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September 13, 2012

Documentarian Brent Huffman Warns of Dangerous Precedent Being Set in Afghanistan if Mes Aynak is destroyed in order to mine copper

Brent Huffman filming one of the temples
set for destruction (Frank Petrella) 
by Catherine Sezgin, ARCA Blog Editor

Documentary filmmaker Brent E. Huffman will return to Mes Aynak this December for what some archaeologists call the ‘funeral’ of the ancient site which will be cratered to extract copper (valued at over 100 billion dollars) underground, potentially setting a dangerous precedent for other ancient sites on top of gold, copper, oil and coal mines in Afghanistan.

“My documentary finishes in December which feels like the definitive end to the site,” Huffman said. “I started out with the goal of capturing what is there and to record the difficult process of salvaging objects. But I have come to hope that maybe I can help raise awareness to actually save Mes Aynak, or at least postpone its destruction.”

Huffman and German Camera Productions initially set out to record the Buddhist monasteries and stupas in “the red zone” of this ancient city before a Chinese state-owned company, China Mettalurgical  Group Corporation, (MCC) begins work on a 30-year lease (for which they paid $3 billion) to extract copper by demolishing the entire mountain range.

Abdul Qadeer Temore, lead Afghan archaeologist, working
on the large standing Buddhas. (Brent Huffman)
“My fear is that Mes Aynak will be a precedent and that every site with gold, copper, oil or iron underneath will also be dealt with by this same standard. This is what happens to cultural heritage. This Bronze Age site will be gone when the mountain range is destroyed and all the Afghans will be left with is a toxic crater that will pollute the river and the environment. The future of Afghanistan will be a rush job of leaving polluted craters that will destroy the environment and the cultural heritage.”

The December deadline to end rescue archaeological efforts is pretty firm, according to Mr. Huffman’s discussions with the Afghan Ministry of Culture and the U. S. Embassy. “But the big question is are the Chinese ready to start mining?”

The Mes Anyak archaeological site was rediscovered in the 1960s. Researchers now believe the site not only provides artifacts from the 1st through the 5th centuries but also going back to the Bronze Age. The 400,000 square meter site was never fully excavated or protected from looting during the decades of almost continuous fighting in Afghanistan.

A head sculpted in the Gandhara style. (Brent Huffman)
“Archaeologists are frantically performing rescue archaeology which is pretty destructive. Like looting, much of the context gets lost as archaeologists rush to salvage moveable objects,” Huffman said, explaining that DAFA, the French archaeological delegation, and Afghan archaeologists have worked intermittently over the past two years through harsh weather and dangerous war-zone conditions at this former Al Qaeda training camp.

“My understanding is that archaeologists were given three years to complete a project that should take up to 30 years,” Huffman said. “The area is so dangerous. Last summer a worker uncovered a land mind which blew up in his face.”

“This is an important project to a small group of Afghan archaeologists who have worked at the site for the past two years,” Huffman said. “International archaeologists have visited the site in an advisory capacity but the accessibility has been limited by ongoing military conflict.”

Local people from Logar province have been involved in the digging and the unearthing structures, according to Huffman.

Afghan archaeologists work with crude tools and often protection of the artifacts is limited to coverings by plastic tarps and wooden crates.

“Afghanistan is the Wild West with so much corruption,” Huffman said. “What I don’t like about the argument of mining ‘responsibly’ and ‘preserving’ cultural sites is that in the end it won’t be good for Afghanistan. The money will be lost in corruption, the high-level jobs will go to the Chinese, and the locals will get the low paid slave labor jobs. Plus, the toxins left over from mining will be in the ground permanently. Advocates for Mes Aynak have tried to get cooperation between the mining and cultural preservation but it doesn’t seem that anyone involved sees any value in the Mes Aynak site.” 

A Buddhist stupa from Mes Aynak (Huffman)
“The US Military will be pulling troops out of Afghanistan in 2014 which is not good,” Huffman said. “The World Bank has put in a lot of money to support the mining yet there’s a shortage of funds to support the archaeological work. For example, the Czech Republic promised $5,000 to the Afghan team for computers and digital cameras but I was told that the money was stopped from coming through.”

Huffman plans to return to Mes Aynak in December. “In October there will be some 3-D reconstruction work and I will send someone to film that if I can’t go. I will be there in December for what the archaeologists call the ‘funeral’ and I hope we can stop it from happening. There is something so disrespectful about blowing up the site. It’s troubling to have no reverence for the past as if someone is looting your grandparents’ cemetery.”

“In Mes Aynak, the silence gives me a sense of connection to the past,” Huffman said. “My mind floods with what life was like in this vibrant city. Recklessly destroying it is like erasing history.”

“The resilience of this site amazes me,” Huffman said. “It has been through so much as a major hub on the Silk Road. The murals and statues are so fragile and yet they have survived harsh winters, floods and snow and fighting amidst land mines and rocket attacks. Yet Mes Aynak still manages to survive and pull people in who fall in love with it and want to save it.”

“Most Afghans don’t know that this is happening because there’s been no coverage in the local media,” Huffman said. “Americans think of Afghanistan is terrorists or victims or terrorism but it’s not that – Afghans are warm, friendly and open-minded people. The Buddhist sites are a testimony to Afghanistan’s past. The Taliban are an external force that destroyed the Buddhas of Bamiyan and now the Chinese mining company will do the same thing at Mes Aynak. Afghans need someone like UNESCO to push back against these money deals that don’t care about cultural heritage, but this is not happening today.”

Here's a link to the petition to President Hamid Karzai to prevent the destruction of the archaeological site Mes Aynak and a relevant Facebook page, The Buddhas of Aynak.

Here's a link to the article Huffman wrote for the Asia Society on this subject.