Before Afghanistan descended into civil war, a French geologist collected massive data on the country’s mining resources. His findings, recently rediscovered, could unlock huge wealth in the troubled nation. But look who’s already busy exploiting it...
BEAUVAIS - Afghanistan's many troubles are compounded by the fact that it is the world's largest producer of opium. But it also has vast natural resources beyond its poppy fields, with the United States putting its mining potential at about one trillion dollars and others citing estimates of maybe even three times as much. Cobalt, lithium, copper, oil, gold, rare earth – everything that the world needs to feed its factories is thought to be there.
Yet detailed information about the specific locations of the deposits needed to guide explorations has long been lacking. That, however, may be about to change with the identification of old French missionary maps of the Afghan territory that could unlock the country's still-buried resources.
The maps, yellowed by time, have been housed at the La Salle Institute in Beauvais, France, and contain extensive geological records of Afghanistan's regions. The information was compiled by French geological explorations between 1961 and 1978 led by a renowned geologist Albert de Lapparent, who was also a Catholic priest.
"Abbot de Lapparent was the one who started the explorations," recalls Christian Montenat, the former director of the Albert de Lapparent Geology Institute (IGAL), who spent eight summers in the Afghan mountains between 1971 and 1978.
After being ordained a priest, and having already explored the Sahara, de Lapparent settled on the then little-known country of Afghanistan. On his first trip, he discovered the Hajigak iron deposit in the mountains west of Kabul, an exceptional deposit of more than two billion tons. The discovery opened the doors to Afghan authorities, who facilitated further French geological missions. In1973, a permanent office was opened in Kabul. The Soviet invasion in 1979 stopped everything, and the notebooks, samples, topographic and geological maps all ended up in the IGAL archives.
A treasure trove of knowledge
The friendship between a member of the Emergency Architects Foundation in Paris and a Franco-Afghan citizen resulted in the maps coming back to light. The information gathered during the expeditions constitutes a treasure trove of geological knowledge.
"Everything is still yet to be done in Afghanistan," says Montenat. The invading Russians continued working, and German, Italian and Spanish expeditions would later add to the knowledge base. But Montenat says the information remains very general because the country's political instability render impossible serious ground explorations, which are indispensable to refine data gathered by satellite.
Professor Atiq Sediqi, director of the Afghan geological service, has launched a project to make the most of the rediscovered data. "The maps of the French missions are going to be digitized to create a data base that aggregates knowledge available from other countries," Sediqi says.
Some preliminary technical discussions have also taken place at the French office for geological and mining research (BRGM). "The Afghans need support in creating a real service capable of conducting discussions with mining companies," says Pierre Thierry, the BRGM's director for Asia. Much remains to be done in order for Afghanistan to fully benefit from its riches. Professor Sediqi is well aware of the issues, including environmental concerns, that must be addressed with mining companies.
Perhaps the furthest ahead in exploiting the potential, not surprisingly, are the Chinese. In 2007, the China Metallurgical Group Corporation (MCC) obtained the concession to extract copper in Aynak, south of Kabul, which is probably the second largest deposit in the world. To acquire the mining rights, MCC put more than $3 billion on the table to build the necessary infrastructure such as railroads and electrical power stations. Worried about security and the lack of reliable data on which to base the costly process of prospecting, European companies – despite calls from the Afghan government – have so far been holding back.
Read the original article in French
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