t you concerned about your own safety?
I am. I love the site and I’m passionate about Afghanistan but it’s very difficult. I have a daughter who will turn 1 on December 12, right before I leave for Afghanistan. It’s very dangerous – every trip to Mes Aynak, I feel it.
So why are you willing to take the risk?
It’s a good question. My wife doesn’t understand it. My mother hates that I do this too. It’s really a love of Afghanistan. I started traveling there in 2004 and I fell in love with the country. To me, this destruction of this cultural heritage in Afghanistan, it represents something far greater than just this site. I fear that this will set a precedent where lots of cultural heritage sites could be destroyed.
If the international community could rally, we could stop this from happening and prevent a horrible precedent from being set.
How did this site survive when the Buddhas of Bamiyan were attacked? Why was this site spared?
It has been heavily looted already. It wasn’t flat out blown up like the Bamiyan Buddhas. The huge irony is that with MCC arriving on the scene with the Kabul police, they have served to protect the site. If MCC left, the Kabul police would go with them and because of all the press Mes Aynak received, it would be completely destroyed by looters. If UNESCO or someone like them doesn’t get involved to protect the site, it doesn’t look good.
And time is running out, MCC is set to start mining on Christmas day. Is there time left to save this site?
The December 25 date is when archeologists will be forced off the site. I won’t be there on Christmas but I don’t think they’d allow me to film the destruction of this site anyways.
What is the U.S. government’s stance on this issue?
Recently, because of my Facebook page and others who are working to spread awareness, Thailand has gotten involved to save the site in a huge way. Thais protested outside UNESCO’s office in Thailand to save the site.
I’ve also been working with the Smithsonian, who has been talking to the State Department. So we’re trying to stop this altogether or at least buy more time.
But has the U.S. government been supportive?
They have not been supportive of my efforts and my project. I’ve had contact with the U.S. Embassy in Kabul, and I think they are very intent on having the mining project begin, because they want to see private industry in Afghanistan succeed. That sounds good, but because of the level of corruption and environmental destruction and China’s record of mistreating workers, I don’t think it’s good for the country.
You don’t buy the argument that this project will create jobs and benefit the local economy?
No. There’s a great example of a Chinese mining company in Peru that promised many of the same things and delivered on none of them.
If this site is demolished will this be one of the world’s most important archeological sites to be destroyed?
Absolutely. This site has a 5,000-year history; it was a major hub on the Silk Road. Mes Aynak is the missing link that shows how important Afghanistan was in the history of the continent.
I suppose that the idea of attracting tourists to Afghanistan is so unrealistic at this point that no one in the Afghan government sees an opportunity in preserving the site?
Yes, unfortunately that’s right. Bamiyan is getting very dangerous as well. It was dynamited in 2001.
But it wasn’t completely destroyed?
No. And it is a tourist destination still. There are direct flights into Bamiyan but it’s pretty dangerous to get there.
For those who want to do something to help save this site, what should they do?
Check out my Facebook page. And we have two petitions, one is to have President Karzai intervene and stop this from happening, and the other is to appeal to UNESCO to have them get involved. And I have a Kickstarter campaign, which is 92% funded at this point, which does three things: 1) it will help me finish the film, 2) continue to raise awareness about Mes Aynak, and 3) 10% of the proceeds will go to Afghan archeologists to buy them computers and cameras and other equipment they don’t have.
When can we see your film?
It should be out in February or March. We have a trailer but we’re not done filming (see trailer above).
So what would happen in a best-case scenario here? Who would reimburse MCC if they aren’t allowed to mine the site?
MCC could mine in a less destructive way around the site – but I know they won’t do that because it isn’t cost effective. In a perfect world, the site becomes like Machu Picchu, and becomes a huge tourist site. I would love it if mining wouldn’t happen there at all.
[Photo credits: Photos of Mes Aynak courtesy of Brent Huffman and Jerome Starkey on Flickr; Bamiyan photo courtesy of Hadi Zaher on Flickr]