Peshawar - Mining gems and other valuable minerals may provide, the Pakistan government hopes, alternate careers to militancy in the restive Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), bordering Afghanistan.
"The FATA Development Programme-Livelihood Development (FDP-LD) has a new strategy to develop the mineral sector in FATA which has become a haven for international terrorists," said Mazhar Ali Shah, director of the programme.
"Since 2005, the FATA has been plagued by militancy and because youth in the area are jobless and opportunities scarce, they have been joining the ranks of the Taliban in droves," Shah said.
The FATA comprises seven agencies and six frontier regions, with most of the semi-autonomous territory inhabited by Pashtun tribes who have cousins across the border in Afghanistan.
The FATA, especially the agencies of North and South Waziristan, is thought to be the main sanctuary of the al-Qaeda as well as the Taliban and affiliated groups.
United States-led forces in Afghanistan and Pakistan army have been bearing down on the Taliban and al-Qaeda in the FATA, and new strategies include rapid economic development of the area that can work to deny militants local support and sympathy.
In January, the University of Engineering and Technology (UET) in Peshawar, with financial assistance from the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), launched a diploma course in mining for young people keen on entering the sector.
So far, USAID has provided equipment worth 1.2 million dollars for the programme. Students are enrolled in batches of 20 for courses that last five months. The demand has been such that there are plans to start evening classes.
"The five-month diploma in mining has brought a sea-change in my life. I now earn 500 dollars every month," says Akram Khan, 22, who was in the first batch of students that passed the course. Under the initiative, the Strategic Working Group (SWOG) for Minerals, which has more than 30 members drawn from academia, mine owners, mineral experts and private and public stakeholders, is looking into challenges facing the industry and possible solutions.
SWOG coordinator Shahid ur Rehman said that apart from the free courses at the UET, youth are being offered loans and other incentives to gain expertise in such areas as mineral identification.
"The SWOG is a vital step towards designing a strong strategy that involves public-private sector partnership to help boost the mineral sector in the FATA and bring about changes in the lives of the residents battered by the militancy," he said.
"We are now regularly holding seminars and workshops for the residents of FATA where investors from abroad are invited," Rehman added. Omar Ali, a member of SWOG, said hundreds of youth had turned up for the programme because they were weary of militancy which has stunted the economic development of the FATA.
"These youth are keen on acquiring knowhow and technical skills in cutting, polishing and the various methods of identifying gems and minerals," Ali said.
"All diploma holders have benefited from the training and are now either employed or running their own businesses," Ehteshamullah Khan, director of the Gems and Jewellery Centre at UET, told IPS.
"I came to know about the FDP-LD, applied for a loan and joined the training programme. Now, I am running a small firm which employs about 20 FATA youth," Kashifullah, 20, said. "Development of the mineral sector is only a part of FDP-LD activities to improve the livelihoods," Ali said. "We are also looking at education support, infrastructure development and market linkages," he added.
Ali estimates that the Bajaur Agency has 130 tonnes of limestone reserves and Khyber agency has 53,932 tonnes. "These areas are also highly rich in coal and it is estimated that 178,370 tonnes of coal reserves are in Orakzai, Kurram and North Waziristan Agency. "
With the trained diploma holders moving in there is hope that the sale of minerals will bring in badly- needed foreign exchange, said Shah.
"The FATA earned 2.3 million dollars from the mineral production in 2010," said Shah. "We have begun building a 153 km road to provide easy access to mineral reserves in FATA."
"Gems, such as emerald, garnet, zircon, tourmaline and agate are abundant in FATA," Shahid Jamail, a student currently doing the five-month course at UET, told IPS.
"The Khyber Agency has fine axinite and sphene deposits which can earn foreign exchange if these are extracted, cut and polished using scientific methods," he said. ‘We have lost much due to terrorism and violence. The FDP-LD is a good programme and gives us a lot of hope," Jamail said.
"Between 1994 and 2004, the mineral production in FATA increased by 35 percent against 15 percent for the rest of the country. The training and support can further speed up exploration and exploitation and earn money for FATA," Jamail said.
FATA, geological surveys indicate, has seven billion tonnes of marble, 537 million tonnes of chromite, 20 million tonnes of gypsum, 11 million tonnes of dolomite, 3.6 million tonnes of soapstone, and two million tonnes of manganese ore.
There are also vast quantities of granite and limestone, which are in demand for the construction industry and which can change the destiny of FATA’s six million tribal population.
According to FATA’s ‘Sustainable Development Plan for 2007 – 2015’ 35 million tonnes of copper deposits have been identified in Waziristan that can readily bring in export revenues.