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Kyrgyzstan: A Commercial Tragedy Revisited

Local residents blocking the road to the mine Several hundred people in northern Kyrgyzstan are protesting, demanding a past wrong be put right. Residents of the Barskoon area, on the southern shore of Lake Issyk-Kul, are blocking the road leading to the Kumtor gold mine, Kyrgyzstan’s most lucrative joint venture. They are seeking compensation, at last, for being poisoned when one of the gold-mining company’s trucks overturned, spilling cyanide into the river. Their protest opens an old wound, and if they succeed it could inspire similar future protests by people suffering in environmentally contaminated areas of Central Asia.

Prague, 3 August 2005 (RFE/RL) -- Some 300 people have been blocking the only road leading to the Kumtor gold mine in Kyrgyzstan since last week. Their demand -- compensation for the misery they have suffered due to the mining company’s negligence in 1998.

The leader of the NGO Karek, Erkingul Imankojoeva, said the villagers plan to march to the mining area, located in the nearby mountains some 4,000 meters above sea level, to highlight their dilemma.

"Today [the residents of Jetioguz District villages] are discussing it and they have decided to wait for two days [for government action], after that they will start to march [from the village of Barskoon] towards Kumtor [gold mine. through a mountain pass]. First, we thought that the protesters would decrease [and disperse], but their number is increasing, they are more than 500 now," Imankojoeva said.

On 20 May 1998, one of the Kumtor mining company’s trucks overturned on the narrow, twisting mountain road leading to the mining site. The truck landed in the small Barskoon River that supplies water to many of the villages on the southern shore of Kyrgyzstan’s majestic Lake Issyk-Kul. The truck was carrying cyanide, used for cleaning gold, and more than a ton spilled into the Barskoon River.

Residents downstream were not warned about the spill until hours later. In the days that followed, hundreds of people fell ill, a few died. Pregnant women were advised, some later claimed they were forced, to have abortions. Eventually the government had to temporarily evacuate the entire area.

That was only the start of problems the people of the Barskoon area would have to endure. The area is known for its apples, but after the spill residents of Barskoon could no longer sell their produce. No one wanted to take the risk of eating poisoned apples. The government and the Canadian company involved in the joint gold mining venture, Cameco, promised compensation. It arrived in August 1998, just before the school year started, and consisted of notebooks, pencils, and some candy for the children.

Jypar Jeksheev, the region’s representative in parliament at the time, explained to RFE/RL’s Kyrgyz Service that government promises to the residents of the Barskoon area were not fulfilled.
"Unfortunately, the executive branch, and its head, the then president [Askar Akaev], harshly opposed [the investigation of the incident] because of their personal interests and they tried to close the case." - Jeksheev

"In 1998, on my initiative, a parliamentary commission and a public commission were set up [to investigate the Barskoon accident], also independent experts were invited from abroad," Jeksheev said. "However, unfortunately, the executive branch, and its head, the then president [Askar Akaev], harshly opposed them because of their personal interests and they tried to close the case. The parliamentary commission did not conclude its task. The [foreign] experts also were not allowed to visit Kumtor [gold mine] because of difficult obstacles."

A promised medical center for Barskoon was never built. Jeksheev claims the medical records of many of those who fell ill after the spill were later altered to indicate more natural afflictions were responsible, freeing the government and the Canadian company from responsibility. There is no independent confirmation of Jeksheev’s claim.

Cameco said it paid the Kyrgyz government money to compensate Barskoon area residents. But Tursunbek Akun, head of the human rights commission under current Kyrgyz President Kurmanbek Bakiev, told RFE/RL most of that money simply vanished.

Still, Akun said, the government’s obligations toward those people has not. "All the demands of the residents of Barskoon village are correct. [The Kyrgyz government] has to pay compensation, it has to grant an allowance to them and it has to care about ill people there," he said. "At that time [in 1998] Kumtor Gold Company granted an allowance for 92 million soms [about $2 million]. However, the money was spent [for the wrong purposes] and it has not been traced yet."

Akun said a special commission has already been set up to look into the situation in the Barskoon area.

But there remains one large obstacle before the people of the Barskoon area. Kyrgyz authorities must consider that if they provide compensation to the protesters on the southern shore of Issyk-Kul they would likely then face demands from other victims of industrial pollution elsewhere. The people living further south, in the Maili Suu area, have been exposed to radioactive waste for years now. Others living near sites in Kyrgyzstan where mercury is extracted and processed have complaints as well.

Governments in neighboring countries may be watching the Barskoon protesters as well. Environmental damage is not limited to Kyrgyzstan alone. Such areas exist throughout Central Asia and little attention has been paid to the plight of people living in these places.

(Tynchtykbek Tchoroev, Bubukan Dosalieva, and Aziza Turdueva of RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service contributed to this report.)

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