Okenov talks imprecisely about wanting to build gymnasiums and hospitals. But asked for a copy of the fund’s long-term plan, which he insists exists, Okenov looks up at a wall calendar: “The lady with the plan is on vacation.”
“When’s she back?”
I call back in mid-March and Okenov asks me to call back in a few hours. Then he stopped answering the phone.
In Bishkek, representatives at the national chapter of Transparency International, the Berlin-based watchdog, don’t have much nice to say about Okenov or the development fund. “In our country, construction is a very easy way to steal money,” says chapter head Aigul Akmatjanova.
Akmatjanova doesn’t have much nice to say about Kumtor, either, which she thinks has been too hands-off: “They ask no questions about how the fund is used. People in this community are very angry about Kumtor. And they don’t even know it provides money. So when people have bad crops or a bad hair day, they blame Kumtor.”
Kumtor gets a chance to veto, at the final stage, projects on Issyk Kul’s southern shore, where 50 per cent of the development funds it contributes are supposed to be spent. But the company has no say in monitoring, strategy, contracting or selecting projects. Doug Grier, a Canadian who is Kumtor’s director of sustainable development, concedes that many of the plans—for things like statues—are foolish. “There’s no thinking ‘let’s have a list of priorities.’ Just spending. Everyone wants to build a school. The problem is schools belong to a federal ministry. Who maintains them? That’s not thought out. They’ll build a sports hall but no one goes to it, or a school, but there will be no teachers,” Grier says. “We’re looking ahead now for ways to make the spending useful.”
In villages throughout Issyk Kul province, young men squat by the road, hulling sunflower seeds with their teeth and waiting for their chance to leave. They give credence to the generalization made by Akmatjanova: Few know about the development fund. Instead, talk is about the mine’s environmental impact, and one episode in particular.
In May, 1998, a year after production began, a Kumtor truck spilled 1,762 kilograms of sodium cyanide, an inorganic compound used in the leaching process, into the Barskoon River. Some local officials tried to cover up the disaster; others told villagers to expect health problems; a few reportedly advised pregnant women to have abortions.
Every day at the mine, 30,000 tonnes of cyanide-infused sludge are pumped into an 890-acre tailings pond. During the five relatively warm months, the effluent is treated, tested and released into a tributary of the Naryn River. The amount of cyanide in the water is “significantly below” limits allowed in Germany, according to a study by the German Institute for Environmental Hygiene and Toxicology. The rest of the year, the pond freezes, a small vapour cloud drifting over the point where the freshest sludge enters.
But what happens to the tailings in an earthquake? Will the dam hold? What about after Kumtor is gone?
Concerns about everything from the mine’s effect on glaciers to the effects of the cyanide spill (which scientists broadly agree is no longer harmful) make Kumtor’s environmental record an evergreen subject. Centerra’s insistence that the dam can withstand an earthquake and that the company will clean up when it leaves seem to be of little solace.
No doubt, gold mining is a dirty business. At the pit, the thin air is heavy with yellowish smog from diesel-guzzling machinery. Environmentalists have been concerned for years about effects on the fragile, high-altitude ecosystem, home to endangered species like the snow leopard.
For Centerra, the question is not whether the mine has an environmental impact—no one denies that—but whether the company is breaking any laws or the international standards it pledges to uphold. Centerra insists it’s not, and that officials see what they want to see. Sariev, indeed, used environmental concerns to bolster his commission’s report even though the audits he commissioned turned up nothing unusual. He tried to hide the audits.
In Barskoon, opinions are divided. Kamchybek Elebesov, 55, says Kumtor is bad “because it is damaging our environment. Up on these mountains we used to have glaciers. They were 30 metres thick. Now you can see they are melting.” Villagers frequently mention the glaciers, which, according to Swiss scientists, have been hard hit by global warming.
Elebesov also complains of problems with his teeth and kidneys, and says it is getting harder to breathe—he blames these ailments on the 1998 spill. During our five-minute conversation, he lights up two cigarettes.
Aidasheva from the health department doesn’t feel the community’s health suffers from the mine: “Diseases you find here you will find everywhere in Kyrgyzstan.”