Good and bad news about the impending destruction of Mes Aynak, an ancient Buddhist city in Afghanistan

A headless Buddha at Mes Aynak. There has been significant and increased looting at the site. Photo by Brent E. Huffman.

For the past five years, I have been documenting an ancient city on the brink of destruction.

Mes Aynak, located in Afghanistan’s Tablian-controlled Logar Province, is a massive 5,000-year-old archeological site that also contains Buddhist relics that have the potential to rewrite the history of the religion and the region. The archaeological ruins are massive, comparable in size to sites like Pompeii and Machu Picchu.

But Mes Aynak sits on the second largest copper deposit in the world, and since 2007 has belonged to a Chinese State-owned mining company, which plans to harvest that estimated $100 billion dollars worth of copper. MCC, or China Metallurgical Group Corporation, plans to use open-pit mining, a strategy that would reduce the entire area to rubble, forcing the evacuation and relocation of countless native Afghans who will never be able to return due to permanent toxicity from the mining. With archeologists estimating they have only uncovered a mere 10% of the site, all the culture and history it contains will be lost forever.

We’re campaigning against this, and I made a film, Saving Mes Aynak, which documents the complex political situation and efforts of Afghan archeologists and activists to save the site.

Yet there has just been some fantastic news regarding the Afghan government’s feelings about the copper mining deal. In an unprecedented move, the Afghan Minister of Mines and Petroleum Dawood Shah Saba has recently made public statements critical of the deal with the Chinese state-owned company MCC.

He alleged irregularities in awarding the mining contracts to foreign state-owned firms during the era of former Afghan president Hamid Karzai. He also warned that the present Afghan government faced no legal hurdles in canceling the contracts signed by the previous Karzai-led administration.

Minister Saba alleged that MCC had not even considered the irreversible environmental and social impact of the project in their assessment report.

This is very exciting news for the global campaign to #SaveMesAynak! This means that the Afghan government is receptive to the pleas we’ve been collecting and is even considering canceling this destructive and corrupt deal altogether.

Recent photograph of Mes Aynak by Michael Short

But at the same time, there is also very worrying news. New photographs and a report by Michael Short show that right now there is almost no archaeology happening at Mes Aynak, yet the deadline to excavate the “red zone” (the entire city) is this summer. This means archaeology will cease completely in two months. With less of an archaeologist presence at Mes Aynak, looting of the relics has increased in recent weeks and months.

So now is a crucial time for action. If our campaign is successful, I hope to travel one more time to Kabul and present both the film and a petition of 100,000 signatures to President Ghani and Minister Saba, and to the people of Afghanistan. We plan to show the film to UNESCO officials, and the international community of those with the power to ensure this magnificent Buddhist archeological site is preserved.

The trailer for Saving Mes Aynak. Watch it on July 1 through supporting our campaign.

Thank you for reading and for your continued support and belief in this important project.

Together we can save Mes Aynak!

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