KABUL: A new British-supported law regulating Afghanistan’s valuable mining sector does not offer enough protection against graft, a campaign group has warned. The warning came as a senior UK minister admitted that Afghanistan could be vulnerable to the “resource curse” that has left other resource-rich developing countries scarred by corruption or unsustainable extraction. The international development secretary, Justine Greening, who met mining executives on a trip to Kabul this week, has promised to boost Afghan government expertise in drawing up mining contracts to protect local communities and the environment. Afghanistan boasts deposits of everything from iron ore to emeralds, copper, lithium and natural gas, which Greening said could be worth up to $3 trillion. The international community, currently staring down an annual bill of $4 billion just to support the Afghan police and army, is almost as keen as Kabul officials to start digging up the underground treasures.

“They have the potential to really provide this country with the wealth it will need to invest in its own infrastructure, its schools and hospitals going forward and reduce its aid dependence,” Greening said. Even the Taliban have promised to develop the mining sector, saying investment would help Afghans “wrangle ourselves from the tentacles of poverty”.

But landlocked Afghanistan still lacks many of the essentials needed to get gems and ore to markets, from basic transport infrastructure to a skilled population to run the mines.

Even before serious work has started on the two biggest prizes, a copper deposit secured by a Chinese miner and an iron ore one claimed by an Indian company, there have been reports of conflict at government concessions and illegal mining elsewhere. Local police commanders in eastern Kunar have been extracting chromite without licences, but with foreign help, a recent report from Integrity Watch Afghanistan warned, while a coal tender to a Chinese firm in central Bamiyan left locals out of work and winter fuel.

On her trip, Greening quizzed executives and officials invited to a reception at the embassy about how they could ensure future mines benefit the whole country. “One of my questions to them will be ‘how can we ensure that the investment that comes in is sustainable and responsible?’,” she said.

“It is critical that it is, because if it is not, we have seen from other countries, if minerals are extracted in a way that is not responsible it can fuel corruption and it can be a curse as much as a potential blessing.”

The British government supported the drafting of a new mining law meant to bolster the likelihood of this happening, but it has been stranded in parliament for months.

On top of the delays, campaign group Global Witness this week highlighted flaws in the legislation. These include a lack of safeguards against corruption in the bidding process and no ban on militias or the army benefiting from mining.

Global Witness has published a report entitled A Shaky Foundation, which analyses Afghanistan’s mining law. It warned that from a financial point of view there is no requirement to publish details of smaller contracts, suggesting the government might be planning to row away from a widely praised requirement to make details of almost all mining deals public. It also appears to allow mining firms unlimited use of water, which is very likely to spark conflict in an arid country where even small streams are zealously guarded.

“Militias implicated in human rights abuses have already been profiting from chromite and other resources. Remaining gaps in the mining law need urgent attention in order to guard against abuse and the loss of much-needed revenue for the country,” said Stephen Carter, Afghanistan campaign leader for Global Witness.

“The opportunity to build a minerals sector around recognised principles of transparency and good governance, and the strongest possible protections against corruption and conflict, is one that Afghanistan can’t afford to miss.”

Greening said the current work that her Department for International Development is doing with Afghanistan’s mining ministry, boosting their capacity to craft contracts that can stand up to the sharp lawyers of many mining firms, should be another bulwark to abuse. “The last time I was here I agreed that we would put some further investment with the ministry of mines to help them work on that technical ability to strike good contracts with companies that want to come in and extract those resources,” she said.

The work will ensure “that the contracts are done in a way that does make sure that Afghanistan truly benefits from the resources that it has as a country and we do see skills being developed for the local community, and that they do see the rewards of having companies arrive”.

By arrangement with the Guardian

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