Mining in Kyrgyzstan: Unearthing solidarity

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Kyrgyzstan. Photo by Richard Raber

Amongst some scholars a falsehood persists centred on a static, insular and perhaps vacuous, Central Asia; a region mysteriously extricated from global processes and politics.

In this worldview, Central Asia remains categorized simultaneously as intransigently stuck between the Soviet experience and the 21st century. Indeed, Central Asia and its communities are presented as remarkably operating external to globalization, similar to the ways in which Indigenous peoples are often framed as existing outside of modernity. We ought to consider this through the lenses of extractive processes.

Other observers note the revival or development of a so-called new Great Game or geopolitical scramble for influence as well as access to the region's wealth and markets. Kyrgyzstan has experienced a growth of Turkish investment, owes 50 per cent of its national debt to China while previously hosting both American and Russian military installations. A single Canadian-based company, Centerra Gold, operates the Kumtor gold mine which has contributed as much as 6 percent  of the country's Gross Domestic Product.

The Kumtor mine has an extensive history of accidents as well as flagrant contravention of regulation including operation without appropriate licenses for waste disposal. At present, the mine extracts gold beneath the Davydov and Lysi glaciers. This practice both risks damaging the glacial ice sheets while local communities have reported losses in nearby fish populations.

All of this is occurring within a context wherein access to information related to mining activities and the sector more generally, is limited; a few years ago a tape emerged wherein local activists allegedly attempted to extort the company for a pay-off. The veracity of this tape is unclear, though many Kyrgyz have shared with me that while the details of back-door corruption to ensure stability may not be fully clear, the perception is that such deals exist.  If the tape is authentic then it reflects corruption by local leadership similar to co-opted unions, if fake, it may have been designed to delegitimize organic protests. These suspicions are credible as there is a history of deep-seated corruption in the sector.

Unfortunately, the mine's poor record of environmental stewardship may lead to international ramifications. The waters from Kumtor feed the Naryn River later to become the Syr Darya in Uzbekistan. Uzbekistan heavily relies on its agricultural sector (including the use of forced labour in cotton production) and has previously warned that disruptions to its access to water could lead to a violent confrontation. This is not unusual; many observers consider environmental devastation, growing demand and an increasingly unpredictable climate as key elements behind future wars. Globally, we face a cocktail of population growth, increased demands for freshwater, ecological disaster and a natural world thrown out of the patterns we have grown accustomed to. The threat Kumtor poses to Kyrgyzstan's glaciers may be a precipice in regional conflict amidst these global risk factors.

Local activists face intimidation, a familiar story from Standing Rock to Xolobeni and Chihuahua. Meanwhile, much of the profits from Kumtor flow overseas with little-to-no knowledge outside of the region of the mine's existence. Amidst this, local communities echo concerns of those elsewhere, how will the site be maintained following the mines closure? To which one Bishkek resident proclaimed "no one will care."

Globally, the extraction industry operates on sites hidden from scrutiny, disproportionately directly affecting the lives of those considered disposable or of little value, their pain, cultural, environment and material destruction deemed the cost of industrial progress. Unsurprisingly, this process devalues and displaces the lives of the poor, of traditional and indigenous communities, of people of colour; those lamentably but ostensibly, normatively, left behind, pushed out of the frame. Few consumers of Kumtor's gold may be able to place Kyrgyzstan or Uzbekistan on a map but all of our fates are tied together. When the resources have been depleted, when further conflict has been sowed, capital will move to the next frontier and it will be closer to home.

If we are to build an empathic and compassionate society, we must recognize the material ties that weave through Central Asia to the rest of the globe and extend these ties into meaningful solidarity; sites of both extraction and accumulation ought to be considered and challenged in practice.

Like the rest of us, Central Asia and Central Asians cannot simply step outside of the yoke of globalized capital, rising securitization and ecological catastrophe, however mutual recognition, identification and resistance efforts may play some role in articulating an alternative, just and common vision.

Raised in Canada, Richard Raber is an independent writer and researcher. His writing has previously been featured by fora including Open Democracy, Daily Maverick, New Politics, Ricochet and Thought Leader. He can be found on Twitter at @RaberRichard.

Photo by Richard Raber

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