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EU Envoy Says Illegal Mining Can Tear Afghanistan Apart

Afghan miners drill into rock in a makeshift emerald mine (file photo).

Franz-Michael Skjold Mellbin is the current European Union special representative in Afghanistan. The Danish diplomat wants to help Kabul by launching a campaign against illegal mining, which he says helps insurgents, enriches warlords, and threatens anarchy by depriving Afghans of precious resources.

RFE/RL: What is the EU’s motive behind launching a campaign against illegal mining in Afghanistan?

Franz-Michael Skjold Mellbin: Illegal mining is a long-term threat to the Afghan state. It deprives the people of resources they own, and it will affect security if not dealt with in due time.

Franz-Michael Skjold Mellbin
Franz-Michael Skjold Mellbin

RFE/RL: The EU says illegal mining is the second-biggest source of revenue for the Taliban after narcotics. How would you back such an assertion?

Mellbin: We tried to look into the figures of the value of direct mining resources. Of course, a lot of focus is on high-value mining that is available, but the fact is that there are a lot of other mining assets which are important -- and not just gemstones. If you count all that together, you will [see] that, unfortunately, the value of mining in Afghanistan is very high. We are talking of hundreds of millions of dollars here, and when the insurgents have half of the illegal mining industry, that rapidly becomes quite a lot of money.

RFE/RL: The EU says only 8 percent of mining is legal in Afghanistan. Who is that’s exploiting the country's mineral riches?

Mellbin: The broad range of stakeholders going from insurgents over warlords, local strongmen to government officials, security forces -- a very large group of people’s interests are involved. This is also a signal of the danger that if this is not countered now, it can become a serious threat.

This is, of course, very sad, because these are the resources of the Afghan people. These people are plundering the resources from the Afghan people.

RFE/RL: According to your information, what minerals are illegally being extracted, and what is their estimated worth?

Mellbin: I don’t have specific information, so I can’t sort out the exact figures. We will present that on May 5 [in Kabul] during our anti-corruption conference. We will also provide some overviews showing the kinds of minerals and where these mines are, and smuggling techniques that are used to deprive Afghan people of their rightful resources.

Let me mention some of [the resources that] are not spoken of very often such as talc, which is quite important, and are mined in several places illegally. Of course, there is also a wide variety of gemstones. And lapis lazuli, whose mining is ongoing and which also has industrial scales. And the geographical distribution is also very wide. And we find that the people who are stealing these resources are not just in a certain place but this is happening across the whole country.

RFE/RL: What steps or initiatives have so far been taken by the EU to help stop illegal mining and smuggling in Afghanistan?

Mellbin: The first thing that we are going to do is investigate, and it is the results of our investigation that we will present on May 5. So this is an opportunity to put the public spotlight on this because this is really about defending the interests of the Afghan people and securing not only the resources so the people can actually enjoy them but also that people understand [that] there is a need to tackle the question of illegal mining because it can tear the country apart.

We have seen other countries that suffer on what is internationally called the resource curse. And what we want to do now is to present our findings so that the general public, ordinary Afghans, the media, politicians, [and] the anti-corruption bodies are aware that this needs more focus. And that particular and smaller interests of individuals and groups should not be allowed to overshadow the interests of the Afghan people. I think highlighting this is the best thing we can do because each and every Afghan is a stakeholder. Every time these resources leave the country, ordinary Afghans lose out.

RFE/RL: What pressures can the international community put on the government of Afghanistan to tackle the issue?

Mellbin: The first pressure point is to make sure there is an Afghan pressure point. We need to mobilize ordinary Afghans and the responsible part of Afghan society to be aware and try to change this themselves.

On the international side, what we can do is to bring the issue to the table, and we will do that on May 5. We can make sure that other internationals are not complicit so we should monitor that international money interests are not part of this plundering of the Afghan people’s resources.

We can also step in and try to support those who are willing to work with this issue and clean up the mining sector so that it becomes better regulated, and finally we can support those entities and government bodies who are willing to tackle the issue of legal mining, by their capacity to do that. And by making sure that they also get the political support which will be needed because there is not just the problem [of] criminal gangs [and] insurgents but it is unfortunately something that goes across society.

RFE/RL: Are you satisfied with Afghan government's performance in this regard so far?

Mellbin: There is a widespread feeling that the Afghan government should do more to tackle corruption. We are encouraged to see positive steps. I feel that the government has understood that this is a key issue for the international community. Also to make sure that the international community is willing to continue to support the Afghan government people. One thing is the promises we have heard, which are good and encouraging, but what we want to see this year is that the government could start to deliver.