HERAT CITY (Pajhwok): In violation of President Ashraf Ghani’s warning, unprocessed marble — also known as white gold of Afghanistan — continues to be smuggled abroad.
During his visit to Herat about two years back, President Ghani had promised taking serious steps to prevent the export and smuggling of unprocessed marble from Herat.
At a meeting with businessmen, he had said: “I have received a report about the sale of Herat’s marble in Iran. I warn you against selling Afghanistan’s raw marble. I will close any company committing this illegal act.”
However, local officials, civil society activists and industrialists in Herat are concerned at the smuggling of raw marble. They say most of the stone is trafficked in raw and semi-processed form to Iran.
Mohammad Anwar Rahmani, the Herat customs head, confirmed to Pajhwok Afghan News the smuggling of Herat marble. He said the stone was transported through Taliban-controlled areas or other routes where government’s writ was weak.
“If the smuggling of raw and half-processed marble is prevented, the customs revenues will go up by 15 percent. We suffer a loss of 50 million afs annually due to the smuggling of marble to Iran and other countries.”
According to him, Herat customs department annually collects 20 million afs from marble exports through the Islam Qala crossing.
Several public representatives from Herat allege that some government officials and Wolesi Jirga members aid the smuggling of marble.
Massouda Korkhi, a legislator, told Pajhwok: “Herat’s raw marble is smuggled abroad by people having influence in the parliament and within the government.” However, she did not name any individual.
Closure of factories
Officials of the Herat Industrialists’ Union claim marble smuggling has resulted in the closure of marble factories in the province.
Hameedullah Khadim, head of the union, said about 45 marble-processing factories were operational until recently in the Herat industrial park. But due to the absence of marble stone, most of the factories have ceased to function.
“The first-degree, high-quality marble, before being processed, is smuggled by mafia to Iran and other countries. Thus the local factories are supplied with the 2nd and 3rd-degree marble for processing.”
Several factory heads complained of a shortage of the stone. Since the beginning of current year, Herat miners worked for only three months.
Toryalai Ghawsi, the Afghanistan Chamber of Commerce and Industries (ACCI) deputy head for Herat and owner of a factory, said due to the shortage of marble, he had suffered a 55 million afs loss.
“In the past, the government would extract the stone and place it at factory owners’ disposal. But currently, the market is free and the good-quality stone is not supplied to factories and the government pays no heed. Earlier, about 45 factories were active in this sector, but now the number has dropped to 20 to 25 factories.”
Ghawsi pointed to four kinds of marble excavated in the province –top marble, 1st, 2nd and 3rd degree marbles — but the factories were given the low-quality stone for processing.
“We once had 52 workers but now we have only 15. If we work 24 hours consistently, we produce 400 square metres. And in 48 hours, our production reaches 1,500 square metres.”
Currently, each square metre of processed top-quality marble is priced at 800 to 900 afs, the 1st degree marble at around 500 to 600 afs, the 2nd degree at 300 afs and the 3rd degree at 200 afs in Herat markets.
“We obtain one tonne of raw and irregular top marble for 8,000 afs, one tonne of 1st degree for 5,650 afs, the same quantity of 2nd degree for 3,500. But the 2nd-degree marble is sold for only 300 afs.”
While stressing the construction of a bridge on Harirod River in Chasht-i-Sharif for resolving people’s problems, he asked the government to monitor the activities of factories and miners to ensure the extracted marble was distributed in a just manner to factory owners.
Ghawsi claimed factories in Herat had high capacity and advanced equipment, which could process marble in a standard way.
But Abdul Sami Tokhi, an extracting company owner, said Herat factories lacked the ability to process marble stone because they only prepared it in a semi-processed form for export.
Meanwhile, Miners Union denied the smuggling of marble. It said local factories were unable to process raw marble to internationally accepted standards.
Attaullah Popal, head of the Miners Union and owner of a mining firm, said extraction from Herat mines continued for only two months. “Our work was stopped due to water-shedding from Salma Dam for four months. The Chast-Herat road asphalting took three months. Overall, we have worked very little this year.
“We have extracted less than 1,000 tonnes, but we paid a tax on 13,000 tonnes to government. Tax on a tonne of marble is 830 afs. Unfortunately, we suffered a $30,000 loss every month and we haven’t paid salaries to our employees over the past five months.”
He called the shortage of electricity, lack of bank loans to factories, dilapidated roads and the absence of a bridge on Harirod River the factors that contributed to their losses.
In the past years, 17 mines of marble existed in Herat. But now the number has fallen to 11. Abdul Jamil Ilyasi, former head of Herat Mines and Petroleum Department, recently said that 33 mines of marble existed in Chasht and Oba districts.
Of the mines, 11 were being tapped in the two districts and about 18,000 to 25,000 tonnes of marble could be extracted annually from each mine in the province.
Ilaysi had also expressed concern over the smuggling of raw marble to foreign countries from Herat because the factories did not have the capacity to process marble or meet international standards.
Despite all this, Zia-ul-Haq, the head of Herat Mines and Petroleum Department, spurned the claims of marble smuggling. He said the marble was being exported in semi-processed form.
Herat marble mines are situated 125 kilometers east of the provincial capital, stretching from Oba to Chasht-i-Sharif district.
Four types of high-quality marbles – fine crystalline marble ranging in colour from pure white to subtle light green white, Carrara and granite – were identified in Chasht-i-Sharif district.
In 1976, the Chasht-i-Sharif mine was estimated to have 500 metres length and 100 metres width and the capacity to produce 9.5 million cubic metres of marble. However, recent studies show the length of the mine is more than 20 kilometres.
Herat marbles are considered the finest in the world and the stone has many times secured first position among 52 countries of the globe.
Rokham, Tarawartanm, Chaqmaq in Chasht, Zandajan and Ghoryan districts are some of the mines that are currently being extracted in Herat. They are major mines of white marble in the country.
The Chasht-i-Sharif mine extraction has been handed over to a number of private companies by the Ministry of Mines and Petroleum under formal contracts. About 1,000 tonnes of marble are daily excavated from the mine and exported half-processed.
Abdul Qadeer Ahmad, a marble seller in Herat City, said: “We sell construction stones, including marble from Herat and other stones coming from Iran and China.”
He added: “The quality of local stones is better than that of Iran and China. But, unfortunately, due to lack of security, technical extraction is taking place in Afghanistan and the stones we import from Iran happen to be cheaper.”
Dawood Ahmadi, another marble trader, said: “The Herat stone has a good market here. The Iranian and Chinese varieties are cheaper. Also, Heratis favour and use the 2nd and 3rd-rated marble. The best marble has more buyers in Kabul and Mazar-i-Sharif.”
Border police efforts
The Afghanistan Border Police (ABP) says serious security measures had been taken to curb the illegal trafficking in raw marble stone.
Gulbuddin Alokozay, ABP’s 5th brigade commander, said dozens of tonnes of marble had been saved from being smuggled. “We confiscated five truckloads of marble destined for Iran and arrested three individuals this year.”
Meanwhile, Jilani Farhad, the governor’s spokesman, confirmed receiving reports about marble smuggling from Herat. Steps had been taken for preventing the unlawful practice, he claimed.
“Several individuals, who wanted to smuggle marble, have been referred to judicial organs. We have also sent more security personnel to Chasht-i-Sharif mines.”
However, officials of the Herat attorney office did not confirm the arrest of smugglers this year.