Thanks to the joint efforts of the Afghanistan Small and Medium Enterprise Development (ASMED) and nonprofit group the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), 25 members of the mining and gemstone industry in Afghanistan visited the AGTA GemFair Tucson show for the first time. The visit also marks the group’s first sojourn into a country beyond its own borders.
Mining and selling gemstones like lapis lazuli, emerald, ruby, tourmaline, kunzite, and aquamarine are a centuries-old means of employment for many Afghans. In 2005, the election of Mohammad Ibrahim Adel, deemed corrupt by many, to the post of Minister of Mines saw the country’s first mining laws-prohibiting legal provisions for trade in gemstones (considered government property)-instituted, and the levy of crippling taxes on gemstone exports. Those who went around the fees by selling stones through Pakistan were called "smugglers," according to Gary Bowersox, president, GeoVision, Honolulu, HI.
Last week, however, the newly appointed Wahidullah Sharani marked a fresh start, aiming to eradicate corruption in the office in part by green-lighting leases back to miners who earn a living selling Afghanistan’s precious stones. In particular, a deal struck with the Nuristani Gemstone Association aims to legitimize the trade and sale of gemstones, and fairly tax their sales to support infrastructure improvements and the lives of citizens through education, jobs, and income.
Since the end of 2006, USAID has been supporting ASMED and assisted in the creation of the Nuristani Gemstone Association so that member gemstone businesses could pursue their economic interests collectively. USAID supports the sector through local gemstone bazaars, supplier conferences, and gemology training, and more. Additionally, USAID-funded activity is backed in part by DAI–a US-based international development consulting company that fosters international economic growth.
Bowersox, an author, longtime miner and educator in Afghanistan, and a present-day advisor for USAID, aims to help the Afghan industry secure legal licenses with the support of ASMED and USAID. Their common goal: to help Afghanistan’s gemstone industry flourish through increased education, mine surveys, and assistance in promoting the stones to the international gemstone and jewelry industry. The Tucson fair this week was the first step in that plan.
"This is a mine-to-market program," says Bowersox. "We are helping in the areas of exploration, mining, extraction, cutting, and marketing stones for export."
To date, Bowersox had assisted in the survey of 172 emerald mines and 39 ruby mines. But within the next five years those numbers could soar to 500 – 700 mines, generating up to $500 million in much-needed revenue for residents.
Within the small group visiting Tucson, some six regions of Afghanistan, 15 different villages, and five different languages are represented, according to Bowersox. "This experience has been very good for them," he says, noting that most didn’t know each other prior to this trip, and that even language amongst the exclusive group has been challenging. The group occupies 10 booths along the back wall of the International section in the GJX tent.
According to Ashrah Raja, Panjsher Gems, gemstones from Aghanistan will one day be competitive with some of those from South America. "Right now, Afghanistan emeralds can’t compete with Columbian stones, but in 10 years we can," says Raja, who claims that Columbians frequent his country for stone purchases.
Says Abdul Khabir, also of Panjsher Gems: "Afghan color [in emeralds] stays; there is no treatment."
Other dealers are equally hopeful for the future of their country’s exports, particularly on plans for next year’s Tucson show. Says Gharit Kahn, Muneeb Shoaib Safi, an aquamarine dealer, "Americans asked for higher color, higher quality mineral specimens, and for cutting material [rough]. Next year I will be prepared."
The Afghans might not have to wait a whole year if Bowersox gets his way and lands the group a trip to the September Hong Kong Jewellery & Gems Fair to further promote the initiative. For more information about purchasing gemstones from Afghanistan, contact Bowersox at MrGary77@aol.com or call (808) 942-8958.