Poor Afghanistan. Not only has the country been a serial conflict zone for almost forty years, it has now been afflicted with the burden of "vast riches," as the New York Times headline put it. The first comprehensive survey of Afghanistan's underground treasures found gold, coppper, cobalt and lithium, to name a few, in quantities which have the world's industrial powers drooling in anticipation. We all know the value of gold and copper, of course, but lithium? Lithium is one of the most highly prized minerals of the computer age, as an essential component of batteries for laptops and smartphones. The market value of Afghanistan's previously hidden treasures is estimated at a trillion dollars, more than enough to encourage the mining industries to start sharpening their drill bits and stocking up on high explosives.
So will Afghanistan go from being one of the poorest nations on earth (if it is a nation at all, which some would dispute) to being a wealthy industrialized country, with a place at high table in the global economy? Don't bet on it. The history of poor, mismanaged, corrupt countries with valuable natural resources does not point to Easy Street as Afghanistan's future address. Nigeria is an example of that history.
While the U.S. tries to cope with the huge oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico and wrangles with the spiller, British Petroleum, over the cost of clean-up and damage restitution, such environmental horrors are a long-running story in Nigeria. Long-running, but seldom told. Oil spills in Nigeria in the last five decades, we are told in a New York Times report, have been equivalent to an annual Exxon Valdez disaster. The mangroves of the Niger Delta, which have historically been a major food source for the country, have been transformed into a dead zone by countless leaks and spills of oil. The oil companies, particularly Royal Dutch Shell, are unapologetic and, naturally, blameless. But over those same fifty years, during which more than 500 million gallons of oil have fouled the delta, these companies have pumped hundreds of billions of dollars' worth of oil out of the region. Yet Nigeria remains a desperately poor country. The oil is pumped out of the country, and so is the oil money. Shell and Exxon and the other multi-national oil players in Nigeria take most of it, but the Nigerian government's share, which in theory should make Nigeria a comfortably wealthy country with good schools, health care, and a working infrastructure, has been siphoned off by corrupt officials and pumped into secret accounts in Switzerland or elsewhere.
Some of the spillage in the Niger Delta has been caused by poverty -- pipelines have been broken into or sabotaged by poor Nigerians who feel it's the only way they will ever get a share of what should be theirs by right. But much of the spillage has resulted from shoddy practices by the oil companies, who operate in a virtually regulation-free environment.
So when the multi-nationals barge into Afghanistan with their massive earth-moving equipment and begin to scrape the wealth out of the stony Afghan mountains, expect the worst. If mining companies in the U.S., where there is at least some measure of environmental protection, can remove mountaintops and dump the tailings into trout streams, think what will happen in Afghanistan where there is virtually no governmental authority beyond the walls of the Arg Palace in Kabul. In a country already awash in drug money, where corrupt government ministers erect massive, garish mansions ("narcotecture") do you think there is any real hope that revenue from mineral exploitation will actually feed the hungry, pave the streets, bring water to farms and electricity to all? My prognosis is that the money will be stolen, the rich will get richer, the poor will remain poor, and Afghanistan will remain a beggar nation.
So Afghanistan holds "vast riches"? Poor Afghanistan.