Kyrgyzstan: Kumtor and the Environment

Your article “Is Purported Extortion Video a Bid to Boost Foreign Investor Confidence?” tacitly suggests that protests against the environmental damage caused by the Kumtor gold mine in Kyrgyzstan are disingenuous and that no reliable reports evidence this damage, citing a leaked video as proof that the company is in fact a victim, rather than a culprit. 

The dialogue in the video constitutes no proof that the two extortionists were involved in previous environmental protests. The two merely threaten the company with organizing a protest that would halt operations at the mine, with no indication that this action would invoke environmental claims. [Editor’s Note: The Interior Ministry says both men were instrumental in organizing violent, environmentally themed protests against the mine in May. One of the two suspects, Bakhtiar Kurmanov, previously has been convicted of violent assault and robbery, according to the ministry.] 

Even if they had threatened to organize a fake protest with environmental claims, this should in no way be allowed to negate the truthfulness of the numerous environmental protests taking place in Kyrgyzstan over Kumtor. Doing that would not only constitute a logical fallacy, it would be a distortion of the truth. 

Since mining operations commenced in 1997, public protests and criticisms of the mine’s environmental impacts followed. The operations by the company were never clear of controversy: for instance, in 1998, a truck carrying cyanide fell into the Barskoon river and affected the local population and environment -- despite the Kyrgyz government having no more claims on the company, some locals are still fighting in courts for appropriate compensations.

Several independent analyses and research (for example, a 2011 report by hydrogeologist and geochemist Robert Moran and a 2012 Bankwatch analysis), a January 2013 State Commission report -- which included independent international experts and whose claims have to date not been denied by subsequent state reports -- and a mine due diligence prepared by the international consultancy Environmental Resources Management (ERM) claim that mining operations by the company have serious effects on the environment and water systems in Kyrgyzstan. [EN: ERM said, “There is no evidence for significant uncontrolled environmental impact, or credible risk of future significant environmental impacts from the current operation under the mitigations and procedures currently in place.” Moreover, the two European audits that were part of the State Commission report found nothing unusual in Kumtor’s discharge. Those audits do not support the State Commission’s environmental claims.] 

ERM is the consultancy with which international financial institutions operating in Kyrgyzstan, most importantly the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, cooperate. The findings of the ERM report are in line with the 2011 Moran analysis and the 2012 Bankwatch one. 

The ERM report, for example, finds that sodium and sulphate pollution in water sources and sulphur dioxide airborne emissions exceed the maximum allowable emissions for the mine as set in the national legislation. According to the ERM report, the mine also poses threats to local infrastructure, as glacial melting caused by the mine increases the likelihood of the nearby Petrov lake overflowing and destroying roads, bridges and the mine facilities themselves. [ERM also said that Kumtor’s environmental management procedures “are broadly compliant with international good practice.” It noted “minor exceedances of quality standards.”] 

Such impacts are the actual source of mistrust in mining companies across the country, which can be remedied only with improved governance. More transparency is needed – particularly with respect to such environmental issues, which some reports estimate are responsible for 50 percent of related protests – as is the increased participation in decision-making processes by local authorities, academics and civil society. This can alleviate controversy surrounding the mine and the potential for manipulation by self-interested stakeholders, while improving the possibility for all Kyrgyz to share in the benefits of mineral extraction. 

[EN: There is no doubt Kumtor has a negative environmental impact that should stay on the agenda at a local and a national level. But the story in question focuses on a specific incident that highlights how environmental concerns have, at times, been hijacked by criminal groups seeking to make a personal profit.]

Vladlena Martsynkevych works at Bankwatch.

Kyrgyzstan: Kumtor and the Environment

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