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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Michele Norris.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

And I'm Melissa Block.

Afghanistan is one of the poorest nations in the world, yet the mountains that blanket the country hide one of the world's biggest treasure chests. There are gemstones and precious metals, there's coal and even oil. The Afghan minister of mines says 95 percent of his country's natural wealth remains untapped. That translates to billions of dollars a year that the Afghan government is eager to get its hands on.

Minister Mohamad Ibrahim Adel.

Mr. MOHAMAD IBRAHIM ADEL (Minister of Mines, Afghanistan): Our strategy is that government will not invest in these sectors. All of the sector will be privatized.

BLOCK: In the past year, his government started tapping into what is perhaps Afghanistan's most famous gemstone — lapis lazuli.

NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson went to the country's northeastern province of Badakhshan. For thousand of years, that's where this ocean-blue stone has been mined.

SORAYA SARHADDI NELSON: Afghan miners say it's tough to get this 8,000-foot high mountain to give up its lapis lazuli. But a flash of blue on the rocky white wall in this mine gets their hopes up.

(Soundbite of drilling)

NELSON: The miners start up their aging Chinese drill and bore next to the blue spot in search of a lapis bed. But on this day, like most of late, the trace of lapis leads nowhere.

Miner Rahimullah shrugs.

RAHIMULLAH (Miner, Badakhshan, Afghanistan): (Through translator) If we manage to pull some out, that's good, but if not, that's good too. It's up to God.

NELSON: Theirs is a primitive operation. Save for using the old drill, some dynamite and flashlights, these miners in Badakhshan pretty much extract lapis the same way their ancestors did centuries ago with hammers. What is new is what happens with the lapis once they remove it.

(Soundbite of miners talking)

NELSON: Nowadays, instead of being smuggled by horseback into neighboring Pakistan, heavy sacks of lapis are loaded onto a flatbed truck. The truck then heads to Kabul, to Afghanistan's first-ever gemstone trade center. It's a private, but government-backed operation. The trade center opened last year in a four-story building on the northern edge of town.

The center deals in lapis and other gemstones mined in Afghanistan, like this pound of emeralds what shopkeeper Abdul Bahri Amiri sorts with his assistant on the floor of his shop.

Here in the center, Afghan mine ministry workers tally the goods and gauge their quality. They also levy a 15 percent tax. The center then locates buyers — many of them abroad — and helps traders with the remaining Afghan red tape.

As a result, almost all of the lapis being mined in Afghanistan is now being bought and traded legally for the first time in 50 years.

Afghan Minister of Mines Mohamad Ibrahim Adel.

Mr. ADEL: Until now, we have taken from them around 100 million Afghanis. But when you change it in dollars, it's not so much. But during the past and that we have never received anything that is the considerable money.

NELSON: Mohamed Gul Rashid, who runs the trade center, says Afghan mine operators were relieved at having someplace to sell their lapis legally, so much so that they flooded the center with 900 tons of lapis in its first few months of operation.

Mr. MOHAMED GUL RASHID (Manager, Trade Center, Afghanistan): (Through translator) We want to restore Afghanistan as the rightful seller of lapis. We want foreigners to learn this is not some other country's lapis, but ours.

NELSON: But Rashid worries the center's success will only be temporary. He accuses the Afghan government of doing little to make the country's gemstone mining trade viable.

Mr. RASHID: (Foreign language spoken)

NELSON: Rashid claims that Afghan taxes and fees for selling gemstones are the highest in the world. When asked about the official hoops sellers have to jump through, he flips through a sheath of government forms a half-inch thick. He explains he has to get approval from 17 offices before he can export anything. He says maneuvering through the system takes at least two weeks.

Add to that the 25 percent he has to pay in bribes to police and bandits to get the gemstones safely to Kabul from far-flung provinces like Badakhshan, and dealers' earnings drop by half. He says the high cost of Afghan electricity and fuel needed to transport and process lapis also makes it impossible to stay competitively priced with the raw stone that illegally finds its way to the bazaars in Pakistan.

Back in the mining town in southern Badakhshan, many agree with Rashid that the government needs to do more than collect taxes. They predict, otherwise, smuggling will once again become the norm. They want to see improvements on the ground. The poor condition of the only road leading to the town, for example, makes it difficult for supply trucks to get here. As a result, miners pay more than twice what other Afghans pay for food and shelter.

American and German aid workers are looking to rebuild the lone bridge in town that was washed out in a storm. A new bridge could shave at least seven hours off the road trip to Kabul, but only if someone clears the rocks that have fallen over the winter onto the mountain-lined roads.

Conditions in the 20 or so lapis mines above the town are even worse. Some of them are run by militia commanders. There is no official oversight other than a required license and taxes paid on equipment in the mine. Surprisingly, news of the recent mine disaster in Utah has reached this isolated enclave.

Police chief Sayed Asssadullah Mujaddedi says the American story may have had a sad ending, but Afghans here envy the equipment and effort that went into trying to rescue the six American miners.

Mr. SAYED ASSSADULLAH MUJADDEDI (Police Chief, Badakhshan, Afghanistan): (Through translator) We don't have anything like that. There is only one way into our tunnels and that's the way the miners use. Last year, six people got stuck in a cave-in and we had to get them out by clawing at the rocks with our hands.

NELSON: Nor are there benefits paid to the families of miners who die or are maimed. Mining lapis is a job no one here likes. It doesn't help that the free-for-all mining encouraged by the Afghan government is lowering lapis prices. That, in turn, lowers the daily wage, which on a good day, is $10.

RAHIMULLAH: (Speaking foreign language)

But miner Rahimullah says there's no other work available to them. He's worked at the mines for 9 years. He says his 2-year-old son will someday work at them as well, unless other jobs open up.

Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson, NPR News, reporting from Badakhshan.

(Soundbite of music)

BLOCK: You can see a slideshow on Afghanistan's lapis mines at npr.org.

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