The Afghan ‘curse of plenty’, is global

“We are at risk of the curse of plenty, [the] curse of resources.” The circumstances have played along whether this was Ashraf Ghani, the already ex-president of Afghanistan and a former World Bank economist, stating a self-fulfilling prophecy or presenting a rational socio-economic analysis. However, the ‘curse’ has not manifested itself in the form of some greedy global-casino players, but in the form of Taliban militias’ blitzkrieg.

This ‘curse’ is estimated to be worth up to $3 trillion. The main chunk of it is a vast trove of gold, copper, and iron. But Afghanistan also guards 1.4 million tons of rare earth elements (REEs) such as lanthanum, cerium, neodymium, and lithium. The latter is perhaps the most important to the country’s future, given its rising demand as a critical material for electric batteries. For the same reason, an internal Pentagon memo states that Afghanistan could become the “Saudi Arabia of lithium”.

So, now that Mr. Ghani’s prophecy has been fulfilled, who will economically profit from it? Not the Afghan people. At least not in the short run. Not given the current developments and the history of western economic dealings with the Taliban.  Since 2001, according to SIGAR report, illegal mining has costed the Afghan state up to $300 million. During the US-led coalition’s effort to install democracy, shady characters representing states and companies dealt with Afghan warlords. They supplied world markets with illegally obtained metals and minerals while leaving a small fraction of profits to the local warlords to finance their militias.  

This means that there is a history of ‘economic’ dealings between the global markets and the Taliban. It means that regardless of one seeing the decision of overnight evacuation of US troops as a result of diplomatic ignorance or calculated arrogance, the money trail leads to the same shady characters that have been doing business with the Taliban during this whole time. 

According to the estimates, Afghanistan’s lithium reserves are similar to those of Bolivia, which are considered the largest globally. That is why what we are witnessing today in Afghanistan cannot be seen simply as “Afghan people’s curse”. Not when considering that five times more lithium than it is being mined currently will be necessary to meet global climate targets by 2050 (World Bank).

What is happening today in Afghanistan affects the sustainable future of entire humanity. Therefore, this vital resource cannot be left to be managed outside the international standards for sustainable mining and critical raw materials governance. It can’t be left to be handled entirely at the discretion of the narrow-minded vision of the Taliban regime and self-interested global opportunists.   

Afghanistan. Arezo Hassani collection

Yesterday, after days of silence, the US president stated: “If anything, the developments of the past week reinforce that ending US military involvement in Afghanistan now was the right decision… American troops cannot and should not be fighting in a war and dying in a war that Afghan forces are not willing to fight for themselves.” If anything, sneaking out in the middle of the night hasn’t proven to be the best decision to boost Afghan forces’ morale. If anything, Mr. Biden should have shortened his speech into simply quoting Yogi Berra and admitting: We made too many wrong mistakes.

Estimates based on the resource production model account for global lithium (and/or lithium carbonate equivalent) reserves somewhere in the range from 293 to 527 million metric tons (Mt). At the same time, it is estimated that from the current annual production of 240,000 Mt, the global production will require 4.4–7.5 Mt LCE/year by 2100.

From the European perspective, lithium folds under the list of 26 critical raw materials (CRM) relevant for the EU economy (European Commission). For the same reason, the Supply Risk Assessment (based on the concentration of primary supply from raw materials producing countries, considering their governance performance and trade data) places selective lithium recovery from all possible resources among the priorities to close the loop for a circular economy.

Obtaining lithium from the products already in circulation (recycled batteries and electronics) is preferable to mining. However, this will be nowhere enough to meet the global demand boosted by the sustainability transition, which takes us back to obtaining lithium by conventional means. This cannot be achieved under today’s methods and technology. Not without high environmental toll, mainly manifested through impact on carbon emissions, water, and land. Therefore, slowing down material loops should be considered a priority and it can only be achieved through profound behavioral changes aimed to reduce consumption.

If we are to achieve 2050 targets, we need lithium. But we can’t afford to repeat too many wrong mistakes. We must be brave enough to acknowledge that today’s problems are coming from yesterday’s solutions. It might help us avoid future ill-conceived interventions that have proven ineffective and “addictive” in the sense of fostering increased dependency and lessened abilities of local people to solve their problems. (Peter Senge).

Forty years of war in Afghanistan has caused over one million dead. Twenty years of the US-led coalition intervention has improved women’s rights and reinstalled kite flying as one of Afghanistan’s national outdoor sports, banned during Taliban rule. But it also led to perpetuating corruption and strengthening Taliban presence. Now that the war is over, they will be in charge of the country’s natural resources. But, this wouldn’t be the first time that the representatives of the ‘global markets’ prefer to make deals with the totalitarian minority instead of a democratic majority. However, it is up to us as citizens and consumers to choose if we want to have products containing lithium from a country where profits are not being used to eradicate illiteracy (80%) and poverty (50%). It is up to us to use UN Sustainable Development Goals as a framework for making deals. This doesn’t mean imposing a single vision on Afghan (or any other) people. It means allowing multiple visions to coexist within a 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development

On this path of resilience, there are no curses or blessings. We can turn plenty into enough by learning to understand the underlying structures, building mutual trust, and seeing relationships instead of commodities. We can actively seek Afghan skies full of kites instead of passively mourning their ‘curse of plenty.  

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