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Kazakh Environment Improving "Little By Little"

(Washington, DC--May 19, 2005) Environmental advocacy is in its elemental stage in Kazakhstan, according to the 2005 winner of the Goldman Environmental Prize, Kaisha Atakhanova. Atakhanova, the director of the Kazakh non-governmental organization "EcoCenter," told a recent RFE/RL audience that the general population in Kazakhstan believes that, "little by little," the environmental situation will improve.

Kazakhstan currently faces problems involving nuclear weapons testing, water pollution, uranium mining, deforestation and oil pollution that accrued during forty years of Soviet rule. Atakhanova described a small village close to the Mangyshlak nuclear power plant at Aqtau, where children became invalids and farm animals perished because of pollution from the power plant. Atakhanova's organization went into the village and informed villagers that they had a right, under the Aarhus Convention, to protect themselves against environmental pollution by demanding information and a say in decisions concerning the plant. To date, however, there has not been a single legal case successfully brought against companies allegedly responsible for environmental damage in Kazakhstan.

The Aarhus Convention, which links environmental rights and human rights, was ratified by Kazakhstan in early 2001. The convention commits the government of Kazakhstan to ensure the right to access to information, public participation in the decision-making process and the right to legal recourse in environmental issues for its citizens. However, implementation of the convention is a challenge in Kazakhstan, Atakhanova said, because many judges, lawyers and prosecutors are unfamiliar with environmental law and thus cannot provide true justice. To address this situation, EcoCenter is starting a project to train judges, lawyers and prosecutors in environmental law, so that Kazakhstan can begin to implement this portion of the convention.

Another challenge faced by Kazakhstan's environmentalists, Atakhanova said, is that the general population does not know what rights it has in addressing environmental issues. According to Atakhanova, "while the government understands they're required to hold public hearings and consult with the public to date this is pretty much a formality". Atakhanova believes that Kazakhstan is moving forward consistently in trying to achieve the goals set forth in the Aarhus Convention -- but that the government and business need to listen more to the voice of the people.

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