This is a guest post by Farrell Styers, Director of Oxus International, a research and consulting firm based in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan.
When news about the most recent blow to mining investment in Kyrgyzstan broke, it was hard to be surprised. A group of protesters shouting nationalist slogans broke into a TV studio preparing for a televised auction of several mining licenses and stopped the proceedings before they could start. Not only are such methods common as tools for political persuasion in Kyrgyzstan, but there are few topics more controversial or better-suited for a nationalist agenda than mining.
Mining has become among the most heated political topics in Kyrgyzstan since the 2010 revolution. A lot of post-revolution commentary about the situation has been irresponsible and poorly-informed (see this gem for a shining example of irresponsible research on the issue). However, as is often the case, reality is much more nuanced than many of these discussions would have you believe.
In the last two years an exploration company in Talas has had its camp attacked and burned down by torch-wielding horsemen – twice; another company had their license illegally revoked at the whim of a parliamentarian; protesters have blocked access to mining and exploration sites across the country over concerns with environmental damage and political corruption; and Kumtor – the queen bee of mining in Kyrgyzstan – has been threatened with nationalization by the parliament. Driving many of these actions and the debates surrounding them are a number of myths.
The first myth about mining in Kyrgyzstan is that it actually exists. Ok, yes, there is mining here, but it’s not what many people probably think. Since independence in 1991, there has been one – just one – new mining enterprise built in Kyrgyzstan. And while it contributes over 12% of the country’s GDP and makes up over half of its industrial output, it is not really something we can call an industry. Since the early 2000s, there have been several foreign exploration companies that have come to Kyrgyzstan with an interest in mining, but none of them have done anything but explore (unless you count the Chinese company that was caught illegally exporting ore this spring).
Another myth is that Kyrgyzstan is sitting on heaps of mineral wealth. Much like the ridiculous, perennial speculation about Afghanistan’s coming resource windfalls, media and politicians here discuss mineral wealth in Kyrgyzstan as if it could someday solve all of their economic ills. The country does indeed have resources that could become a larger part of the country’s overall economy, but from a technical perspective Kyrgyzstan is not a particularly attractive place to mine. Most of the mineral wealth is found in difficult-to-reach, high-altitude areas (much higher than equivalent deposits in much of the rest of the world). This limits access and makes extraction difficult, as seen in Kumtor’s recent experience with shifting ice slowing their project. The situation is further exacerbated by a difficult climate, poor local infrastructure, and poor access to export routes. Resource extraction will never make Kyrgyzstan the Qatar of Central Asia.
There is another information gap in the public debate – the real impacts of mining. Civil society organizations, mining companies, and the government have all weighed-in, but a lack of information or bad information still persists. It seems everyone has a vested interest in taking a position (either economic or political – or both) or at least appear to, leading to a lack of trust.
I have attended conferences meant to facilitate dialogue between mining companies, lawmakers, and locals, but these meetings generally end up with members of local environmental or youth organizations shouting about the “pure people of the mountains” being exploited by corrupt politicians and foreigners, or questioning the Kyrgyz language skills of other speakers, among other nationalist digressions.
Some politicians have latched onto this new resource nationalism and have exploited it for political gain, even to the significant detriment of the national economy. And in their defense, it is hard to deny the neo-colonial cast of being told you’re sitting on a pile of wealth but the skills and capital to retrieve it can only come from rich foreigners. Foreigners who of course promise to share the riches equitably.
There are several lawmakers in Kyrgyzstan with reasonable and moderate views about the matter but they are accused of being in the pockets of the mining companies. And as is always the case, nuanced views of a complex situation are not the way to endear oneself to a struggling populace.
For their part, many of the mining and exploration companies have not done a brilliant job of defending their positions. Rather than addressing the concerns of locals living near their sites, they often point to shadowy actors attempting to drive them off of their licenses or disrupt progress for political or economic gain. They see the grievances of the community as a symptom of corruption, and who can blame them? Corruption is present everywhere, and practices like paid protests are widely acknowledged to be common.
Even the government believes public grievances are driven by conspiracies. Responding to the protests that broke up last week’s license auction, the Director of the State Agency of Geology and Mining claimed, “This was the work of those who want to sell licenses under the carpet.” However, there has been little compelling evidence presented publicly to support these theories, and regardless, it ignores the larger issue of popular concern.
The assertion of the “shadowy actors” theory is not without merit. It is likely that there are some people paid to harass the mining companies and those who support them. However, focusing on this robs the populace of their agency and reduces their worries to a conspiracy theory rather than valid concerns.
Exacerbating this is the lack of information given to locals, so that many of their concerns – radiation, cattle deformation, heart attacks caused by blasting – do not have any basis on science or the actual impacts of mining, which are real and require careful oversight and management.
This burden of education rests with the government, civil society organizations, and the mining companies – none of which are widely trusted by either the public or each other. And in an environment of surging nationalism, a north-south divide, and an unstable government, it will be difficult to get all these people together to agree on a reasonable path forward. That is not to say that it is without hope, but it will take years of effort and lots of hard work. It remains to be seen if everyone is ready to commit to that.