Struggle forming over gems

SUN JOURNAL

Jewels: Afghanistan's interim government would like to control the mineral riches of the Panjshir region, but miners have vowed to fight.

October 04, 2003|By Paul Watson | Paul Watson,LOS ANGELES TIMES

KHENJ, Afghanistan - General Manegy's luck turned one day when he spotted a fallen rock at his feet while watching over his goats on a winding mountain path.

Inside a broken shell of quartz was a small stone glittering green in the sunlight. The goatherd had never seen an emerald before but knew this rock was beautiful, and rare, and that some people paid for such things. So he picked it up, turned his flock around and let his imagination carry him down the steep mountainside.

It was springtime in 1974, and Afghanistan was at peace. Perhaps a simple man's fate could shift as suddenly as an ancient rock split apart by snow and ice. "I thought I was going to be the richest guy in the world," Manegy, 78, says now. "Of course I dreamed. I still am dreaming that I'll find some more emeralds. Back then, I thought I'd buy a car and more animals and build several houses."

He never became so rich. Much of his life since finding the precious stone has been a lesson in how fickle fortune can be. So, too, has it been for Afghanistan, whose mineral wealth is both a blessing and a curse.

Few Afghans have become rich from the country's vast reserves of emeralds, rubies and other precious stones, but many have fought and died trying to control the mountains that conceal them.

Afghanistan's interim government is now interested in the riches. If Kabul could wrest control of the Panjshir region's mines, and others across a long stretch of Afghanistan, the war-ruined country could earn billions of dollars a year from its minerals, says Mohammed Mahfooz, the acting minister of mines and industries. The Panjshiris insist they will fight any efforts to move in - by the central government, multinational corporations, the Taliban or terrorists - just as they once fought off Soviet soldiers.

It was in 1979 that the Red Army invaded, and Manegy and his family fled with the rest of the villagers into the mountains to escape the bombing that leveled entire towns.

The war didn't end for another decade, and then another war began, and then another. The emerald miners have kept digging through it all, and as with Manegy, most of their dreams were undone by Afghanistan's harsh reality.

Manegy got about $160 for his emerald, which seemed a lot to him for a rock.

He would get at least $20,000 for that stone today, says Abdul Mahbood, a local gem trader, who did the math on a solar-powered calculator he carries in a vest pocket. From another, he takes out a ball of cellophane crumpled around emeralds, several bigger than sugar cubes.

Mahbood spills them into his palm, tilting it back and forth so the emeralds can catch the soft afternoon light. They click in his hand like a child's marbles. Mahbood smiles.

It was seven years after Manegy's discovery before Panjshiris realized they had been selling the precious stones cheap to the steady stream of foreign buyers riding through the mountains on donkeys from neighboring Pakistan, Mahbood says. As demand for Afghan emeralds grew, so did the price, and Panjshiris became more knowledgeable gem dealers.

With his $160, Manegy bought rice, wheat and other supplies. Four days after cashing in his bonanza, he was broke. He kept looking for more emeralds but didn't find many. He gave up after three years and returned to working 24 acres of terraced fields next to the Darkhenjab River and selling car parts on the side.

"The richest thing I have is my faith," he says. "Even if someone gives us east, west, north and south, we can't lose our faith."

The Panjshir emerald mines are part of a gem belt stretching hundreds of miles, from the edge of the Himalayas at Afghanistan's northeastern border with Pakistan to Laghman province, northeast of Kabul, and then to the west of the Panjshir Valley, in Parwan province. International experts say some of Panjshir's emeralds are among the world's finest.

Afghanistan's government believes that billions of dollars worth of emeralds, rubies, lavender kunzite, violet-blue lapis lazuli and other precious stones are waiting to be extracted from the rock and insists anyone mining them is taking state property.

But Afghanistan hasn't had an effective central government for at least 24 years, and the miners defying the current government's ban are applying the age-old rule of finders, keepers.

Afghan President Hamid Karzai's government in Kabul is talking with potential foreign investors, including U.S. companies, to take over the emerald mines as partners with the Afghan state. But they will have to find a way past the Panjshiris, who think they own the rock they work - and the gems locked inside.

Mahfooz insists that the miners will have to settle for jobs with the corporations. So far, however, no foreign companies have made offers for joint ventures in mining, he says. The men hammering relentlessly at the mountainside are driven by the same certainty that keeps marathon gamblers going. Today, they tell themselves, is my day.

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