The mining sector of the Kyrgyz Republic has been attracting a lot of diverse investments even despite frequent conflicts and violence. Investors are advised to consider volatile politics when entering the market. But for communities living in the mining areas, these investments are “life-changing, if not life-destroying”, – says researcher Beril Ocaklı. She believes that mining conflicts in Kyrgyzstan are driven by profound structural factors that are rooted in weak governance, lack of institutional trust, and limited cooperation across national actor groups.
In February 2020, you, together with Tobias Krueger and Jörg Niewöhner, published a research paper on the Kyrgyz mining sector entitled “Shades of Conflict in Kyrgyzstan: National Perceptions and Behaviour in Mining.” In this paper, you take a different approach than many researchers who have studied conflicts in the Kyrgyz mining sector: you focus on national-level actors and their behaviors as well as their beliefs. Could you please elaborate on why you chose to focus on national-level actors and how this helped you to understand the nature of conflicts in the Kyrgyz mining sector?
Most studies intuitively foreground local perspectives and conflict at the community scale. However, gold mining does not start there. Within national borders, it starts instead at a national scale with the licensing transaction, i.e., when a mining company buys the rights to subsoil use for pursuing a mining project from the relevant state agency. From a business perspective, this might be efficient and an attractive way to keep procedures as simple and lean as possible. However, from the perspective of communities living in the vicinity of a planned concession, these transactions and agreements are life-changing, if not life-destroying. We were thus motivated to investigate how the mental models of those national actors that are (in)directly involved in administering licensing transactions shape conflict dynamics in Kyrgyzstan.
Beril Ocaklı is a researcher at the Integrative Research Institute on Transformations of Human-Environment Systems (IRI THESys) & Geography Department of the Humboldt-Universität in Berlin, Germany. She holds a BA in International Economics from the Corvinus University of Budapest, Hungary (2006) and a MSc in Development Studies from the London School of Economics and Political Sciences (LSE), UK (2007). She has a track record of leading transdisciplinary cooperation projects on behalf of the German Federal Government, EU and other multinational organisations in resource governance in Eurasia. In 2015, she returned to academia for pursuing her doctoral research on resource conflicts in Kyrgyzstan. Beril conducts multi-method research at the intersection of critical institutional economics, geography and anthropology. She is also a proud member of the Novastan family – the only European media entirely dedicated to Central Asia.
This analytical lens allowed us to reveal a crucial gap in the conflict timeline. We found that these conflicts have structural, institutional roots. The conflicts start with institutional distrust as well as a lack of cooperation and trust between national actors that would allow them to work together to alleviate the adversities created by mining. As a result, the institutions that are supposed to safeguard the means of leading meaningful lives through regulation, monitoring, and sanctions are either not aligned with the critical dimensions of mining operations or are not followed by stringent enforcement. The state actors we conversed with the claim that mining operations impact the natural landscape no differently from any other industrial production. Unfortunately, jocular statements that local communities prefer to live with bad roads but an intact natural world reveal a lack of recognition of the impact of mining and a lack of commitment to taking community concerns seriously.
In sum, the conflicts are not “local” creations or salient feature of the communities.
The communities then resist the ignorance and negligence of their legitimate concerns as mining impinges upon their lives. In sum, the conflicts are not “local” creations or salient feature of the communities. Why should they be? Rather, these contentions are institutionally produced—due not to a dearth of laws or institutional innovation in the country, but to a lack of intrinsic motivation on the part of national actors to actually enforce these rules.
In the paper, you conclude that state actors and private/non-profit actors have different views of the conflict and its drivers. Do you think this plays a crucial role in obviating conflicts? In your opinion, how could the institutional distrust that exists at the local level and among non-profit and private actors be resolved or eased?
For starters, it is promising that private and non-profit actors have a more balanced take on conflict dynamics than state actors, who instead tend to blame local communities—and, to some extent, the mining companies—for the ensuing conflicts. The non-state actors perceive a pervasive lack of competence and enforcement across the country that starts with the state apparatus in Bishkek. They thus recognize the conflicts as community responses to the uncertain futures and irreversibly altered lives that result when mining makes inroads into their homes with limited state efforts to monitor and manage impact. The non-profit actors we interviewed were particularly conversant on the conflict drivers.
While this is a good basis for developing pluralistic, participative approaches to mining projects and community concerns, NGOs and international organizations refrain from making a more active effort to influence governance. They are themselves disillusioned by the state of the rule of law in Kyrgyzstan and thus do not believe that they can formally change the rules of behavior. In other words, while their insights would allow them to make a significant difference by participating in critical public discourse, they unfortunately tend to remain reluctant observers.
This institutional distrust in Kyrgyzstan has been in the making for at least three decades. This is borne out by a recent publication by Foreign Policy Centre, “Retreating Rights,” which brings together numerous critical contributions from Central Asian scholars. In my research on gold extraction in Kyrgyzstan, I repeatedly find that institutional distrust is fed by endemic corruption, abuse of power, and impunity of the ruling elite. The mining disputes, then, are just one manifestation of the extractive order in Kyrgyzstan. Thus, I am afraid I do not have an overly optimistic answer. Building institutional trust will take a serious commitment to rule of law and sanctioning rule-breaking. And by that I do not mean populist promises; I mean taking citizens, their concerns and agency seriously and actually walking the walk. I strongly believe that this is a matter of respect: respect for one another and for divergent exigencies and aspirations.
The Kyrgyz mining sector—partly because it is politicized, partly for other objective reasons—has high conflict potential. As you know, there are a number of mining sites in different regions that are affected by conflicts. Do you think the conflicts over different mines throughout Kyrgyzstan are similar or have unique features?
The expansion of gold mining in Kyrgyzstan and different forms of resistance to it at different sites share global structural drivers. These structural drivers can be traced back to patterns of consumption, production, and accumulation, as well as to the neoliberal governance system that enables this. These global patterns are reinforced nationally by the prevailing institutional framework. Seen from this perspective, resistance to mining is resistance to the illiberality of neoliberal governance, which seeks to forge ahead on extractive projects while ignoring, sidelining, and silencing heterogenous community positions. That being said, the particularities of each community determines how this resistance unfolds and which specific manifestation of this resource governance they resist. Depending on historical and geographical conditions, including how the communities lived during the Soviet era and experienced regime change, they may resist the labor and employment conditions; the lack of participation and transparency in decisions concerning their lives; the continuous breach of environmental regulations; or unfair distribution of the mining burden. They may also resist wholesale the making of gold as a resource on their territories, on their pastures. If you think about it, gold is not out there waiting to be extracted and exchanged. It is “made” through multiple sociomaterial and discursive processes. National narratives of modernity and growth, gold price, geophysical infrastructure, and political fluctuations, to name just a few, are all processes that make gold where communities see and make alternative ways of living beyond extractivist paradigms.
In Kyrgyzstan, there are investors of different origin. It is commonly perceived that Western mining companies are more open than, for instance, Chinese mining companies. What do you make of this?
This is indeed a dominant discourse or assumption that needs to be investigated on a case-by-case basis. In the case of the Taldy-Bulak Levoberezhny gold mine in Orlovka, the license-holder has since 2011 been a Chinese one, namely Zijin Mining Group Co., Ltd. In 2012-2013, following a series of protests by local residents, the Chinese operator endorsed a rather partnership-oriented approach to the community. They signed an agreement with the local administration to ensure investment in social infrastructure, a hiring quota, and environmental monitoring in adherence with the legal framework. After acquiring the social license to operate, however, it became less important to implement the agreement and take the people’s concerns into account. Today, there is no trace of the openness that we saw before the company received Orlovka’s consent. Different segments of society are now working together to access information about the mining plans and to monitor environmental and labor practices. Unfortunately, we do not hear much about the ongoing resistance in Orlovka in the media and public discourse.
In another example, namely the Shambesai gold concession in the Maidan rural community in Batken, the initial mine developer, Z-Explorer was a subsidiary of Australia-based gold developer Manas Resources. The company discovered gold reserves in 2007 and acquired three licenses to prospect, explore, and develop the deposit from 2005 to 2012—all without the communities’ knowledge. People in Maidan did not know who had licensed 87 hectares of their pasture to whom and why. It was only after violent clashes in October 2013, as they brought in the first excavator to start the construction phase, that the company started to engage with the community, putting a lot of effort into outreach—perhaps more than the Chinese operator in Orlovka did in its quest for a social license. It was, however, already too late for Maidan.
Thus, the question is what “openness” means and how and when it is performed by the companies. This openness, which we can describe as corporate social responsibility, is core to business and unfortunately has a short expiration date.
It seems that only foreign mining companies tend to encounter the local community’s resistance and distrust. Meanwhile, Kyrgyzaltyn, a state mining company, is rarely involved in conflicts with local people. Do you think this is accurate? If so, why do you think it happens?
The majority of the gold mines in Kyrgyzstan have foreign operators or investors. According to the official company site, Kyrgyzaltyn is a shareholder only in Centerra Gold Inc., which operates the Kumtor gold mine, and in LLC Altynken, the joint venture that develops the Taldy-Bulak Levoberezhny gold mine in Orlovka. I can try to speak to Orlovka’s experience. According to my local interlocutors, after starting operations in 2015 Kyrgyzaltyn became quite elusive for inhabitants, remaining behind the scenes, so to say. Only on rare occasions, such as when workers strike for equal remuneration of Kyrgyz and Chinese workers, does Kyrgyzaltyn step in for negotiations. Yet disputes between the operating company and the local population have never stopped. Furthermore, since Kyrgyzaltyn is a state-owned enterprise, we can expect different mechanisms of oppression that might more “successfully” conceal such acts of resistance. This is likely to be one of the reasons why Orlovka’s ongoing resistance does not hit media reports: the state is interested in portraying the mine as a case of successful community-company cooperation.
Many researchers conclude that the main drivers of mining conflicts are distrust in the government and foreign companies, a lack of awareness and information, and a lack of cooperation and dialogue. Why do you think government and mining companies are still failing to build dialogue and systematically inform all key stakeholders?
It is a matter of recognition, scale, and cost. The first step toward preventing conflicts is really acknowledging that these contentions have genuine drivers. The sustained disconcertment of the communities is known in Bishkek. The authenticity and validity of underlying concerns, however, are not recognized by state and corporate actors. They continue to claim that anti-gold protests are stirred up by local elites that allegedly instrumentalize the ecological concerns of uninformed dwellers in pursuit of material motives. We know this is not true; they know this is not true. Yet, it is expedient to turn a blind eye and call resistance “loud acts of rent-seeking” instead of actually listening to voices echoing across the country. With acknowledgment comes action. So we are stuck at step 1.
There are, of course, cases of operational mines, such as the soon-to-be-operational Jerooy gold deposit or Taldy-Bulak in Orlovka, in which scale—these deposits are the second- and third-largest gold deposits in the country, respectively—predetermines the state’s engagement. The expected rents that can be misappropriated from these mines are higher than the costs of paying at least lip service to engagement with communities and momentarily heeding the regulations. The cost argument applies to companies too. As in the case of “openness,” companies make an effort when it affects their operations and the cost of doing business. This is mostly “too little, too late” for the communities to develop any kind of trustworthy relationship. Having seen what has happened in and around Kumtor over and over again, many communities view mining as trusting the companies and the state with their lives. Understandably, the basis for such a relationship is remarkably thin and shaky.
Compared to 2011-2015 (the peak of mining conflicts), do you think the situation in Kyrgyzstan’s mining sector has changed for better or for worse in the past three years? Why?
Let’s see. I started working on mineral resource governance in Kyrgyzstan in 2012. After a period of observing contradictory discourses about and practices in gold mining, in 2015 I decided to put on another hat and to follow and unpack some of these phenomena as an academician. Looking back, in the last 8-9 years, some companies have left and others entered Kyrgyzstan. The cyanide accident of 1998 was the first industrial accident of post-independence-era gold mining but unfortunately, it was not the last toxic spill. A number of licenses changed hands. Taldy-Bulak Levoberezhny, known colloquially as Altynken, started producing gold; the endless Jerooy licensing controversy has only recently been put to an end. Contentions around Kumtor continue.
While we observed a surge in conflicts during the period starting in 2010, there were conflicts before then and there continue to be. In 2018 alone, different protests brought seven mining concessions to a halt, at least temporarily, including the Shambesai gold project in Maidan under the new investor.
In sum, I would say that the mining sector is in constant flux and remains very dynamic, in Kyrgyzstan as elsewhere. At this point, resistance and contentions around gold mining are part of the political economy of resource extraction. The resistance and activism we observe challenges the expansion of mining projects, putting state and corporate actors under pressure to legitimize their agendas. As a result, strategies to make mining happen adapt and evolve, becoming increasingly subtle in their oppression.
In February 2021, newly elected President Sadyr Zhaparov signed a degree on reformation of the Kyrgyz mining sector in which he stated that the government will:
- – Adopt a new so-called Mining Code
- – Conduct an audit of geological information and database
- – Make sure 90% of employees are hired from among local people
- – Make sure 80% of the purchases of mining companies are made from local enterprises
Do you think this will change the behavior of national actors significantly? It may impose new rules for all actors you mentioned in the paper.
I truly wish I could give you a hopeful answer. But none of these elements are really new measures. The hiring quota stipulating that 90% of production employees are to be Kyrgyz citizens was part of the partnership agreement between the Altynken management and Orlovka in 2013, and local activists and deputies believe that it has been violated. The mining code has been regularly revised since 2012. The need for local procurement has been part of the discourse for as long as I can remember. As we argue in our “Shades of Conflict” paper, to cite one of my favorite institutional economists, Geoffrey Hodgson (2006: 6), “ignored laws aren’t rules.” This applies so very well to the institutional context in Kyrgyzstan, where decision-making mechanisms are at the discretion of rule of power instead of the rule of law. Thus, we might adopt a new law every so often or come up with strict quotas and regulations, but as long as the rules are not enforced and rule-breaking is not monitored and sanctioned, behavioral change will not automatically ensue.
What is the role of the national top management (President, Prime Minister, MPs) in conflict resolution in the mining sector? Is it different from what you have described in your paper about national actors?
I find that the president and prime minister play an important role. Their endorsements of mining projects certainly make a difference and increase the legitimacy of the concessions. These performances are, however, related to scale along the lines we discussed previously. Not once has a prime minister been to Maidan in Batken, although the conflict has been going on for a decade now. This is likely because the Shambesai gold mine has around 7.8 tons of gold reserves that were originally planned to be extracted in 5 years—i.e., it is a small-scale deposit. By contrast, high-ranking politicians were much more involved with the Altynken mine, which has gold reserves of 60-70 tons, to make sure that the mine really functions.
Political figures—from Akayev to Japarov—set examples of rule-following or impunity in cases of rule-breaking
Moreover, these political figures—from Akayev to Japarov—set examples of rule-following or impunity in cases of rule-breaking. They thus exercise significant influence on the institutional morale in the country and showcase what one can get away with.
Members of parliament can and do play a crucial role, in both productive and polarizing ways. Activists in affected communities certainly try to reach out to MPs and hope for their support in bringing justice to their communities. Yet we also know that MPs can co-opt genuine concerns for their own political, populist goals. The 2013 discussions on nationalizing Kumtor, in which Japarov and Tashiyev were actively involved back when they were MPs, are a case in point. This is, of course, doing more harm than good to ordinary citizens’ activism and is shifting attention away from the underlying problems.
What are your future research plans? I am aware that you are working on several papers on Altynken and Shambesai—what will this research be on?
I have referred to my research on both gold mines in Orlovka and Maidan throughout our interview but perhaps I can briefly summarize what I focused on in these research projects.
In Orlovka, drawing on empirical research I conducted in 2018, I asked how a gold project in such a conflict-laden sector has come to be lauded in official state releases and media discourse as an exemplary case of “cooperation.” Beneath this image of Orlovka, my co-authors and I found an Orlovka that has not stopped resisting how mining has unfolded since they agreed to the opening of the Altynken mine. Due to the mine’s significant scale, however, the concerns of people in Orlovka are delegitimized and silenced.
In Maidan, I tried to unravel the processes and practices that led to the escalation of the October 2013 “excavator” event and continue to sustain Maidan’s resistance to the Shambesai gold mine. There, based on my fieldwork in 2016, I traced and reconstructed the socionatural conditions that culminated in Maidan’s decade-long resistance, finding that Maidan’s resistance is against the making of gold as a resource on their territory. Based on how they have known, experienced, and observed gold mining in their country, gold entails extractive relations in which they do not want to participate. Against the backdrop of the extractive order that has prevailed in recent decades, Maidan’s struggle is about leading meaningful and just lives.
As we speak, I am wrapping up my doctoral thesis, making sense of different findings from the national level and the Orlovka and Maidan communities. One thing is clear: we do not face an agentless resource capitalism; there are practices and processes that actively push for Kyrgyzstan’s gold rush, enable it, and benefit from it. And there are different forms of genuine resistance that push back, trying to unmake these processes.
We are mining the world’s driest deserts, flooding villages, and displacing people in the name of sustainable development. The question is, then: whose development are we forging ahead with, what does development mean to different people, and are we really developing?
Beyond my doctoral research on Kyrgyzstan, I would like to continue studying different extractivisms. Extractivism really transcends mining: it has come to be understood as an ideological paradigm that underpins the intensive remaking of nature into commodities for exchange while perpetuating troubled interdependencies within and among nations. I am interested in working on how the notion has unfolded under different regimes (Soviet, capitalist neoliberal, state-capitalist neo-extractivism) and how different resources and meanings are literally extracted from people’s lives. Mega-projects such as hydropower plants and resistance thereto can be also studied through the lens of extractivism and environmental justice. We see the controversies and grievances caused by the planned construction of the large Namakhvani dam in Georgia’s Rioni valley that entails flooding a number of villages, cultural heritage, unique biodiversity, and some of the country’s precious wine-producing micro-zones. Georgia is just one recent example; other struggles abound, from Turkey to Colombia.
An interesting, conflicted configuration to look at, then, is the incessant push for resource extraction for alleged growth and development amid commitments to substantially reducing our burden on the planet, the material transition to renewable energy, and safeguarding biodiversity. We are mining the world’s driest deserts, flooding villages, and displacing people in the name of sustainable development. The question is, then: whose development are we forging ahead with, what does development mean to different people, and are we really developing? Communities like Maidan have answered these questions for themselves and are resisting becoming instrumentalized in tactical development narratives.
These are all contradictory objectives based on strong modernist assumptions about what nature, resources, livelihoods, and life are, leaving little room for alternative grassroots imaginations of desirable futures. I hope to continue my research on the nature of extractivisms and resistance to them. One aspect that I am increasingly interested in is intersectional analyses of extractivism, and especially how women’s engagement shapes the emergence and endurance of struggles against extractive projects. Specifically, in Kyrgyzstan, women have been breaking ground against patriarchal elites and mechanisms since the inception of anti-gold activism. This is not only an interesting research inquiry, but also a great source of inspiration for me.
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