- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 23, 2009

SAFED CHIR, Afghanistan | Smoke and dust erupt from a mountainside, followed seconds later by a crash like thunder echoing down the rocky canyon.

In some parts of Afghanistan, the blast might have sent the locals scrambling for cover. But this was no Taliban mortar round, no al Qaeda car bomb, no suicide attacker. Here in the upper Panjshir Valley, such explosions merely mean business as usual.

The business of Safed Chir is mining emeralds. The approach has been typically low-tech, high-explosive.

“We mostly make our own dynamite, right here in the valley,” said Mahmood Khan, short and stocky and in his mid-40s.

His family owns a mine and nearby land. But homemade dynamite is not all they use. “I bought a couple of Russian anti-tank mines awhile back to use for blasting,” he said. “It is a good thing that Panjshiris are on the side of the government, not with the enemy.”

U.S. authorities are hoping to upgrade these crude techniques as part of a project to revitalize the gem industry of Afghanistan, but face bureaucratic hurdles.

U.S. gemstone specialist Gary Bowersox, who has spent more than a quarter-century hunting precious stones in Afghanistan, foresees private-sector mining programs, including training in state-of-the-art mining and assaying techniques, and a private-sector gem and mineral laboratory in Kabul to certify grade and quality.

The project “will create employment in rural areas, jump-start the rural economy and provide revenue in the form of taxes to the Afghanistan government,” he said. “The goal is to expand gem exports to $300 million per year within the next three to five years.”

Unfortunately, the project is facing obstacles from Afghanistan’s Ministry of Mines.

A disenchanted would-be investor, with detailed knowledge of ministry procedures and personalities, said that under current procedures, “all licenses have to be tendered, not once, but twice - once before exploration begins, and again when exploitation commences. This means that there is little incentive to take out a license in the first place, as the license more often than not goes to a third party” before the discoverer realizes any return on investment.

Azeez Darwesh, a spokesman for the mines ministry, said the Panjshiri miners have no right to exploit the emerald mines on their property, because “under our law, all mineral wealth belongs to the nation. … Unfortunately, we are not at the moment in a position to enforce this law, so the miners simply smuggle their stones out of the country and sell them in Dubai or in Pakistan.”

Mr. Khan, meanwhile, has arranged for up to 30 students from a gemology class funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development to trek to the site of the family mine. Accompanying the students are Sophie Swire, a civilian aid worker, a handful of Western mining specialists and security personnel from the Panjshir Provincial Reconstruction Team.

According to a GPS device, the lowest mines are just a mile as the crow flies from where the hike began on Safed Chir’s muddy, rutted one-lane street. But unlike the proverbial crow, Afghan mountain footpaths wind and twist, and the mine is 3,000 feet higher than the village.

The trail climbs steadily along a cascading watercourse to the village of Mookinee, then twists sharply back and to the right, crosses a steep gully and zigzags up a steep ridge crowned by several hundred feet of rocky outcrops. Vastly higher white-capped ridges and peaks jut into the dark blue sky all around. If the scenery weren’t breathtaking enough, the mines are about 10,000 feet above sea level.

This part of the Hindu Kush is mostly treeless. Patches of bare rock alternate with scanty grass and sprigs of shin-high wild rhubarb, their reddish stalks topped by gray-green leaves the size of pingpong paddles.

“I’m knackered,” gasped Ms. Swire, pausing for breath and to adjust the yellow head scarf - a nod to local sensibilities - that kept slipping off her cascading blonde hair. Actually, the Briton - who got her start in the region in the mid-1980s teaching at an English-language school in Chitral, Pakistan, a remote mountain outpost about four days’ walk east of Panjshir - is doing just fine on the climb, right in the middle of the pack.

The Afghan students, some sporting bizarre Bollywood-influenced youth fashions, are surprisingly fit for city children and reach the top swiftly. The uniformed security detachment - three rifle-toting American noncommissioned officers in grey-green digital camouflage - likewise find the trail less than challenging.

Between radio checks, one suppresses a yawn, another pauses for a cigarette. At the other extreme, a young civilian security contractor lags far behind, gasping for breath in the thin air. One of the Western mining experts is lagging too, feeling nauseous and dizzy.

The mining camp consists of a few unmortared stone enclosures, plus a low-walled structure covered with a plastic tarp. A stone’s throw away, the miners have blasted shafts anywhere from 15 to 50 yards down into the mountainside, following mineral veins that their experience tells them are likely to yield emeralds. But so far, the two veins nearest the camp have produced little of value.

The shafts plunge steeply into the mountainside. The rocky ceilings are too low to stand upright, forcing visitors into an uncomfortable duckwalk. Spring water drips into some of the mines, glazing the rock with ice and making the footing even more treacherous. It’s still below freezing underground.

Soviet geologists are said to have discovered the Panjshir’s emerald deposits in the 1970s.

Mr. Khan corrects the record slightly. “It was my uncle. He was the first person to find the emeralds. He didn’t know what they were, but thought they might be valuable, so took them to Kabul to have them assayed. … That’s where he was told they were emeralds. He is still alive; he lives in Kabul. But he is a poor man.”

Mr. Khan explained that his uncle didn’t have the means or know-how to exploit his discovery. A few years later came the 1979 Soviet military invasion. Twenty-two years of armed struggle ensued against Soviet troops and then among rival Afghan factions.

During those years, the Panjshiris made quite a lot of money off the emeralds. But commerce wasn’t the priority: Ahmad Shah Masood, the legendary resistance leader who fought first the Russians, then the Taliban to a standstill, taxed the trade to finance military operations. Efficiency hasn’t been a priority, either: Some experts reckon that the Panjshiri’s dynamite likely destroys more emeralds than it unearths.

Mr. Bowersox is hoping to change all that.

For now, he is starting small, teaching a nine-day gemology class to students in Kabul.

“The course was an introduction to gemology, geology and the world gem industry,” Mr. Bowersox said. “The students were exposed to gem exploration, mining, gem-cutting, marketing and identification.”

The current batch of graduates - 35 students, most in their 20s, half of them women - have the knowledge they need to at least certify gemstones as authentic.

“The [coalition] military is eager to have us set up a booth at the Friday bazaars. We’ll certify [gems] on the spot,” Mr. Bowersox said.

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