02/18/2011, 00.00
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More than US$ 3 trillion in rare earths and precious metals under Taliban feet

Afghanistan’s minister of Mines announces the discovery of vast mineral riches in the country. Some mines are set to become operational shortly, but rare earths are found in a Taliban stronghold. Mineral wealth could lead to the development of infrastructures and create jobs.

Kabul (AsiaNews/Agencies) – Afghanistan has deposits of rare earths, gold, copper, iron and other minerals worth an estimated U$ 3 trillion. The problem is that they are located in one of the country's most dangerous spots, on the south bank of the Helmand River, in a traditional Taliban stronghold.

That Afghanistan sits on vast mineral wealth has been detailed in several surveys, the most extensive of which were conducted by the Soviets in the 1970s, even though their import has been underestimated.

In 2007, the US Geological Survey estimated 1.4 million tonnes of rare-earth elements. Afghan Minister of Mines Wahidullah Shahrani said that the country was full of deposits across the country.

Until recently, exploration was centred on copper, iron and oil. The cost of rare earths mining was relatively high as China could supply the entire world at very low prices.

However, China cut back its rare earths exports in 2009, ostensibly to protect the environment and meet domestic needs.

These minerals are essential to the electronics industry as well as other sectors, from mobile phones to green vehicles.

Beijing has already announced that it would cut exports this year. This has raised concerns in high-tech industries, especially in Japan after China stopped exports in September over a dispute involving a group of islands. Now Tokyo is developing rare earths recycling and looking for substitutes.

China produces 97 per cent of the world’s rare earths output. However, it is estimated to hold only 30 per cent of the world reserves. The United States, Australia and other nations had stopped mining as too expensive compared to China’s. Now exploration and mining of rare earths are resuming but it will take some time before production will reach significant levels.

The lack of infrastructures and major security problems, especially in areas far from the big cities, have made mining a dangerous, if not impossible undertaking in Afghanistan. However, US experts continue exploration. In the Khan Neshin region, near the Helmand River, they found nearly US$ 90 billion worth of rare earth minerals as well as niobium, another mineral used in high tech.

Mining offers Afghanistan great opportunities. In addition to revenues from selling mining rights, developing these resources would create jobs for miners in an undeveloped region of the country, as well as for chemists, physicists and engineers involved in exploration and development. They would also lead to infrastructural development in transportation and communication and stimulate trade.

Many experts believe that developing these resources will take many years. Further geological surveys are needed. Above all, infrastructures must be built and the region must be pacified. However, they generally agree that for the country this would represent a path towards riches.

In the meantime, deposits are already being developed in some areas. They include gold and copper deposits in Zana Khan, Ghazni province, estimated to be worth US$ 30 billion and expected to come into production within five years, and lithium deposits in Herat, Ghazni, Nimroz and Farah provinces, which could be worth up to US$ 60 billion, and where small-scale production could begin within one year and large-scale production within two to four years.

In the meantime, China has arrived. The China Metallurgical Construction has bought the rights to the copper just north of the Aynak copper mine in Logar province.

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