When ores ruin opium smuggling

On the road from Mashhad to Afghanistan’s border in Khaf, you will pass some cities that are considered counties but still have their specific cultures and old fabrics. After Khaf, when you enter Sangan with a mere population of 11 thousand people, you will be surprised to see the modern architecture of buildings and expensive German and Japanese cars moving on the streets. You might think you have entered the Kish Island. More surprisingly, you may pass this path alongside a high-ranking council of officials in ceremonial vehicles with blackened windows and security teams, and people wave at you in the city. However, the people of Sangan don’t even bother to take a look at the caravan. At the first glance, you might think that people in this city have made a fortune by smuggling as the city has borders with Afghanistan, but there is another story. Located within 25 kilometers from Herat in Afghanistan, Sangan Iron Ore Mine is a hidden treasure. According to its engineers, the domestic consumption and even export of these iron ores can be tantamount to the petroleum sales if extraction and exploration processes are performed properly. The Iranian state now owns more than 100 hectares of this mine and does the extraction activities, but how are the people of this city so wealthy? From the Wild West to the rent-seeking of some people, this mine was discovered in the era of Reza Khan when the state owned just small part. Throughout the years whether before or after the Islamic Revolution, the incumbent states did not pay any attention to the hidden treasure in this vast plain. However, the presence of westerners at a point of time and their explorations, especially during the Presidency of Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, made the locals aware that it was not only the state-owned mine having iron ores. They realized that iron ores could be found in massive amounts under the ground in the area. A mining engineer explains the reason, “Since the wind speed is 70–120 km/h in this area with heavy rain, several thousand hectares of iron ores have been buried under a lot of dirt due to floods coming down throughout the years. Excavation can lead us to the ores that can be crushed into the iron concentrate (the powdered ores). Although its degree of purity might be lower than the ores in the state-owned mine, it is highly valuable.” As a result, the locals bought excavation and stone-crushing machinery around 1995 to go to work in the Khaf Plain for extraction. A local of Sangan said, “People used to smuggle opium with Afghans, but they have rushed to the plains now that they know iron ores are less dangerous and the state does not monitor anything. Families have started excavation with all of their members.” He then talked about the tension of excavation, “As every family wanted to excavate a larger area, there were even armed conflicts between people. The more powerful people got to excavate larger areas. They even employed armed guards at nights to protect their areas.” His account of the problem struck me as the horse operas about gold mining, and I started to compare the years of these events: one in the west of the US nearly a few centuries ago and the other in the east of Iran nearly two decades ago. However, things did not stay the same, and the state had to intervene in the area. In fact, the state announced that any excavation applications had to purchase the lands from the Natural Resources and Watershed Management Organization and be granted the excavation permit. This was the beginning of another tragedy in the region. Usually, oligarchs can get the permits, and the local people are entangled in bureaucracy, but those oligarchs then sold their permits to the locals or reputable mining companies due to the lack of sufficient knowledge. The willingness to take scientific actions and get expert permits when the locals started protesting in 2001 convinced the state to ratify a comprehensive plan to grant excavation permits to the individuals. After that, private companies and mining engineers showed up in the area to perform scientific actions in exploration and excavation in Sangan. Due to the employment of local and even provincial forces in this area, the people of Sangan were satisfied. Most of them used to have a hard time using their cheap nonstandard machinery for excavation. The results of their work were also small amounts of extraction. After the state intervened in the matter, the local people were hired by licensed companies who paid them high salaries. An employer of these companies said, “I live in Khaf. Every morning, the shuttle takes nearly a hundred employees from the city to the mine. We finish work at 4 PM.” He then talked about salaries and benefits, “I earn nearly two million tomans with insurance and lunch.” I said, “It is a substantial figure, but are you paid an extra sum for the hard work?” He replied, “Most of the work is done by machinery, and we only perform the initial excavation process and find the ores, but it is sometimes hard to work when the wind makes dust in winter or summer. Some workers have developed lung complications.” Given their salaries and benefits, they are paid better than many other workers. They are also paid in time. I talked to one of the permit owners. He shared interesting points about excavation, “I bought the permit from somebody else and spent nearly two billion tomans on machinery.” He talked about his income, “At first when I bought the land, I gained a handsome profit due to the existence of many iron ores, but now I earn at least five billion tomans a year. As the excavation declined, the income reduced, so I applied for another permit for another piece of land two kilometers away from this one. I will soon start excavation there.” I asked him about the buyers of ores, and he replied, “90% of the ores are exported to China. Every day, more and more companies demand the ores extracted by the companies of this area due to its high degree of purity.” A mining engineer said that the permits made many people whether from Sangan or other parts of Iran billionaires. There were even some inexpert people who bought pieces of land from the National Resources Organization by chance and then sold them to private companies at high prices. He talked about a colleague of his and said, “Once he noticed there were permits available, a colleague of mine bought a piece of land for 19 million tomans in 2005 and then sold it for more than 500 million tomans in 2008. He then bought a BMW for himself and a Toyota Land Cruiser for his wife!” The amounts of iron ores hidden in this area are so massive that private companies are still busy excavating the area. These companies still extract giant iron ores from the underground. Sangan made its people prosperous, but does the new administration have a plan for this state-owned mine, which is the largest iron ore mine of the Middle East as the head of the mine said, to compete with the petroleum revenues of Iran by using the dilapidated excavation machinery which received no attention over the past eight years?

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