Afghanistan's Mes Aynak Historic Ruins under threat

There's nothing like a global emergency to spur one into following through with a long overdue intent to put fingers to keyboard.

The ruins of Mes Aynak, Afghanistan, which are located 40 kilometres south-east of Kabul are facing the dual threats of the Taliban and copper mining.

Under Threat: Mes Aynak (picture courtesy of Kartemquin Films)

Under Threat: Mes Aynak (picture courtesy of Kartemquin Films)

So many humanitarian disasters are currently facing the world, across Iraq, Syria, Yemen, and Libya, to name but a few. These emergencies are justifiably receiving global media attention and one would hope that this leads to proportionate responses to these crises.

While the need to address humanitarian emergencies should be paramount in the world's collective consciousness, it is understandable that threats to culturally significant treasures can slip somewhat under the global community's radar.

In recent times, significant cultural treasures have only come to the world's attention, when it is already too late. The amazing Buddhas of Bamiyan, carved out of the sheer cliff face, had survived since the sixth century, only to be brought down by the Taliban, and dynamite, in 2001.

Before its destruction: One of the Buddhas of Bamiyan

Before its destruction: One of the Buddhas of Bamiyan

After The Dynamite: The alcove of one of the Buddhas of Bamiyan

After The Dynamite: The alcove of one of the Buddhas of Bamiyan

Photo credit: thalpan / Foter / CC BY-NC-ND
Photo credit: Carl Montgomery / Foter / CC BY

In very recent history (2014-15), The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) let its sledgehammer gang loose on a museum and historical sites around Mosul, Iraq, where they destroyed precious Assyrian artefacts, some dating as far back as the ninth century BC.

The world has watched on in trepidation to see whether the ancient ruins of Palmyra, Syria, also captured by ISIL, would meet a similar fate. While Palmyra is now at the mercy of ISIL's volatile decision-making process (The UK Telegraph reports that ISIL have laid landmines around the site (1)), Mes Aynak is not yet at the complete mercy of those that potentially threaten it. (STOP PRESS: ISIL are reported to have just destroyed the Baal Shamin temple of Palmyra, after their horrific beheading of the 81 year old former chief archaeologist of Palymra, Khaled al-Asaad. (http://www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-34036644)

Mes Aynak is an Afghan archaeological site that is still largely unexcavated. What has been uncovered so far reveals rich evidence of various sequential civilisations there, the oldest dating back as far as the Bronze Age, an estimated 5000 years ago.

Still much to be uncovered: Mes Aynak (picture courtesy of Kartemquin Films)

Still much to be uncovered: Mes Aynak (picture courtesy of Kartemquin Films)

Russian and Afghan geologists explored and surveyed the Mes Aynak area significantly in the 1970s (2). It has started to emerge from obscurity in the last few years because of the threat of the Taliban, and that of a lease awarded to China Metallurgical Group for the mining of rich copper deposits at the site.

Allegations of Afghan governmental corruption in the mine bidding process only add to the sense of anxiety of those seeking to preserve the archaeological site.

Taliban

The destruction of Bamiyan left the world aghast at the sheer callousness of the Taliban, in destroying human treasures of major historical and cultural significance. What is surprising is that Mes Aynak hasn't come to more prominence.

The upper layers of what has been excavated so far of Mes Aynak reveal evidence of a more recent period (of the site's history) as a Buddhist centre. This could put the site at risk to the Taliban, who in the past have destroyed idolatry (such as Bamiyan) not in keeping with its own strict interpretation of Islam.

Rich discoveries: Mes Aynak (picture courtesy of Kartemquin Films)

Rich discoveries: Mes Aynak (picture courtesy of Kartemquin Films)

Interestingly, Mes Aynak's Buddhist history has engendered some media attention and action in majority Buddhist Thailand to assist in saving this relic.

With the release of Brent E. Huffman's documentary, "Saving Mes Aynak" (the major source of the information contained here (3, 4)), the hope is that supporters of preservation can up the ante on a truly global scale. Saving Mes Aynak's Facebook page (https://www.facebook.com/savingmesaynak) has 87,000 likes thus far in addition to the 70,000 strong petition mentioned in the documentary. The petition was handed to the Afghan President's Office in 2013:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RBNOOlGO4kg&feature=youtu.be

The Petition now has over 82,000 supporters, as seen on change.org (5).

Mining

While the Taliban's reputation for savagery and ruthlessness precedes them, the risk to Mes Aynak from mining should not be underestimated.

"Saving Mes Aynak" details allegations of bribery and corruption in the process that eventually led to China Metallurgical Group (MCC) being awarded rights to mine the huge copper reserves in the Mes Aynak precinct.

The presence of archaeological ruins at Mes Aynak has been known since at least the 1970s (see 2), well before the current mining licence application process. It is incredible to think that a mining company would even consider bulldozing such a significant cultural site.

MCC is listed on both the Hong Kong and Shanghai Stock Exchanges, and is headquartered in Beijing. China Metallurgical Group Corporation, a Chinese Communist Party controlled state enterprise, maintains a majority 64.18% stake in MCC, according to MCC's 2014 Interim Report (6).

China has come a long way since it moved on from the routine destruction of precious Chinese artefacts that occurred during the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976). Can you imagine the vitriol of a Chinese state broadcast today, if there was ever a situation where a foreign mining company had rights to mine, say, the site of the Terracotta Warriors? Would this be acceptable, and if not, are the rules different outside of China?

Still digging: Ten years on from my 2005 visit (pictured), terracotta armies are still being uncovered today.

Still digging: Ten years on from my 2005 visit (pictured), terracotta armies are still being uncovered today.

Grand Treasures: The Terracotta Warriors of Xian, China 

Grand Treasures: The Terracotta Warriors of Xian, China 

What is urgently needed are public statements from MCC regarding their respect for archaeological ruins and artefacts in and around their mining tenements. While MCC's signs at the Mes Aynak mining site say "Dedicated Respectful United Efficient Progressive" (3), a clear outline from the company as to their clear intentions, with regards to the archaeological site is sorely needed.

 MCC sign at Mes Aynak (picture courtesy of Kartemquin Films)

 MCC sign at Mes Aynak (picture courtesy of Kartemquin Films)

MCC do have a Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) page, but there does not seem to be any mention of their Mes Aynak project:

http://www.mccchina.com/ENGLISH/ShowClass.asp?ClassID=42

The majority parent company, China Metallurgical Group Corporation also has a CSR page:

http://www.mcc.com.cn/Category_156/Index.aspx

I could not see any recent mention of Mes Aynak here either (Most recent entry seems to be November 2009), but maybe it got lost amongst the extremely long list of all the other good things China Metallurgical Group Corporation is doing.

Being the majority MCC shareholder, the Chinese State would also gain a great deal of goodwill from the international community, by backing up any positive MCC company assertion. This is in light of recent actions that have suggested that China is primarily concerned with sweeping up the world's resources, without sufficient consideration of other stakeholders or claimants. Examples include China's recent unilateral development of an island in waters contested with the Philippines, and the building of an oil rig in waters contested with Japan.


Where to from here?

Maybe our eyes have been averted because of the security situation in Afghanistan, as well as the blatant horror currently afflicting large parts of the Middle East.

Should one get worked up by ruins and artefacts, when thousands are dying on our television screens every day?

One thing is for sure. Once the site of Mes Aynak is gone, it is gone for good. Like all the crises facing our world right now, this particular issue also needs to be shunted front and centre, with pressure brought to bear, to save a historical civilisation that should be preserved for future generations of all humanity.

What can we do?

Maybe we need to start taking a keener interest in these things.

We can join the ongoing online petition at:

https://www.change.org/p/president-ashraf-ghani-ahmadzai-prevent-destruction-of-ancient-site-of-mes-aynak-amp-the-environmental-damage

We can encourage our Governments to get involved:

Australia's 2014/15 Bilateral Budget Estimate for aid to Afghanistan was $130.9 million. According to the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs & Trade's Afghanistan web page, one of the stated aims of ongoing aid is for "Improving governance and the effectiveness of the Afghan Government" (7). "Saving Mes Aynak" highlighted the understandable urgency to save whatever artefacts can be rescued from the site, in the face of threatened demolition. However, the footage in the documentary of arguments and contrasting approaches on site between two different government archaeological departments bordered on the ridiculous.

I sent off an email to the Australian Foreign Affairs Minister, Julie Bishop's office to query Australia's input on the Mes Aynak issue, and was assured that my concerns have been relayed to the minister.

With regards to the miner, MCC boasts that it is a Fortune 500 company (see 6). It has a market capitalisation of HKD145.3 Billion / CNY117 Billion / AUD25 Billion (as at 28th July 2015), despite recent heavy falls in Chinese stocks). As such, it should have the resources, and a mature strategy for acting like a leader in conducting its global business.

MCC Shanghai listing quotation - source: bloomberg.com

MCC Shanghai listing quotation - source: bloomberg.com

MCC Hong Kong listing quotation - source: bloomberg.com

MCC Hong Kong listing quotation - source: bloomberg.com

Because of its size, MCC will form part of many global share indices, and MCC's 2014 interim report itself states that:

"At present, the A Shares of the Company had been selected to be a constituent stock of, among others, CSI 300 Index, the CSI 800 Index, the SSE 380 Index, the CSI Central SOEs Index and the China 280 Index, while the H Shares had been selected to be a constituent stock of, among others, the Hang Seng China AH Smart Index, Bloomberg Industrial Global Index and S&P China BMI Index."

All salaried Australian workers receive compulsory superannuation. A component of those monies is likely to be invested in international shares. Because of MCC's size, MCC stock will form part of many Asian and Global Indices, and if your fund manager (through your superannuation) even invests passively, in an Asian or Global index fund, made up of the largest global companies, then it is highly possible that a component of your funds are invested in MCC stock.

We can all query our superannuation providers on their investment rationale, the availability of Socially Responsible Investment (SRI) options, and consider changing our investments, or even our superannuation provider, to those that value and support companies that are serious about conducting their business in a socially responsible way.

Goal

When punk rock band The Dead Kennedys released "Holiday in Cambodia" in 1980, the literal thought of such a vacation would have been considered something of a sick joke (8*), with Cambodia at that stage having endured and was still enduring to some extent, the genocide of Pol Pot's Khmer Rouge regime. Fast forward to 2015 and visitors to Cambodia number in the millions, thanks in large part to the awe inspiring ancient temples of Angkor.

Remarkable: Angkor Wat, Cambodia

Remarkable: Angkor Wat, Cambodia

While Afghanistan has a long way to run to stability after decades of war, my hope is that one day tourists will flock to a revitalised country, to see the fully uncovered and magnificent Mes Aynak ruins. Let's do what we can to raise awareness as one small step towards making this a reality.

 

 

Links and References:

1.http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/islamic-state/11689694/Isil-lay-mines-in-Syrias-ancient-Palmyra-ruins.html

2.http://www.bgs.ac.uk/afghanminerals/docs/tenders/Aynak/PartI_Aynak_Information_Package.pdf

3. http://www.savingmesaynak.com

(Official page of both the documentary, and the movement)

4.http://www.aljazeera.com/programmes/witness/2015/06/saving-mes-aynak-150630122727625.html

(the documentary recently aired on Qatari global news organisation, Al Jazeera's TV channel and website)

5. https://www.change.org/p/president-ashraf-ghani-ahmadzai-prevent-destruction-of-ancient-site-of-mes-aynak-amp-the-environmental-damage

6.http://www.mccchina.com/ENGLISH/UploadFiles_5945/201409/2014090516523223.pdf

7.http://dfat.gov.au/geo/afghanistan/development-assistance/Pages/development-assistance-in-afghanistan.aspx

8*. I appreciate this is not the literal thrust of the song