PESHAWAR -- The Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) government plans to revive mineral exploration, curbed in the past by militancy and extremism, in a bid to boost the local economy.
KP's apex committee, under the chairmanship of KP Governor Shah Farman, on October 15 gave the go-ahead for the establishment of industrial and processing zones for copper, chromate, nephrite, granite and other minerals. It underlined the need to enhance economic activities in tribal districts, which have been reeling for decades because of terrorism and extremism.
After the defeat of terrorism in tribal areas of KP, the government started formulating a new plan to explore the hidden mineral treasures of the tribal belt bordering Afghanistan.
In addition, the KP Assembly on November 15 passed the KP Minerals Sector Governance (Amendment) Bill 2019, which is meant to usher in a new era of mineral exploration in tribal districts by attracting investment and ending tribal feuds over the ownership of the mines and mineral reserves.
The new law bans blasting for mineral exploration and makes it mandatory to use mechanised mining for marble and granite.
According to the FATA (Federally Administered Tribal Areas) Research Centre, an Islamabad-based think-tank, 19 different minerals have been identified in the tribal districts.
Tribal areas have about 35 million tonnes of copper, 2 million tonnes of manganese, 137 million tonnes of gypsum and 11 million tonnes of dolomite, according to some recent estimates. In addition they have large deposits of limestone, soapstone and silica.
Meanwhile, Bajaur has 5,850 million tonnes of marble reserves, while Mohmand has 845 million tonnes and the Khyber tribal region has 345 million tonnes, according to the FATA Development Authority.
Guaranteeing ownership of mines
With militants cleared from the region, the KP government now is embarking on this new plan to explore for more minerals.
The FATA Development Authority's Mineral Department had surveyed 85% of the tribal belt before the former FATA became part of KP in 2018.
"The new legislation will open new avenues of mineral exploration and development in the militancy-affected tribal districts as after the merger with KP, the mineral sector and issuance of lease of mines had come to a halt," KP Minister for Mines Dr. Amjad Ali said on December 8. "They will now go into full gear."
The legislation guarantees that ownership of the mines will rest with the local community as per tribal traditions, and it will help end the tribal feuds over ownership that had curbed mineral exploration in the past, he said.
KP will allot mine leases to local tribe members, said Ali, adding that those who lack the resources and funds to perform the exploration can launch joint ventures with investors across Pakistan.
"It's as per previous practice -- the local community is the real owner," he said. "The government is a facilitator to boost the sector."
"The government wants to redress the grievances of tribesmen of the past 72 years, and the new mineral policy will bring in new era of development," KP government spokesman Ajmal Wazir said, referring to the years since Pakistan gained independence.
"The mineral exploration plan will bring about a financial revolution once the hidden treasure of the tribal districts is explored," he said. "The dark era is over."
Tribal elders, industrialists welcome plans
The tribal miners and owners are equally jubilant about the new government policy of prioritising the mineral sector.
Riaz Khan, president of Risalpur Industrial Estate, a mineral trade organisation based in Nowshera, lauded the prohibition of conventional blasting methods, saying mechanised mining will not only increase production but also will curb wastage and the destruction of minerals.
The potential for joint ventures in mineral exploration is welcome as they will attract investors and create more jobs for the tribal youth, he said, adding that more than 15,000 workers are earning their livelihood in KP's mineral industry.
Miners excavate more than 3,000 tonnes of marble daily in the tribal districts, while the large deposits of coal, limestone, oil and gas, bentonite, limestone and gypsum in the Frontier Regions, if properly explored, will usher in an economic boom in the region, added Khan.
Naveed Shah, managing director of Black Diamond, a mining company based in Nowshera, is optimistic about the future of mineral exploration in the region following the restoration of peace.
"Militancy, law and order, tribal feuds and poor development and communication have nullified the treasure of minerals and left them unexplored," he said. "But now the writ of government is restored. The new law will help end tribal feuds, and government sponsorship will help the exploration of the hidden jewels of the tribal districts."
"Soapstone is in high demand for cosmetic items such as creams and facial washes, and if these mines are made operational, we can earn billons of rupees in foreign revenue [annually]," Shah added.
Poor road infrastructure and a lack of new machinery have contributed to curbing the potential benefits from mining these mineral resources, he said.
"Mineral resources are great gifts of Allah Almighty, and these treasures, if explored, will bring economic prosperity and lasting peace in the tribal region," said Iqbal Afridi, a member of the National Assembly from Khyber District.