Afghanistan: Fights for transparency in resource depletion

Responsible Democracy: The richness of Afghanistan in natural resources has great potential for conflict. Since 2012, the Heinrich Böll Foundation therefore moved deliberately in this politically sensitive terrain.

Not without a legal basis: An environmental natural resource monitoring network in Afghanistan fights for transparency in resource depletion

The map of Afghanistan looks as if someone had decorated it with colorful decals: black droplets, green circles, white stars, and yellow hexagons are spread all over the country. Oil, lithium, jewels, and gold, according to the map legend—and that’s only a small part of the mineral resources listed. Given the substantial reduction in international aid, the map holds great promise for many in Afghanistan.
The genuinely political character of the issue of resources is thereby misunderstood and the connection between resource depletion and local conflicts overlooked. Consequently, since early 2012 the Heinrich Böll Foundation has been active on this politically explosive terrain, locally, nationally, and internationally. An event in Kabul in July 2012 broke the cautious silence about resource conflicts and led to the establishment of an environmental and natural resource monitoring network (ENRMN).  “Even if the environmental and natural resource monitoring network was really quite small at first,” Neelab Hakim, environmental coordinator for the office of the Heinrich Böll Foundation in Kabul, explains, “we all participated from the start with great enthusiasm.” The network now has more than fifty members and has also become the most important contact for government officials.

In Logar province, about thirty-five kilometers southwest of Kabul, where one of the largest copper deposits in the world is thought to be located, a mining contract between the Afghan government and a Chinese consortium was signed behind closed doors in 2008. Most people only learned though the media that the contract had been signed and that the community would be resettled and compensated by the government, says Mussa Mahmoodi, director of the Logar Civil Society Association. Five villages have meanwhile been resettled, but hardly any compensation has been paid.

For many of the village residents, the resettlement has been a personal catastrophe. In addition to the loss of house and land, entire village communities have been torn apart. Especially for women, resettlement has meant the collapse of social structures and painstakingly established freedoms. “Before the resettlement we could attend celebrations such as funerals and marriages in the neighboring villages without any problem. Now it is no longer possible to reach our neighboring villages by foot,” says one female villager. The promise of jobs for members of the surrounding communities also has not been kept, Mussa Mahmoodi notes soberly.

Mussa’s worried visits to the Kabul office moved the Heinrich Böll Foundation to organize an initial environmental training course in Logar. “One of the participants said to me that this was the first time since international support began twelve years ago that international organizations did not come only to study them, but to share important information with them,” says Neelab Hakim.
With support from the environmental network, similar training courses have now taken place in five different provinces. Here, too, the consequences of resettlement for the local population were clear: No one seemed interested that the affected communities had lost their entire livelihood through the forced resettlement, that their animals no longer had any grazing land, and that the graves of their relatives had to be moved because of the projects. At the same time, there was a rise in violent activities by armed anti-government groups shortly after the development of copper, iron ore, coal, gas, and oil deposits throughout the provinces. The long-term goal of the training courses was to enable participants afterwards to document their situation on their own, to publicize it, and in this way to be able to demand their rights.

Parallel to the training and networking initiatives with the provinces, a lobbying process also took place on the national and international level, assisted by the Heinrich Böll Foundation. Together with the environmental and natural resource monitoring network and a group of international actors, a catalog of demands was worked out identifying the most blatant deficiencies in terms of taxation mechanisms and transparency in the resource sector. The signatories also called for public consultations and transparent contracts for resource development, as well for compliance with international standards of environmental and social sustainability.
At the donor conference in Tokyo in 2012, the civil society initiative celebrated a first important success: In the Mutual Accountability Framework, which ties the approval of a total of sixteen million US dollars in aid to compliance with certain conditions, a provision was included requiring that legal parameters be established for the extraction of natural resources. Local participation was listed as one of the indicators for the implementation.

Pleased with this success, the environmental and natural resource monitoring network began a multitude of campaigns. When a new mining law was due to be passed in 2014, members of the network decided to hold a large demonstration in front of the Afghan parliament to draw attention to the most glaring shortcomings of the proposed legislation and its disadvantages for the Afghan population. A growing number of representatives gradually sided with the civil society group. In the end they were able to prevent then president Hamid Karzai from signing the legislation, thus forcing a revision of the legislative proposal.
The environmental and natural resource monitoring network has become a respected and professional source for consultancy and knowledge sharing that is in great demand by the Afghan government, other civil society groups, and the media.

This article is part of our dossier "For Democracy - From the commitment of the Heinrich Böll Foundation in the world" and was created as part of the publication of the same name.