Sprawling across the gentlest of Hindu Kush, Himalayan and Karakorum ranges, Pakistan’s Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) province is home to some of the world’s rarest gems and rock crystals.

This god-gifted treasure might be a major source of economic prosperity for the country. However large-scale illegal mining and the antiquated excavation processes deployed by “gem mafia” in the province prevent that from happening.

KP and the picturesque Northern Area which it neighbors are rich in deposits of Peridot, Aquamarine, Topaz, Tourmaline, Ruby and Emerald minerals and the rare-earths Bastnaesite, Xenotime, Sphene, Zircon, and Quartz.

Topaz is found in an array of violet, pink, golden and champagne colors.

Little in the way of mapping of the region’s geological resources has been carried out.

However, official data reveals the KP district of Swat has reserves of over 70 million carats of emeralds, that Mardan is brimming with nine million carats of pink topaz and Kohistan has 10 million carats of peridot.

Deposits in other territories, including the Northern Area, Kashmir, Chitral, Mohmand Agency and North Waziristan, and in far-off tribal areas with copious minerals, have yet to be quantified.

A lack of will and determination on the part of the government to own the gem sector and develop it as an industry has meant Pakistan has been unable to exploit its full economic potential.

In fact, the excavation and extraction of precious and semi-precious stones in Pakistan are entirely handled by unscrupulous mafia using makeshift and outdated means technology, which results in a lot of material being lost.

These mafia are wholly responsible for running the supply chains: government departments and gem exporters play no role in the stones’ mining. Moreover, corrupt government officials are hand in glove with those plundering the nation’s resources for themselves.

Training in progress at the Gems and Gemological Institute of Pakistan. Photo: Asia Times
Training in progress at the Gems and Gemological Institute of Pakistan. Photo: Asia Times

Last year KP’s Ehtesab (Accountability) Commission arrested the Director General of the province’s mines and minerals department, Dr Liaqat Ali, over financial irregularities.

His interrogation led to the detention of the then provincial minister for mineral development Ziaullah Afridi on charges of misusing authority and allowing illegal mining in various areas of the province.

“The present government is trying to ameliorate the situation but government officials cannot visit the inaccessible and remote areas where the gem mines are actually located,” Atif Rashid Khawaja, Director of the Pakistan Gems and Jewelry Development Company (PGJDC) told Asia Times.

Emeralds and precious pink topaz are illegally mined in Swat and Mardan, while quartz, epidote, corundum and smoky quartz are extracted unlawfully in Swat, Dir, Kohistan and Mansehra, he said, adding that the stones are then sold in local markets by organized gangs.

Muhammad Shafee, a dealer in the main gem market at Namak Mandi, Peshawar, said that many foreign buyers have stopped coming to Pakistan for security reason and now only Chinese are seen in the local markets.

In the absence of cutting and polishing facilities, he added, the traders prefer to dispose of the raw stones at throwaway prices.

“The present government is trying to ameliorate the situation but government officials cannot visit the inaccessible and remote areas where the gem mines are actually located”

The Gems and Gemological Institute of Pakistan (GGIP) has established a regional office in Peshawar to give existing and new businesses training in cutting, polishing and treatment techniques that “add value” to the stones.

However, the institute’s tools and machinery are not of the highest quality and it faces funding constraints.

“We have [in Pakistan] about 30% of the world’s total deposits of gems and minerals but get hardly a 1% share in exports,” said Naveed Masud, the GGIP’s Director told Asia Times.

He said the institute had provided technical training to more than 2,500 people – including women and young people – from nearby tribal areas. “They were awarded certificates after successful completion of the courses,” he said.

The GGIP relies on financial support from Pakistan’s Export Development Fund, which is run by the Ministry of Commerce. The institute is presently in dire financial straits, however. “We do not have enough funds even to pay building’s rent,” Masud said.

Gems and minerals from the KP, Tribal and Northern Areas of Pakistan, and from Pakistan-held Kashmir, are in high demand in markets including the US, China, the United Arab Emirates, Germany, Hong Kong, the UK, Canada, France, Thailand and Saudi Arabia.

And yet exports have declined year-on-year, from US$13.634 million in 2013-14 to US$7.8 million in 2014-15 and just US$4.2 million in 2015-16. The country is truly squandering this sublime bequest.