What Happens To The Afghanistan Gemstone Industry Now?
The last 4 decades of war and desperate poverty, saw a devastating conclusion mid-August of 2021 with President Biden withdrawing troops from the nation and the quick overrun of the Afghan army by Taliban forces, which resulted in the militant group assuming control of most of the country. This leaves the future of Afghanistan’s vast mineral resources (both fuel and non-fuel) extremely uncertain. In terms of the gem trade in Afghanistan, that was already dealing with various issues of conflict gemstones like illegal mining, corruption, resource for war-lords, slavery and child labour, this could land a devastating blow. Let us explore how one of the poorest nations in the world hides one of the world’s biggest treasure chests in the heart of its mountains and what happens to it now.
Brief History Of The Afghan Gem Trade:
The displaced President of Afghanistan, Ashraf Ghani once said – “We are at risk of the curse of plenty, the curse of resources.”
Afghanistan’s history of gemstone mining goes back to 7000 B, as evidence of Afghan Lapis Lazuli has been found in Egyptian tombs. The ancient SilK Route that connected China to Europe cut right across Northern Afghanistan from where tin, copper and gold reserves were mined and transported all over the world. The evidence of this lies in the many archaeological discoveries in this region, one of which were the massive 1500-year-old Bamiyan Buddha statues.
Quick Guide To The Most Popular Afghanistan Gemstones:
Afghanistan has been known for its rich, high quality non-fuel mineral resources for thousands of years. In terms of gemstones the most popular ones are rubies, emeralds, spinels, tourmalines, aquamarine and lapis lazuli.
Afghanistan remains the largest producer of this stunning blue stone that has been used vastly in the ancient world. In fact Tutankhamun’s mask is engraved with this stone and even Van Gogh used ground up Lapis Lazuli in his oil to paint the iconic Starry Night. However, most of the mining of Lapis Lazuli falls under Taliban control and the funds generated from it is a major resource used to fund their campaign.
Lapis Lazuli gems
Afghanistan can boast of almost all the colour of tourmaline in some quantity. The most common colours available are pink, green and blue but in some cases stunning mint green tourmalines and blue lagoon tourmalines have also been found. Another surprising discovery was that of indicolite tourmalines in the Nuristan Province of Afghanistan.
Spinels from Afghanistan are of such fine quality that they have long been mistaken for rubies. The famed Balas Ruby, Timur Ruby, and the Black Prince’s Ruby, mined in the legendary Badakshan region of northern Afghanistan have all actually been proven to be spinels!
In a modern context, neon pink hues of Afghanistan spinel gems are the most popular variety in the market. These stones are almost always eye clean and rarely require any treatment.
Emeralds from Afghanistan have long since been hailed of as one of the best qualities in the world. Panjshir Valley in northern Afghanistan is an isolated mountainous region which has recently come into the spotlight for producing emeralds of quality equivalent to those being produced in Colombia and Zambia.
The light blue coloured stone that derives its name from the hues of the sea is available in such excellent quality that no internal blemishes or inclusions are visible to the naked eye. This is very important as aquamarine is light in colour and quite transparent, making fault visible very quickly.
Other stunning gemstones that are mined in Afghanistan in smaller quantities are Kunzite, Hiddenite, Morganite, Beryl, Serpentine and more.
The Taliban And The Gem Trade – Past, Present And Future (Maybe)?
The Challenges Faced Even Before The Taliban Takeover:
- Afghan taxes and fees for selling gemstone are the highest in the world.
- 25% of the revenue has to be paid as bribes (“baksheesh”) to the police and bandits to get the gemstones safely to far Kabul from far flung provinces like Badakhshan.
- The high cost of Afghan electricity and fuel needed to transport and process the gems makes it impossible to stay competitively priced in the market.
- Raw stones that are illegally sold off in the bazars of Pakistan.
- Even today, the mining is done using primitive tools like old Chinese drills, expired Russian dynamites and hand tools like hammer and chisels.
- Many mines are run by militia commander who use the profits of the gemstone to fund their insurgent campaigns.
Insurgents fighting has been centred on strategic location like Badakhshan province which is home to much of Afghanistan’s gem and emerald wealth.
As of now, and even in the future, the crux of the situation lies with which nation/power do the ruling group of Afghanistan choose to align with. Within hours of the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan Chinese officials released an official statement stating that Beijing is “ready for friendly cooperation with Afghanistan. It is interesting to note here that during the 2019 trade war, China, had threatened to cut off rare earth metal supplies to the US, which would have been devastating as China controls the supply globally. Thus considering their declaration immediately after the worldwide uproar.
The Plight Of Panjshir Emerald Miners
Panjshir emeralds are one of the most sought-after gemstones in the world. In fact, in 2018, Incolor reported that a whopping $100 million worth of gemstones were exported, with most of it being emeralds from the Panjshir Valley.
The mountainous Panjshir Valley was one of the last strongholds of the Afghan resistances. Even during the 1996-2001 reign, this was one of the regions that the Taliban could never control. The sad part is that, this time even though the brave miners had taken up arms to protect their lives and livelihoods, it was recently overrun by Taliban completely, for the first time in history. This means that the fate of artisanal and small scale miners as of today stands bleak and uncertain. The small and tedious progress that had been made in terms of creating an ethical source channel, use of modern equipment instead of expired Russian dynamites and more in the last 20 years could possibly have been erased completely.
A Sliver Of Hope – Maybe?
Reports emerge that this time around, the insurgent group has significantly moderated its public rhetoric, even though it has raised many suspicions, considering their extremist methods employed during their reign from 1996 to 2001. These are few indications as to their renewed interest, although it remains to be seen if these were just an act of tokenism.
- The Taliban leadership has grown older, and their new educated leaders understand that economic development is the key to the future.
- It isn’t surprising that they are keen on starting gem trade again soon, as these will mean a significant revenue channel. It remains to be seen though if gemstones continue to be sold outside of the official channels as only 5% of the mines are even registered. It should be noted here that in the past the Taliban has funded part of its insurgent effort through the illegal mining of lapis lazuli.
- As of now, the tribal leaders on the ground have been treated respectfully.
There is a possibility of an Afghan gem ban in line with Biden administration’s policy to bleed the Taliban economically. This is evident by the US freezing millions in Afghan Government funds held in US banks. However, this would just result in hurting the country’s poorest citizens, like artisanal and small scale miners who depend on the gem trade for their daily bread.
The Dilemma – A Humanitarian Or Economic Crisis?
Without a coherent strategy Afghanistan’s vast mineral resources are nothing but a lost opportunity and a veritable threat to the national security. While the Afghans are resilient people who have tolerated more than 4 decades of war, poverty, natural disasters and now the Covid 19 pandemic, there is only so much that the human spirit can take. Over 6 million Afghans have been displaced due to insecurity and violence and over 80% constitute of children and women. According to the Filippo Grandi, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, the sad truth is this:
Today everyone wants to see and own a genuine emerald from the legendary Panjshir valley or Spinels of the famed Balas ruby and Timur Ruby fame from Badakshan province, but we must be patient and refrain from collecting them in the current situations where in most probability they come from an area of high conflict, illegal mining, slave labour or more. The treasure trove of Afghani gems and minerals which lie silently in the Earth, bear witness to the massacre of the many complicated above ground factors and geopolitics. While Afghanistan’s contribution to the gemstone world is far from being forgotten, it is best that the gemstone industry is re-established in a future where they are sustainably and ethically mined to benefit the local community, without destruction of the sparely available economic, social and natural resources.
Unlike the mineral resources of Afghanistan that has been stated to be at around 1- 3 trillion, the humanitarian loss and struggle cannot be justified by numbers. These natural resources that have spurred decades of war and be the key to the freedom and peace that this war- torn country deserves. In that perspective, while it is essential to secure the future of Afghanistan’s vast, untapped mineral resources, that could potentially change the world as we know it today, it is of paramount importance to ensure the safety and health of those very people to whom these resources belong to. It is essential that continued efforts be made by us, around the world to do our bit. Here are a few legitimate links that you can donate to and assist in the Afghanistan relief efforts:
- UNHCR (The UN Refugee Agency)
- The Asia Foundation
- The International Medical Corps
- International Media Support/Afghan Journalists Safety Committee