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Precious Stones Illegally Mined In Afghan Province

An illegal mining operation in the eastern Afghan province of Kunar.

ASADABAD, Afghanistan -- Illegal mining of precious stones in an eastern Afghan province is depriving its impoverished residents of resources and their country of much-needed revenue.

Residents of Kunar, a mountainous province bordering Pakistan in eastern Afghanistan, say the illegal mining of precious stones has increased in the region’s Manogay and Chapa Dara districts.

“The illegal mining is not benefiting the people or the government. All revenues generated are ending in the coffers of armed opponents of the government or local strongmen,” Abdullah, a resident of Manogay, told Radio Free Afghanistan. “So far, the authorities have done nothing to stop the illegal excavations or smuggling.”

Kunar’s once-forested mountains are rife with the deposits of semiprecious tourmaline, aquamarine, kunzite, topaz, garnet, and various kinds of quartz. The region also has deposits of lapis lazuli and fluorite. Expensive gems such as sapphires, ruby, and emeralds are mined in the restive province, which shares a long border with Pakistan and where the Taliban and other insurgents control large swathes of rural territories.

“Our district has many illegal tourmaline mines where hundreds of people are employed,” Ibrahim, a resident of Manogay, told Radio Free Afghanistan. “The mined tourmaline is then smuggled to Pakistan, where it is sold.”

Like many Afghans, Ibrahim and Abdullah go by one name only. Ibrahim says that if Kabul can establish a legal mining industry it will generate a regular stream of government revenue and provide much-needed stable employment in Kunar, where most residents live off limited agriculture, harvest forests, or engage in limited trade.

Ziaur Rahman, a resident of Chapa Dara who deals in precious stones, says Kunar residents are being deprived of their valuable natural resources. He says many precious stones were recently excavated at an illegal mine in his district. They were eventually sold to traders in neighboring Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, a province in northwestern Pakistan. “If these gems were mined legally, it would have benefited the country and the [local] people in many ways,” he told Radio Free Afghanistan.

Rahman says the profits reaped from the precious stones play perpetuate the conflict in Kunar. The region has been a major theater of battles between U.S.-led international forces and the Taliban. After the end of NATO’s major combat operations in late 2014, the Taliban have fought the Afghan forces. Kunar has also been a major battleground between the Taliban and the ultra-radical Islamic State militants.

The conflict in Kunar has already claimed its other major natural resource: alpine forests. Since the 1980s, illegal logging has devastated the region’s once-dense forests.

Rahman says that in order to continue receiving money from illegal mining, corrupt officials refer to the regions under government control as contested areas.

“Some government officials and their armed opponents have shares in the illegal mining and receive payments,” he said. “Sometimes rough stones mined here are transported in government vehicles to the border with Pakistan.”

But Kunar’s deputy governor, Gul Mohammad Baidar, denied that any government officials are involved in illegal mining.

“We have shut all illegal mining operations and are conducting military operations in remote regions where the practice still continues,” he told Radio Free Afghanistan. “By reclaiming those regions, we will completely shut down illegal mining in the entire province.”

Few in Kunar, however, are prepared to believe such government claims. For nearly four decades they have seen their natural resources exploited with few individuals ever held responsible.

Abubakar Siddique wrote this story based on Radio Free Afghanistan correspondent Rohullah Anwari’s reporting from Asadabad, Afghanistan.