Documenting the Buddhas of Aynak

Great stories lie in the most unexpected places, but surely a large mining project must be one of the most unlikely. Who would have thought that an area so matter-of-fact, so recondite, so lacking in gloss would produce a real corker. When Brent Huffman read a news report about the copper mining project at Mes Aynak in Afghanistan, a bell started ringing.

Brent Huffman photographs a Buddhist stupa

The New York Times article suggested that the US military was working to protect the interests of the China Metallurgical Group (MCC), a huge Chinese mining corporation, who were starting new copper mining project in Logar Province of Afghanistan. Huffman is a documentary maker and writer whose work concentrates on social and environmental issues missed by the mainstream media, especially related to China and the country’s economic expansion. Here was another under-reported issue that dealt with similar issues to Huffman’s 2010 film, The Colony, which looked at the Chinese economic immigrants in Senegal.

It soon became clear that there was more at stake than an unusual cooperation between US armed forces and a Chinese corporation. Mes Aynak is one of largest copper deposits on earth, comparable to those in the vast Zambian Copperbelt in Central Africa, and it could be a valuable source of wealth for one of the poorest countries in the world. This money could help reduce the country’s child mortality rate which is the third highest in the world, increase access to safe drinking water which only 23% of the population currently have access to, and improve the current literacy rate of 24%.

However, resting on the top of these riches is a Buddhist archaeological site of incomparable value. Excavations are revealing a whole city from the Buddhist Kushan period (1st century AD – 3rd Century AD), which includes a fortress, commercial and residential areas as well as several monasteries. As the dig reaches lower levels, they are also finding Bronze Age copper smeltings.

“This whole project is like an onion, you peel back layers and discover new things; it’s very complex,” Huffman says of his new film, The Buddhas of Aynak, over Skype. Just as the archaeologists are revealing more and more history, Huffman is finding more stories. “When I started this project, I thought the film would be a document of the site. So, at least it exists on film after it’s destroyed,” he says. However, the film has since increased in scope.

The sheer existence of the site is special in itself. “Also of great interest is just the fact that this ancient Buddhist site has survived so much turmoil. At one point it was actually the site of a Taliban camp. The site’s been looted… countless times probably.”

Looking at the issue of Chinese economic expansion in the developing world that he examined in his earlier films, Huffman explains that, “Afghanistan represents a really unique example because, especially this area, it is so dangerous.” Logar Province is ‘Taliban Country’ as he puts it, and far too dangerous for any Western company to operate in. One could also add that the involvement of a Western company would also be open to criticism of benefiting from NATO’s presence in the country.

“China overall is interested in what the New York Times called ‘a trillion dollars of natural resources’ in Afghanistan… and Mes Aynak sort of represents their first step.” They need the site to work, he says, “so that they can go after resources in other parts of Afghanistan.” The scale of the project however means that local people inevitably suffer. They have already forcibly relocated seven villages, which has lead to violence. Huffman returns to his colonialism theme, “With colonies, the relationship sours eventually and I think that is already happened.”

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