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Dr Troy Sternberg: The Biggest Issue is Not an Environment, It’s the Management

Dr Troy Sternberg, British Academy Post-doctoral Research Fellow in the School of Geography, Oxford University (UK), on an interview with CABAR.asia told about why there are conflicts between residents and investors in the mining sector, the environmental threats of Central Asian countries and the role of water in nature.

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CABAR.asia: Dr. Sternberg, tell us a little about yourself. Why did you decide to research the climate & environmental sphere? What is interesting about it?

Dr Troy Sternbeg. Photo: CABAR.asia

I am Troy Sternberg, as you mentioned, from the School of Geography, University of Oxford. Oxford, which is based in the UK, has a very international perspective of particularly, like, deserts. 

So, I first traveled to Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, Mongolia just as a traveler in 2001-2002. I began realizing that’s a whole big part of the world that does not have much information and research done. In addition, of course for the West for decades it was part of the Soviet Union. There wasn’t much information or access to foreigners. When I started doing research, it became an interesting area because it’s so vast but yet we have so little information about the environment, about the climate, about drought and extreme winters. Here, it’s the mountains you have in Northern Kyrgyzstan and Southern Kyrgyzstan – different dynamics and just so little information. 

Because of becoming new democracy and new countries, the focus usually isn’t on the environment or water, pollution, etc. That is why it’s a great opportunity to bring outside views and to work with local people, and universities, to document some of these important factors.

Maybe you can tell about what you are doing right now – research or business you are involved in with local partners here. What is the connection with Central Asia?

We have a very strong partnership with the University of Central Asia here in Bishkek. It also has its two campuses. It is really strong research and internationally oriented university. So, for us, it is very good. Their academic and financial standards are similar to ours, so we can work very effectively with them. Our idea is to look at how do we make development more sustainable. We are trying to develop a mediation model for sustainable infrastructure development. What that means is that how can communities, local residents, governments, companies work together so that development progress benefits society as a whole and communities in particular.

If we’d be specific about the environment, in your opinion, what are the main environmental threats in the mining sector of Central Asian countries?

The first is the lack of information for communities. If communities don’t know and don’t have facts but see a lot of activity, they could think the worst. So, the most visible or tangible way is water. Mining consumes great amounts of water. What happens to the water after it goes through the mining process? That’s very unclear. Kyrgyzstan is mainly mountains so some mining can’t be seen. So, are there, what we would say, tailing dams or storage facilities for this contaminated liquid? That’s also unclear. Communities understandably think some pollutions goes into their local rivers. They drink from these rivers; they use these rivers for their agriculture, for their animals. They think that the consumption of this water may damage them. It’s about more information to citizens to either confirm or dispel how mining might be affecting their health and lifestyles.

Why do conflicts occur in the mining sector? Between whom? As you already told, with the local population, but sometimes the conflict might involve local government as well, right? So, which parties conflict draws in more often and how does it happen?

I come to point that globally there are conflicts over mining. It has started in the USA over 100 years ago. It’s not different here than in other parts of the world, unfortunately. Particularly in Africa, where there are many resources, we observe the same processes. 

The conflict is over who benefits the mining – usually, that implies financial benefits or jobs; and who might suffer or be affected, which is usually the local community. It challenges mines as mining licenses come from the capital through deals made between politicians and companies. But the mines are never in the capital, there are usually in the countryside, where people have less information, less education, less power. 

My experience here showed that local communities are the ones that have the complaints. Perhaps the local governor similarly has complaints but of different natures. They probably also want more information from the mining companies, and one issue here – it’s foreign mining companies. These are not Kyrgyz talking to Kyrgyz. They’d be international – Chinese, Australian or Canadian. So, there is a lot of uncertainty. It’s not always clear how communities that suffer the mining would receive many benefits. That’s a real challenge from many different angles.

You have mentioned that other countries as well faced these issues. What is the world experience in solving these kinds of problems? Advanced techniques or methods?

The most advanced technique is the frameworks for sustainable mining. The World Bank has done good work with IFC, and they have basic standards about community, environments, safe drinking water, heritage, respecting culture, etc. There is work done, and we should commend this. 

A lot of time companies have too much power
However, how do we apply it here? That’s the hard part. The government has to accept it, and the company has to agree to work with the government. Part of that relates to mining licenses and laws. Do companies follow the law? Can Kyrgyzstan and other governments enforce their laws? A lot of time companies have too much power. They are very organized, they have capital, machinery, technology. Many countries simply don’t have the capacity to monitor or impose and reinforce the laws on companies.

After the collapse of the USSR and the random curtailment of mining and processing of uranium ores, numerous mines, dumps, and tailing dumps remained. These environmentally hazardous facilities, located close to settlements, as well as near the rivers of the Syr Darya basin, pose a serious threat to the environment and the population of the region. How to minimize environmental threats from old mining?

So the rehabilitation costs money. Does the state have money? If you don’t have money to treat the soils, then that’s a real challenge. Think of Fukushima in Japan, where there was a nuclear disaster. Japan can remove all the topsoil and sequester it, bury it so it’s no longer around. Here that’s not going to be possible or as Chernobyl in Ukraine is not possible.

The first thing is to isolate the areas, so humans are not interacting with it as much as possible. If there is uranium or more active material, it should be stored somewhere as safely as possible – buried in concrete bunkers. However, knowing the reality of it, the best thing we can hope for is probably to keep people out of these areas and try to keep any of this away from water supplies or pastures animals  that people are going to be eating. 

The great case is the island at the Aral Sea, where the Soviets stored nuclear waste. It was fine as an island – no one could get there, but as the Aral Sea dried up now, people take motorbikes out there and salvage metals. That’s extremely hazardous to them and the environment. 

Have you heard about the story of a uranium company doing geological exploration near the Issyk-Kul that has spawned the protests and demonstrations in Bishkek and Issyk-Kul?

What to led to it was the citizen action. That’s what you need. I have a nice picture that I sometimes show in Oxford of people protesting in Bishkek about the uranium. That’s great. I compliment your country and the intention of the people for being able to do that. 

That’s a strength that you are buildiing democracy. But also, don’t stop now. You have to maintain it. People in Issyk-Kul told me “Ok, the trucks stopped for a month. But now we hear trucks”. What does that mean? Today, we have many ways of monitoring, remote sensing. From Germany or Australia, they can monitor what is happening on the ground with uranium mining; or using drones and other technology to check, validate and maybe demystify what’s happening. Governments around the world promise many things but do they always deliver? So, we have to be vigilant and not just think “Ok, last summer, I was told this stuff” but make sure it stopped this year and doesn’t start again next year like that.

After these protests, the government signed the decree pledging that Kyrgyzstan will no more explore the uranium. Don’t you think that this problem is two-sided? Certainly, there is a business; there is an investment. The mining industry is the sphere that gives a lot of money to the budget, right? Don’t you think that we need to find the balance and protect the investments to attract big money from other countries? Or should we ban it? I think you, as an environmentalist, is rightfully pro-environment.

I’d say there is a stage in-between. You want to make sure things go well. How much tax money does the government get from all this mining? Where does the money go? If the government cannot show and the citizens can see the benefit of this money, then we have an issue. Is there enough economic benefit for the environmental and economic costs? That’s the question. I’m not convinced that the government is making enough money from the gold mines to justify more investments. Does more investment benefit Kyrgyz people, or does it benefit the elite? 

So, before we encourage other mines, we should make sure we get some benefit. My feeling is that we don’t get as much community and national benefits as we think. With mining investment, does that take the attention of society away maybe to another way to develop? If we look at Asian countries, the most successful recent countries in development in Asia are Korea, Singapore, Taiwan – that have no resources. Better to invest, for Kyrgyz, in education and things like that for more sustainable development so it’s not just extraction. Can you extract? Can you refine the metal? Can you produce something out of the metals? Why does it have to go to China, the US, Australia?

What are the main environmental challenges in other countries of the region – in Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan? Maybe desertification in Uzbekistan or a similar issue in neighboring countries?

I’m not an expert in all these countries but throughout Central Asia, there is a lack of water and how do you allocate it? Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan, they’ve done a lot of farming. What happened to the rivers? Where are the Syr-Darya and Amu-Darya rivers? That’s a huge environmental issue. The UN calls the Aral Sea the worst environmental disaster in the world. So, those are very obvious issues.

Central Asia has always been dry and much of it is a desert. That’s not changing. How we use it – that’s the issue. 

I think one of the biggest issues is not even the environment, it’s the management. The Soviet Union, approach, like the current Chinese approach, does not care about the environment at all. It’s all about exploiting it for local or national benefit, for profit. So, the methods they used were polluting not just Kyrgyzstan, but also made it to the Czech Republic, Poland, and those areas. Some of it I’ve seen in various parts is quite appalling. It’s managerial leadership. I feel that bureaucrats from the Soviet era – their time has passed. It’s time for the younger people that have a broader range of knowledge and concerns. If bureaucrats let the land be polluted or poorly treated, whether it is fertilizers or chemical pollution, that’s the real problem. Because there is a lack of water, you have to worry about do we have adequate water supplies, can we grow enough food that is edible for our citizens. It’s management as much as scarcity.

This material has been prepared as part of the Giving Voice, Driving Change – from the Borderland to the Steppes Project. The opinions expressed in the article do not reflect the position of the editorial board or donor.

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