- The pink salt comes from remnants of ancient seabeds that crystallized 600 million years ago.
- It’s mined deep inside the mountains of Pakistan at the Khewra Salt Mine.
- Historically, Pakistan has seen little of the profits, even though pink salt is sold as a gourmet product worldwide.
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Following is a transcription of the video:
Narrator: Himalayan salt doesn’t actually come from the Himalayas. It’s mined 299km away in Pakistan. Thanks to its pink hue and supposed health benefits, the salt has exploded in popularity since the late 2000s. Today, it’s turned into lamps, statues, and of course, table salt. But extracting the coveted salt means descending into dark caves, then blasting and carrying heavy rock.
Faizan Panjwani: The problem is the massive size of the blocks that come from the mine. We don’t have the technology in our mine to efficiently extract the salt.
Narrator: We went inside the mine turning this mountain into 400,000 tons of pink salt each year.
The Khewra Salt Mine, here in the Punjab region of Pakistan, is the second largest salt mine in the world. The pink salt comes from remnants of ancient seabeds that crystallized 600 million years ago. Legend has it, it was actually Alexander the Great’s horse that first discovered the salt rocks when it stopped to take a lick. Then, under British rule, salt mining ramped up in the 1870s.
Today, it’s a popular tourist destination and a working mine, producing the majority of the world’s pink salt. All the mining starts here, at the train station. This train takes miners deep into the mountain. Here, tunnels stretch for 40km, and it’s always 64 degrees.
Asif Chauhan: The mine has a total of 17 levels. There are five above us. We are at the sixth level, or the ground floor, and there are 11 levels underground.
Narrator: Three hundred miners work these dark chambers. They’ve used many of the same mining tools for over a century: pickaxes, hand drills, and gunpowder.
Muhammad Ashraf Abbasi: First, we do the drilling. We do the drilling with a hand auger. Then we do the packing with gunpowder. Next, we ignite it by using a safety fuse, and then we blast out the salt.
Worker: Warning, everyone move to the side! Warning, everyone move to the side!
Abbasi: After that, just to be safe, we wait for half an hour before going in and loading the salt.
Narrator: Miners will spend eight hours underground at a time.
Muhammad Qamar: Obviously, working in the mine 30 to 40 feet underground is hard. But we get paid well and on time.
Narrator: Only half of the mountain’s salt is actually mined. The rest is used for structural support so the chambers don’t collapse. Tractors haul the mined salt blocks out of the mountain. Each day, miners excavate over 1,000 tons of salt, or about the weight of 157 elephants.
Outside, they search for the blocks with the best shape and coloring to send to manufacturers. Once picked, the blocks are loaded up on trucks either by hand or crane and sent across Pakistan.
Historically, Pakistan couldn’t process this raw pink salt, so much of it was exported to India cheaply. India would treat the salt, label it as made in India, and sell it at a premium. Pakistan saw little of the profits. NPR reported that a ton of salt sold to India for $US40 ($53) could fetch $US300 ($395) in Europe. In 2019, a social media campaign calling for the end of salt exports to India went viral. That same year, the Pakistani government banned all salt exports to India. The goal? Returning the profits to Pakistan.
Waqas Panjwani: Twenty-three percent of Pakistan’s rock salt was exported to India as raw material. Then it was re-exported overseas to the same market we are exporting to right now. The government’s decision will definitely benefit us.
Narrator: But some Pakistani salt exporters suffered. They didn’t speak English and couldn’t meet Europe’s tough import standards. Only about a dozen exporters saw an opportunity to sell products under Pakistani labels directly to Europe. Muhammad was one of them. Every month, he purchases 300 tons of salt from the mine for his company, Himalayan Decor International.
Muhammad Imran: From the Khewra mine, salt is loaded onto several trucks that travel on the motorway and bring it to our factory, which is in Lahore on Defence Road which is 350 km away.
Narrator: His artists turn these blocks into more than 200 different products.
Imran: Natural salt lamps, geometrical shapes, animal salt licks, eating and cooking plates. We are also making wall tiles. We are also making a lot of salt for food.
Narrator: Most of the work is done by hand, but drills and saws have sped up the process in recent years.
Imran: After that, we check the quality. Then we wash it. After that, we install a bulb and wooden base, and that brings it to the final packing stage. We produce almost 10,000 to 15,000 salt lamps monthly.
Narrator: Over in Karachi, RM Salt Pakistan grinds up blocks into table salt.
Faizan Panjwani: Basically this is the raw material that you can see is in different sizes. This ranges from 2 to 3 kg, 3 to 5 kg. And this is the large size, 9 to 12 kg, 12 to 15 kg. It’s available in a range.
Narrator: Blocks are fed into the grinder and broken down into smaller grains. Workers bag and weigh 1,000 of these pouches of pink salt every hour. Like Muhammad’s factory, RM Salt also makes lamps and other specialty products. After the raw material we get, we convert it into a different shape as per our order. As you can see in the cutting machine, he is cutting different sizes. On this saw, water prevents dust from flying up. But on the grinders, it’s not possible, which is why Muhammad’s staff wore masks even before the pandemic. Over at RM Salt …
Faizan Panjwani: As you can see, in this facility we have installed a vacuum through which we can absorb the dust. This is an order from USA, one of our clients. We are making these goods for them. The moon shape and the heart shape, as well. After double drill, it goes through the washing process. We have to do this manually because of the different block sizes.
Narrator: The lamps are then coated with a gel to prevent humidity from interacting with the salt, and then they’re shrink wrapped. RM Salt ships 30 containers of products every month. Muhammad exports about 80% of his products, primarily to Western countries like the US, UK, and Spain, where demand has spiked in the last decade because of the alleged health benefits.
Chauhan: Three colors of salt are found here. White, red, or pink. White has sodium chloride, pink has magnesium, and red has iron.
Waqas Panjwani: 98% of this is sodium chloride, or NaCl, the same as sea salt. But the additional benefits are that it has 84 minerals like calcium, magnesium, and potassium.
Rhiannon Lambert: However, it’s such a very small percentage of the salt that makes up these minerals, you are highly unlikely to get any real benefit or any trace of them in your regular serving of salt itself. But nutritionally, it’s pretty much similar to regular salt.
Narrator: It’s also pretty similar-tasting to sea salt. But others claim Himalayan salt has healing powers, whether inhaled, used in spa treatments, or in lamp form.
Lambert: There’s a lot of homeopathic remedies that can seem very, very appealing, but actually they’re not grounded in evidence.
Narrator: And it’s these false health claims that have driven the price up. Himalayan salt can cost up to 20 times the price of normal table salt.
Waqas Panjwani: Normally, the price of a pink salt pouch starts at 60 cents ($0.79) for a manufacturer. I am talking about a 1-kg bag. On the retail market, it sells for around $US9 ($12).
Narrator: But that money doesn’t always make it back to the miners. They take home less than 1,500 rupees a day. Not much more than the cost of this bag of Himalayan sea salt at Walmart. And those salaries have stayed the same even though Pakistan has severed its salty relationship with India and the pink salt is seeing growing demand abroad.
Imran: The demand for pink salt is increasing day by day across the whole world. I don’t think there will be any decrease in demand or sales because people are using it a lot, and every day sales are increasing.
Narrator: Luckily, the mountain won’t run out of salt any time soon. It’s estimated only about 220 million tons of salt have been excavated here — nothing compared to the nearly 6.7 billion tons left.
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