Historic preservation or economic salvation? Sucks to be Afghanistan.

By Sarah Ostman

Mes Aynak, a small town 20 miles south of Kabul, Afghanistan, is finding itself caught between preserving ancient history and taking what some see as a giant economic leap into the future.

Afghan and French archaeologists are working to excavate a massive, 2,600-year-old Buddhist monastery on a rocky hillside in the town. The 3/4-square-mile site has already been found to contain more than 150 statues and intricate rooms decorated with frescoes.

There’s a problem though. The monastery is directly above the second-largest untapped copper mine in the world — and if the mine’s foreign backers have anything to do with it, those Buddhist statues will be sent straight to the trash.

China has invested $3.5 billion in the mine. The company behind the investment, Chinese government-backed China Metallurgical Group Corp., has agreed to give excavators three years to salvage what they can, but the company is pressuring the archaeologists to work faster; they want to get the mine started as soon as next year. For their part, archaeologists say three years is probably only enough to figure out what’s in the monastery — unearthing it all could take a decade.

How struggling, war-torn Afghanistan will respond remains to be seen. The country’s government is expecting $1.2 billion annual returns from the mine once it’s functional, not to mention a lot of jobs.

Read the AP story here.

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