Afghanistan Analysts Network – English

Economy, Development, Environment

The Many Owners of Ashab Baba: Land conflict at the Ainak copper mine

Obaid Ali Thomas Ruttig 8 min

So far, after the (re-)discovery of Afghanistan’s mineral wealth, interest has concentrated on the macro-level – how to access and to market it, who won the tenders (and why not American companies*) – or on the cultural heritage aspect, how the Buddhist relics found at the Ainak copper mine can be protected. Now, micro conflicts are emerging in Ainak on the subject of land expropriation, compensation, land grabbing and administrative incapability. AAN’s Thomas Ruttig and Obaid Ali look at the facts available so far.

In late January, Afghan media started reporting that inhabitants of villages in the vicinity of the Ainak copper mine**, in the east of Logar province, have started protesting. A number of families had their agricultural land and homes expropriated by the government but a presidential decree promised them new land. It did not specify where, however. Now the displaced are complaining about corrupt practices among government officials in the implementation of the compensation measures.***

As to Afghan media reports, there are differences about which land would be compensated, different information about how much would be paid perjerib of land (five jerib are one hectare), accusations that financial compensation had not been paid at all as well as issues of delayed and confused allocation of new land for people displaced from the Ainak valley. The latter problem is linked to the unclear property situation in the area where the displaced are to be resettled. It is called Ashab Baba and is located close to the little market town of Pul-e Qandahari, at the main Kabul-Khost road in Muhammad Agha district in Logar. There also seems to be some open land grabbing by members of the local administration, the provincial council and possibly even from within ministries in Kabul. (There is some money in this because, usually, you have to pay for your land plots, called ‘numra’ by Afghans, to be registered – or to get it at all. The land registry offices – mudiriyat-e amlak – are also known to be strongholds of greasy hands.)

One elder from the Ainak valley told an Afghan newspaper that the evacuated families from his village do not have water and a mosque at their new place. Another one complained that the government has not taken any action in order to distribute land yet and that displaced families had to construct new houses by themselves. He did not reject the mining project as such, proudly calling it one of the biggest economical projects in the world and adding that the local people appreciated it, but that ‘corrupt people should be removed from this project’ (Rah-e Nejat, Kabul, 28 January 2012, not online).

When we started to enquire about more details, some historical backlog transpired – a story like from the textbook of recent Afghan history.

MCC had already won the tender for the Ainak mine in 2007 but preparations to develop it geared up slowly. Finally, in 2010 (although no one we asked remembers the exact time), the people of five villages in the Ainak valley received an order to vacate their land, but were promised new land where they would be able to built new homes by presidential decree.

According to the Logar governor, five villages were on the list for a first phase of evacuation – Adam Qala (or Adam Kelay), Wali Baba kelay, Bar (‘Upper’) Chenari, Kuz (‘Lower’) Chenari and Sostengi. Local people talk about three villages only, since Adam Qala was a Kuchi settlement, consisting of tents mostly, with only some permanent structures, while Sostengi had already been left by its people ‘during the revolution’, ie in the 1980s. It seems, however, that only Wali Baba was emptied because the governor says that a second phase is to follow within the coming two months, concerning the two Chenaris plus two other villages, Gargab and Taji. Earlier he had said that people from eleven villages, 1,200 families altogether, will be displaced for the mine.****

When the first villages were evacuated, their residents looked at the new place allocated to them in Ashab Baba and were not satisfied. They also feared that they might get into trouble with local residents in the area (more about this below), and some decided to stay in their original villages. Finally, the government sent the police and forced them to leave. Many of them decided not to go to Ashab Baba but moved elsewhere, instead, to the neighbouring Musahi district (part of Kabul province), to Muhammad Agha town, the nearest district centre in Logar, or even further to Jalalabad and Pakistan.

Also, the payment of compensation was messy. The government had informed the displaced people that they would receive 300,000 Afghani (about US$ 6,000) per jerib of land they lose. But meanwhile accusations make the round that only Afs 200,000 are being paid. A local elder told us that some evacuated people even received only Afs 100,000 per jerib, others 80,000 or 50,000. (This leads some locals to believe that local government officials are pocketing the difference; the money is distributed through the provincial governor.)

On top of it, the government told the displaced that it would pay for land with legal documents only, as an elder from Adam Qala told Rah-e Nejat newspaper. According to the same report, the director of the Ainak Mine already claimed that part of the expropriated land in Ainak belongs to the government anyway (and doesn’t need to be paid for). But people from Ainak showed us documents that confirm that some of the disputed land is their property and, moreover, that they have been paying taxes for it.

After more than three decades of war ownership of land often is disputed. Documents are either lost or have been destroyed (if there ever were documents), or various documents exist for the same piece of land – issued by different regimes long gone against bribes or on the basis of relationship. An Afghan NGO familiar with the situation says that there are five different types of land tenure documents used by local people in Ainak most of which are not recognised by the government. Already a 2003 AREU report pointed out that ‘multiple claims, each with its own historical legitimacy, may exist over the same land’ and that ‘[t]he law, and the documents or testimony it generates, is plural, complex, uncertain, incomplete and currently unenforceable’. Forced displacement and violent take-over of land have compounded the situation further.

The case of Ashab Baba

The case of the major area envisaged for the resettlement of the displaced people of Ainak, Ashab Baba, is even more complicated. It involves a lack of coordination between different government agencies, short-cut decision-making by the provincial authorities, tribal conflict and lower-level irregularities.

The land now allocated to the displaced Ainak people belongs to an area of land that already had been distributed before. In 1992, after the communist government in Kabul fell, the local jihadi shura (mainly Jamiati commanders who controlled the area) allocated the land to people of the Stanakzai tribe for housing construction. The tribe had grown considerably, and its land frequently damaged by floods from the Logar river, so they needed more space. But building on what by then had been named Shahrak-e Ashab Baba (Ashab Baba township) – 3,000 jerib of land, divided into smaller plots of 4 to 8 beswa (20 beswa are one jerib) – did not start until 1383 (2004/05). Meanwhile, the Stanakzai had used the area as a pasture.

When construction finally started, the tribal issue kicked in. The land allocated to the Stanakzai was claimed by Waziris (who are called ‘Pakistani’ in the area*****) and Kuchis as their property. Both of these groups were backed by other local strongmen and former commanders, linked to Naim Kuchi (a former Taleban official, now advisor to President Karzai) and Ustad Sayyaf. The Waziri interrupted the building activities, the dispute became violent and security forces had to step in. Elders mediated and the Stanakzai obtained an assurance that the Waziri would not build themselves and buy more land in Ashab Baba. The case also went to court, was decided in favour of the local Stanakzai and President Karzai backed it by a decree in Saur 1385 (April/May 2006), allocating the land to the Stanakzai and fixing a price of Afs 60,000 (US$ 1,200) for every jerib. Locally, it had been agreed that those who had been injured during the conflict would be given priority access to plots.

In the same year, the Ministry of Urban Development stepped in and drew a construction plan for Ashab Baba, that was send to the cabinet and approved. It allocated 1,950 jerib for construction, the remaining 1,050 were to be “green land”, parks etc. Those plots for construction were subsequently distributed to the Stanakzai from Muhammad Agha district, starting in the last month of 1386 (February/March 2008), by a delegation of representatives of the Logar branches of the Ministries for Urban Development and for Agriculture, the Muhammad Agha municipality and of the local population. This was before the Ainak mine issue came up.

Then, the problem of where to resettle the displaced people from Ainak seemed to have dawned on the provincial authorities as well as the Ministry of Mines and Industries. Minister Wahidullah Shahrani who had brought up the issue in the cabinet was tasked ‘to solve the issue’. It is unclear whether the cabinet was unaware that the available land had already been distributed and of the tribal tensions in the area – or just did not care. Shahrani and governor Ludin, who felt anyway that too much land has been allocated as ‘green’ area, rededicated 220 jeribs of it (divided into 500 plots) and gave it to the Ainak people. This part of the township was inaugurated by the minister personally one day in the month of Assad (July/August) last year, at the unusual time of 6:00 am, as local people told us. Very apparently he was aware that he was stabbing into a hornets’ nest and tried to avoid that the local Stanakzai witnessed this new scheme. The Ainak people who understood that this would bring them in conflict with their possible Stanakzai neighbours decided to stay.

In the moment, preparatory work for construction is going on in Ashab Baba. Everything looks normal. But the uncoordinated decision making has left the displaced people of Ainak to their own devices.

On a lower level of corruption, the local population’s own representatives apparently gave some of the plots not to the most needy, as agreed, but to relatives or those who paid them money. When the Stanakzai saw additional people coming in, from Ainak, and a land redistribution at their expense, they staged their own demonstrations. They already had complained earlier that the allocated land is not large enough to accommodate all of them anyway. In the end, however, the elders managed to divert the protests into the direction of the provincial governor about whom it is said that he also has laid claim on some plots.

In general, the situation around Ainak has not led to regular and massive street protests yet, as it is known from other countries in similar situations of mining and displacement or as we just experienced after the incident of the Quran burning on Bagram base. (There was also a number of protests against this in Logar.) But disputed land ownership can become a major driver of conflict all over Afghanistan when the mineral wealth is to be unearthed. The unresolved situation of land tenure makes it extremely difficult even for the most well-meaning and competent official to take a wise decision in a given area. And here, not all officials are well-meaning and people are suspicious anyway after ten years of contagious corruption.

In Ashab Baba, particularly, conflict might heat up when the announced second phase of expropriations throws more people into the arena. The people of the phase II villages are also to be resettled there, and everyone thinks that not enough land is available already now.


* In this context, read the following article, ‘Why is the Pentagon [sic] handing over Afghanistan’s riches to the Chinese?’ by Alexander Benard and Eli Sugarman, from the AfPak Channel, 4 October 2011. Alexander Benard is managing director of Gryphon Partners, an advisory and investment firm that ‘assists clients in markets’ in the Middle East and Central Asia (including mineral exploration) founded by his father, Zalmay Khalilzad. He previously worked at the U.S. Defense Department. Eli Sugarman is senior director of Gryphon Partners and previously worked at the US State Department.

** Mes-e Ainak’ which, by the way, just means ‘the copper (mine) of Ainak [the little well]’, not – as for example RFE/RL reported, ‘Little Copper Well’. That would be Ainak-e Mes(i). Sorry for being a linguistic nitpicker.

*** According to the spokesman of the mine ministry and Logar governor Atiqullah Ludin, the government in Kabul has allocated 2 million Afghani (around US$ 40,000) as aid for the people evacuated around the Ainak mine while the mine’s developer, the Chinese company MCC, added US$ 3 million. (Although MCC is state-owned, the embassy in Kabul did not want to confirm the sum or anything else on Ainak.)

**** Local elders say that there are five villages in the Ainak valley: Adam Kelay with around 150 families, Wali (Baba) Kelay with 110 to 120 and Shigo Karez with 30 were to be vacated in phase one, Qala-ye Sanki with 30 families and Mira Jan, with 10 to 30 families are to follow in phase two. Ut for some villages, different names are used. Shigo Karez, for example, is also called Sostangi and Qala-ye Sanki. Another name for Wali Kelay is Mira Jan. This is not exceptional for Afghanistan and has to do with the fact that in the eyes of the people it often differs what a village is. There are often clusters of houses seen as one villages, or sometimes a number of clusters. See a vary valid AREU paper on this issue, ‘Understanding and Addressing Context in Afghanistan: How Villages Differ and Why’, here. And then there is the problem that the Pashto words for ‘village’ (kelay) and ‘fort’ (qala) almost sound the same and people use them alternately.

***** The Waziri mainly settle in Waziristan, but some live in Afghanistan – thanks to the Durand Line. Paktika’s Barmal district is Waziri-only, and Urgun town in the same province has a Waziri minority. The Stanakzai are a subtribe of the Ahmadzai.


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