Chinese mine threatens Afghan Buddhist site

Chicago documentary collective Kartemquin Films announced that it will make director Brent E. Huffman's new release Saving Mes Aynak available for free to the people of Afghanistan on the digital platform VHX. The film follows Afghan archaeologist Qadir Temori as he races to save the remains of Mes Aynak from imminent demolition by China Metallurgical Group Corporation (MCC), a Chinese state-owned mining company that wants to develop a mammoth copper project on the site. Located in Afghanistan's Taliban hotbed of Logar province, Mes Aynak was built 2,000 years ago by the ancient Buddhist civilization—on top of a Bronze Age site dating back some 5,000 years. Only 10% of the site has so far been excavated, and time is running out. Laws protecting antiquities apparently go unenforced due to official corruption. Meanwhile, the Taliban continue to plunder the site, selling the artifacts on the black market to fund their insurgency. Huffman received death threats from the Taliban for his filiming work at the site. (Al Jazeera, Newsweek, July 1; Inside Pulse, June 25)

Under its 2007 deal with the Afghan government, MCC plans to gouge an open-pit mine at the site, which Huffman calls "the cheapest, most environmentally destructive style of mining." He warns that if plans proceed, "the archaeology site, as well as the entire mountain range, will be completely demolished." Archaeologists are now racing to salvage artifacts from the site, as a government-imposed deadline runs out and the area is turned over to MCC. More than 1,000 statues have been identified, along with innumerable wall paintings, fragile texts and rare wooden ornamentation. And the archaeologists can only guess at what may lie in older layers—there is no time to dig deeper. 

The ancient city of Mes Aynak was a hub on the Silk Road, through which Buddhism spread from India to China. As the New York Times noted in a Dec. 22, 2012 account: "It's ironic: a company based in China, which received Buddhism via Afghanistan, will destroy a key locus of that transmission. Washington, which condemned the destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas, is standing by as Kabul sacrifices its cultural heritage for short-term revenue."

Indeed. After all the global outrage over the Taliban's destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas, where is the outcry over this? What a perfect illustration of how the jihad and global capitalism constitute a paradoxical unity—a point we have made before.

And… for all the Buddhist rage at the perceived Muslim menace in Sri Lanka as well as Burma, you'd think they could spare some ire over this. We're reminded of the bizarre situation a decade ago, when Muslims all over the world were protesting offensive cartoons rather than the destruction of the Golden Mosque of Samarra in Iraq. 

Saving Mes Aynak will be broadcast on Al Jazeera America on July 12. Watch it.