By the Blouin News Politics staff

Lapis lazuli: from Afghan heritage to conflict mineral

by in Asia-Pacific.

Lapis lazuli. (Source: Venture Minimalists/flickr)

Lapis lazuli. (Source: Venture Minimalists/flickr)

by Michael Lerner

Afghanistan announced on Wednesday that it is deploying additional security forces to prevent illegal mining, the Taliban’s second largest source of income after drug smuggling. The new push comes in the aftermath of a report released on Monday by the NGO Global Witness that called for the semi-precious gem lapis lazuli (almost entirely originating from northern Afghanistan) to be classified as a “conflict mineral.”

Although the Afghan government banned lapis lazuli mining in early 2015 — because the mines could not be secured — the practice continued with impunity, greased by corrupt local police and national politicans. “In the current circumstances, where 50% of the mining revenue is going to the Taliban, and before that it was going to armed groups, by any reasonable definition lapis is a conflict mineral. And that means people should think very hard about buying it,” said Stephen Carter, the report’s lead author. He called mineral extraction a “massive strategic blind spot” in the West’s Afghanistan strategy, and said it is particularly alarming that mining is considered “a sort of economic or corruption issue, rather than a massive potential threat to security.”
Naturally, Kabul is quick to trumpet its successes in cracking down on the illicit trade. Interior Minister Sediq Sediqqi said on Wednesday that last year police impounded 65 trucks carrying illegally mined lapis lazuli. But that was a drop in the bucket compared to the 12,500 tons of lapis — at a minimum — which Global Witness estimates have been extracted since 2014, valued at around $200 million. Much of that mining was done illegally, or in a way that avoided nearly $30 million in government taxes.
The NGO estimated that the Taliban netted $12 million last year from providing “protection” to illegal lapis mining operations. It is unknown how much government officials have raked in from the trade, but the report accuses specific ones of direct involvement.
Sediqqi did concede that not enough was being done to secure mines across the country, which is estimated by the U.S. and Afghan governments to hold as much as $1-3 trillion in mineral resources. But Afghan security forces have a hard enough time hanging on to vital infrastructure around the country, and the Afghanistan Research and Evaluation Unit has estimated that 10,000 mineral deposits are outside of the government’s control. Don’t look to Kabul to solve this problem; the announcement of extra forces is just rhetoric and won’t make much difference.
The NGO’s report also accused China of being complicit in the illegal lapis trade. Much of the Afghan mineral is sold to Chinese merchants who make it into jewelry and ornaments for sale in China, where demand is high. “If the Chinese government said, ‘We’re banning the trade of lapis until it no longer benefits armed groups,’ immediately the bottom would fall out of this market completely,” Carter lamented.
Perhaps with time and an awareness campaign, Chinese consumer attitudes might shift to insist on legally-sourced lapis lazuli, similar to the campaign against illegal ivory. However, a bigger catalyst for change would be if China becomes more worried about its ethnic Muslim Uighers — whom it considers terror threats — reportedly joining groups of foreign fighters in Badakhshan (the Afghan province home to most lapis lazuli mines). Then a crackdown would happen very quickly, to the region’s benefit.