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Lapis lazuli mine revenue lines Taliban’s pockets

Lapis lazuli mine revenue lines Taliban’s pockets

Oct 19, 2015 - 11:36

FAIZABAD (Pajhwok): Local officials says revenue from the lapis lazuli mines in northeastern Badakhshan province has touched the 1.5 billion afghanis mark in less than a year.

However, the entire amount of money has ended up in pockets of unreconstructed commanders and Taliban insurgents instead of going to government’s depleting coffers.

Lapis lazuli mines in Karano Manjan district and gold mines in Raghestan town are abundant sources of illegal extraction for the Taliban and other strongmen in the remote province.

Known for its beautiful gleaming blue colour and harness, the precious stone is used in jewelries as well as designs of unique and sprawling houses worldwide.

Noor Aqa Nader, the Karano Manjan district chief, recalls the government had awarded two azure tunnels to a private company to extract a specific amount of lapis lazuli from them.

For more than a year now, the government has no control over the mines. Daily up to 5 million afghanis from the mines go to local commander as well as the insurgents.

On average, the mines yielded an income of 150 million afghanis a month in the past. However, over the past 11 months, the income has crossed the 1.65 billion afghanis mark, he reckons.

Nader told Pajhwok Afghan News: “Since last year, apart from 29 known tunnels, untouched mines are also being exploited.” But there has been no check on the unlawful extraction.

Article 9 of the constitution says: “Mines and other subterranean resources as well as historical relics shall be the property of the state. Protection, management and utilisation of public properties as well as natural resources shall be regulated by law.”

The Karano Manjan district chief says around 500 tonnes of lapis lazuli have been drawn out from different mines by illegal gunmen, including commanders Abdul Malik, Sharif and Imam.

The valuable stones are shifted through Panjsher province to Kabul, he reveals. Earlier, lapis lazuli was transferred through Badakhshan but the practice was halted in line with a presidential decree.

Attiqullah Atid, a senior official at the mines department in Badakhshan, says in the first nine months of the last solar year, the mines fetched the government 40 million afghanis a month.

If these mines had still been under government control, in the past 11 months, the proceeds could have gone up to 440 million afghanis.

Atid adds since the National Security Council’s ban on transporting azure to Kabul from Badakhshan, the award of contracts to the Lajawardain Company has also been scrapped.

Last December, around 65 trucks full of azure were stranded in Badakhshan. In keeping with the National Security Council’s decision, they were later transferred to Kabul.

Over the last 11 months, the government has received no income from the mines, which continue to be extracted at a consistently fast clip.

Around 10 lorry-loads of lapis lazuli were transferred through Panjsher to Kabul, according to Atid, who says:  “Over the past decade, thanks to our efforts, mining laws were applied to 70 percent of people.

“But since the National Security Council’s decision and the worsening situation in Karano Manjan and Raghestan districts, implementation of the relevant laws has dropped to 20 percent.”

Tajik nationals fighting alongside the Taliban are also digging up the gold mines in Raghestan and other restive areas. Apparently, officials complain, no effective step has been take to rectify the foul-up.

Acting Governor Shah Wali Adib acknowledges the Taliban and foreign fighters are exploiting mines in the two districts, purchasing weapons and ammunition with the income.

They have directed local officials to put an end to the situation but nothing has been done so far, adds Adib, who confirms most of the lapis lazuli deposits are being extracted unprofessionally.

He reveals the Taliban also monitor excavation work at some site and get their shares. The cash is playing a key role in the ongoing conflict in Yamgan, Warduj and Jurm districts.

Adib asks the central government to wrest control of the reserves from the militants because residents do not have the resources to do so.

After the authorities took charge of the lapis lazuli mine, a delegation from the Presidential Palace visited the site and tried to reach an agreement with armed people on a legal framework for excavation.

During talks with the team, Commander Abdul Malik said earlier some individuals had monopoly over excavating the mines, as residents of the district reeled from extreme poverty.

The delegation devised a strategy for appointing 80% personnel on the excavation project from this district and the remaining 20% from other areas.

In addition, Karano Manjan district would get 5% of the total revenue from the lapis lazuli reserve and more facilities were to be provided for the people as and when a contract for the mine was awarded to a company.

In the course of negotiations, residents of the locality also expressed reservations about the security officials guarding the mine, because they belonged to a specific lawmaker.

The delegation accepted the demand and agreed more security officials would be put in charge of the mine’s security. Inhabitants insist natural wealth does not belong to any specific group or individual.

Adib verifies the National Security Council (NSC) has ordered a halt to the lapis lazuli mine excavation and the precious stone’s transfer to Kabul.

Subsequently, 45 trucks full of lapis lazuli have been stopped in Badakhshan, but an Interior Ministry delegation let the trucks go.

He alleges the precious stone smuggling continues unabated in brazen violation of the NSC decision through the Manjan tunnel to Panjsher province.

Adib claims having requested the NSC to empower him to halt lapis lazuli smuggling as well. He laments his request is yet to be answered by the NSC.

He, however, laments while the NSC decision is being enforced in Badakhshan, it is being flouted not in Panjsher province. 

Four commanders, controlling the mines, also collect the proceeds. It is quite obvious there are powerful individuals behind them.

The four commanders have been trying to create differences among the people of Panjsher and Badakhshan in a bid to promote their personnel interests.

“I don’t know whether or not the Panjsher administration is collecting any tax or duty on the precious stones. They should prevent the smuggling of lapis lazuli,” Adib continued.

“Unfortunately, implementation of the presidential decree is confined to Badakhshan,” the acting remarks.

The mines are guarded and the transfer of the gems has been prevented in Yamgan, Jurm and Baharak districts and the provincial capital, Faizabad, says the Karano Manjan district chief.

The lapis lazuli stones are stored in districts and there is a possibility of the precious stones being stolen. Nearly 500 illegal gunmen, led by Abdul Malik, have been plundering the mines.

“No development projects have been launched in Karano Manjan, where schools are and government departments are non-functional. I was also threatened by gunmen. But I managed to fee,” he adds.

Contractor Najmuddin confirms his firm has been given a contract for building a road through the valley to the mine by Commander Abdul Malik to facilitate the transportation of lapis lazuli from the site.

Nearly 85 percent work on the 95-kilometre long and 10-metre wide road has been completed. The rest of the work will be finished next month, he believes.

Of the 30 million afghanis, the commander has paid the company only 3 million afghanis so far. The rest of funds he has allegedly refused to release.

Najmuddin says contract for another road from Anjuman valley to the Paryan area of Panjsher has been awarded to another firm by the same commander. Construction work on that road is also underway.

A 6-7 million afghanis contract for 20-day extraction from a mine in the Jandak area of the district has also been given to a firm. Malik is also receiving windfall profits from that.

The commander has reportedly purchased 21 tonnes of precious stones from miners. For a pick-up vehicle, which can carry 1.75 tonnes of load, smugglers rarely pay 30,000 afghanis in bribe at security checkpoints in Jurm, Yamgan, Baharak and Faizabad.

A lapis lazuli trader in Jurm district, Haji Mohammad, has been engaged in the business over the past 30 years. Taliban would take 30 percent of revenue from the commander, who but pays more than 50 percent of the income to the government, he says.

The Panjsher governor has instructed his subordinates to tax the vehicles carrying lapis lazuli through the province. But he does not allow the people of Badakhshan to pass through Panjsher.

Jurm district chief, Mohsenullah who has been involved in business, estimates a kilogram of first-grade lapis lazuli stone costs $4,000. But he has given up the business after the ban on the gem’s transportation.

He and his four partners had purchased 140 tonnes of lapis lazuli from the Lajawardain Company and stored them in Jurm, but they were not allowed to transfer them to Kabul.

The precious stones, extracted by gunmen in in an amateur way, are shifted to Kabul through Panjsher. But Badakhshan traders face several problems all along the way, deplores provincial council chairman Abdullah Naji.

Currently, 300 vehicles full of precious stones have been stopped in Yamgan, Jurm, Baharak district and Faizabad due to the ban that has affected the local economy.

“The Taliban, receiving revenue from the mines, cut deals with some security officials at checkpoints and behead other soldiers,” he claims.

As long as the government does not crack down on the insurgents’ funding sources, the security situation could not be stabilised, warns the public representative.

Naji stresses the problem should be resolved on a priority basis, suggesting the deployment of a neutral and competent security unit to the sites.

An excavation company be awarded extraction rights and the people of Badakhshan and Panjsher equally employed on the projects, he proposed.

Naji opines some powerful individuals in Kabul are behind the current state of affairs, whose continuations spells bad news for the national and provincial economies.

Ghulam Naser, a resident of Karano Manjan district, alleges: “Commander Abdul Malik’s heavy-handed tactics have forced 80 families including mine to flee to Yamgan.”

He accuses Abdul Malik, who does not allow other people to work at the site, of gobbling up all revenue from the lapis lazuli mine. Naser also blamed the commander for killing several people.

The man has repeatedly lodged complaints with local officials, but no one listens to his problem. He wants the government to bring the killer to justice.

But Malik, a former Jamiat-i-Islami commander, insists the government must continue giving him a share in revenue; otherwise he would not allow anyone to take control of the mine.

About a year ago, police personnel attempted to take control of the mine, but faced stiff resistance from Malik. A clash between the two sides left five policemen dead. Two police vehicles and a tank were destroyed.

Subsequently, the Ministry of Interior (MoI) dispatched a delegation to the area to investigate the incident, but the commission is yet to submit its findings.

Badakhshan’s lapis lazuli is one of the best qualities in the world. The mine is estimated to have 1,290 tonnes of gemstones.

Soviet geologists have identified nine areas containing lapis lazuli, each having 20-300 metres length and 1-8 metres thickness. A lion’s share of lapis lazuli is exported and only a small quantity used for handicrafts domestically.

Lapis lazuli ornaments and their packaging are made in Pakistan, India and partially in Afghanistan, Iran and Switzerland before the precious stones are sent to other countries.

Lapis lazuli has been extracted for 2,500 years in Afghanistan and most of it exported to Egypt. Afghanistan’s lapis lazuli was also employed for the decoration of pharaoh.

The Natural Resource Monitoring Network says precious and semi-precious stones in most provinces are illegally extracted and smuggled to other countries.