#15 responsibility
Zeljko Crncic

Taking a Stand Against Pollution

Mirjam Leuze – a German director – talks about her film that tells the story of women in Kyrgyzstan fighting a gold mine.

For four years, German filmmaker Mirjam Leuze covered the struggle of the women of Barskoon, a village in eastern Kyrgyzstan located near a gold mine. After her film “Flowers of Freedom” premiered in German cinemas at the end of March 2015, Leuze talked in an interview about how protagonist, Erkingül Imankodjoeva, and the women of the village took responsibility for their lives and formed “Karek” (“pupil”), an organization against environmental pollution, how the situation in the central Asian country has evolved, and how Western people could take responsibility. The film is scheduled to be released with English subtitles soon as well.

Taking a stand against pollution

The first question that comes to mind – from a European’s perspective – is what would motivate somebody to move to a rather remote country.

“In 1998 I was the first student from Germany to go to Kyrgyzstan on a DAAD scholarship, the German service for academic exchange. I studied Cultural Anthropology and was fascinated by the myth of the Silk Road. I spoke Turkish, so I imagined that learning Kyrgyz wouldn’t be too hard. That turned out to be a false assumption, as the Kyrgyz language is pretty difficult. I made friends after a year in the country. I got to know the cities and the countryside. So Kyrgyzstan didn’t seem that remote to me anymore.”

But getting to know the language and culture of Kyrgyzstan was not enough for Leuze. She also learned about a village’s environmental problems and documented the struggle against the consequences led by the affected people.

The idea was to form a watchdog organization to cover the mining activities taking place above the village.

“In 2002 two sisters in the village of Barskoon founded the Karek NGO, which translates as “pupil”. The idea was to form a watchdog organization to cover the mining activities taking place above the village. Between 2002 and 2005, the organization primarily worked to educate the villagers on issues of human rights and questions of indemnification. The main drive behind forming Karek was an accident that happened in 1998. A truck transporting the cyanide used in the nearby Kumtor Gold Mine fell into the Barskoon River. 1.8 tons of cyanide leaked into the water and polluted the environment. The accident went unreported for five hours, and local residents were confused and panicked. A lot of people were poisoned and two died as a result. Local people protested against the authority’s insufficient reaction with mixed results. The protest was met by a violent response, but protesters also received between 25 and 30 euros per person as indemnification for the accident. However, many are still feeling the effects even years later. They suffer from skin problems or have respiratory difficulties”, the filmmaker explains.

But the rural community was also affected on a more general level, as Leuze explains:

“I was told by the villagers that livestock also died from the poison. Moreover, no one wanted to buy the fruits and vegetables grown by the villagers any more. After witnessing all the trouble their community was going through, two women decided to found Karek.”

In addition to indemnification for the accident from 1998, Karek also advocates for a fair share in the profits generated by the mine for the whole region that was so badly affected in the past.

The company in particular should have known better, especially given the fact that a number of serious accidents involving cyanide have taken place worldwide over the past 25 years.

The difficult situation local villagers were left in raises one obvious question: Who is responsible for what happened at the Kumtor Mine? Leuze’s response: “I would say both the state and the company are responsible. It seems obvious that the Canadian company – Centerra Gold, known as the Cameco Corporation back then – should have had an emergency plan for the kind of accident that occurred in Barskoon. In such a poor country, it seems logical that a Western company should be able to tell the government what to do in such a situation. But this apparently did not take place in an efficient and professional manner. It was a terrible lapse in management. The measures to address the contamination led to even more deaths. To my mind, the government and the company are responsible. But neither the company nor the government had a real plan in place for how to deal with this kind of accident. The company in particular should have known better, especially given the fact that a number of serious accidents involving cyanide have taken place worldwide over the past 25 years. They should have had a sophisticated emergency plan as early as 1998.”

Economically dependent, ethnically divided

The central Asian country of Kyrgyzstan is heavily dependent on raw material exports due to the high unemployment and poor infrastructure.

“Centerra Gold, which operates the Kumtor mine in a joint venture with the Kyrgyz state-owned Kyrgyzaltyn Company, generates around 12% of Kyrgyzstan’s economic activity”, Leuze points out. Understanding the political implications of mining makes the importance of the whole sector even clearer:

“Current Prime Minister Djoomart Otorbaev stepped down because he was unable to raise the state’s stake in the gold mine”, the filmmaker notes.

The country’s economic problems are exacerbated by the high political unrest:

“In recent years, I have noticed a growing sense of nationalism in the country. You can hear it in the jokes and negative comments made in the streets about ethnic Uzbeks. Many people in Kyrgyzstan don’t see the problem or maintain that members of both ethnic groups were killed during the violent clashes between people from Kyrgyz and Uzbek backgrounds back in June 2010. A report by the European Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), however, highlighted the massive Uzbek death toll. It is a sad and troubling development.”

Many Uzbeks have left the country for Russia. In the southern part of Kyrgyzstan, a new ethnic picture was drawn to a certain degree by the violence over a couple of days in June of 2010.

The south has been affected by ethnic violence in the past, and the situation is still precarious there even years after the most recent outbreak.

“I’ve read reports about mainly young Uzbek men being detained by police and only released after paying a lot of money. Because of such occurrences, many Uzbeks have left the country for Russia. In the southern part of Kyrgyzstan, a new ethnic picture was drawn to a certain degree by the violence over a couple of days in June of 2010”, Leuze argues.

Is “fair mining” the solution?

They might not be aware of it, but the demand for gold directly influences the opening of new mines worldwide, in Kyrgyzstan, Spain and Latin America, as well as the extension of existing gold mining permits.

Gold mining has repercussions on different levels. Kyrgyz villagers feel the local effects. But there is also an international aspect to gold production, as Mirjam Leuze explains:

“After the economic crisis of 2008, gold increased in popularity as a secure investment. People buy gold to keep their money safe. In doing so, they are directly involved in the conditions under which gold is extracted, such as in Kyrgyzstan for example. They might not be aware of it, but the demand for gold directly influences the opening of new mines worldwide, in Kyrgyzstan, Spain and Latin America, as well as the extension of existing gold-mining permits.”

Mirjam Leuze has a different suggestion:

“A method known as “urban mining” could be a solution. It is possible to extract metals from waste, like junk cars, used computers and mobile phones. In 2010, a Belgian firm extracted 25 tons of gold from electronic waste. The Kumtor Mine in Kyrgyzstan extracts 18 to 20 tons a year. So recycling metal waste should be intensified.”

Mining is a dirty business.

For some products exported from the global South, there are labeled alternatives to ensure consumers that certain standards of production and payment were upheld. But in gold mining “fair” trade seems problematic:

“There are some gold mines that pay good wages. The Kumtor Mine also pays well. Nobody is enslaved there. But there is no independent monitoring of ecological standards. So one of Erkingül Imankodjoeva’s, former leader of Karek, the protagonist of the film, and now a member of parliament, demands is a transparent and independent monitoring of the environmental effects of the activity. But as one of the responsible people in charge at the Kumtor Mine said quite frankly in an interview with a colleague: 'Mining is a dirty business.'”

Mirjam Leuze ends with a universal question being raised in many parts of the world:

“To what extent should we continue to destroy our environment in order to obtain profits from it?”

This is a question that should concern individuals and governments alike, whether they live in the snowy mountains of the Tianshan or in the still moderate climate of Central Europe.

The trailer of the movie

Photo: Copyright Mirjam Leuze

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