Afghan emerald miners see no sparkle in foreign investment

Outside Kabul, where the city's cosmopolitan character dissipates into tribal communities cloistered by high mountain passes, "foreign" and "investment" are fighting words. There is a deeply rooted sense that foreigners have come to Afghanistan only for conquest, and that foreign investment is just a form of economic imperialism.

High on the slopes of the mountains that encompass this narrow valley, the men of Panjshir have long burrowed into the granite in search of emeralds. There are few trappings of modernization – a drill here, a head lamp there. In Khenj, miners gather in the center of town every Saturday to take the three-hour trek several thousand feet straight up to the high shoulders of the Hindu Kush. They stay for the entire week, living in stone huts and returning to town only for Friday prayers, to sell what little they find, and to see their families.

Yet Mohammad Feda says he doesn't want foreign companies here – even if they could bring paved roads and regular salaries. "They will cheat us, and nothing else," he says, sitting in the dim light of Khenj's one restaurant on a Friday afternoon.

His colleagues nod. "We will not let them come here," says Hayatallah Asadi, his expression stony beneath a furry black hat.

Lacking the stability needed for businesses to take root, Afghanistan has instead developed an informal economy of traders, merchants, smugglers, and middlemen. "The conflict went on so long that it created a conflict-based economy, and that becomes hard to change even after the conflict ends," says William Byrd, an analyst at the World Bank.

But Khenj's district chief has higher hopes. Some 55 percent of Panjshiris have moved elsewhere because there is little arable land, no factories, and no border for trade, he says.

Sitting on a wide, ankle-high platform in a general store that appears to double as a district headquarters, he presents a regal figure, calm and wise. Unmistakably, Mr. Sayed is proud, but his words betray some desperation.

There could be fish farms on the Panjshir River, chicken farms in the valley, and groves of apple and apricot trees. But his people are poor. "They need a helping hand," he says. "I will welcome any foreign or local investment to come here and employ my people."

View audio slideshow: Emerald miners of the Panjshir Valley

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