Protests over Weakening Glacier Protections in Central Asia

Demonstrators in Bishkek, November 8, 2017 (source: RFE/RL)

The Kyrgyz government seeks to weaken protections for glaciers

The controversial gold mining project Kumtor in Kyrgyzstan is back in the news this month as local activists and environmentalists took to the streets in public protest. They were expressing their opposition to amendments to the Kyrgyz national water code that would allow the Canadian company Centerra Gold, the concessionaire at Kumtor, to remove glaciers in order to access underlying ore. GlacierHub has previously reported on environmental issues at the Kumtor gold mine.

The proposed amendments were approved by the Parliamentary Committee on Agrarian Policy, Water Resources, Ecology and Regional Development on November 1. This code previously restricted mining activity on the glaciers for the Canadian company. This limitation was not a very effective one, since Kyrgyz governments have issued annual permits for the removal of glacier ice since 1997, the year when the Kumtor mine began operations, to facilitate the extraction of gold.

Removing glacier ice at Kumtor mine (source: RFE/RL).

Nonetheless, the modification to Article 62, Protection of Glaciers, would be a further recognition of the weakening of environmental regulations. More concretely, it would remove the basis for environmental groups to press not to renew the permits each year. The proposed changes to the article appear below, in italics:

“Article 62. Protection of Glaciers. Activities that affect the acceleration of glacier melt using coal, ash, oil or other substances or materials are prohibited, and activities that may affect the condition of the glaciers or the quality of the water contained therein and activities related to ice storage, with the exception of glaciers of Davydov and Lysyi.”

The Kyrgyz government stated that this modification was necessary because it would grant Centerra Gold formal legal permission to continue mining at the Davydov and Lysyi glaciers. According to media reports, the Canadian company is planning to extract and produce an additional 150-160 tons of gold in the next decade or so. The Kumtor project, the largest gold mining operation in Central Asia and the only mine on active glaciers in the world, has produced more than 300 tons of gold since 1997.

Activist addressing demonstrators in Bishkek, November 10, 2017 (source: RFE/RL).

Environmentalists and scientists point out the risks to the glaciers

Kyrgyz activists and environmental groups have categorically opposed the amendments and demanded the authorities and parliament withdraw them. These groups argue that the amendments would harm not only the Davydov and Lysyi glaciers, mentioned specifically, but others in the eastern Tien Shan range as well. In an op-ed article for Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty on November 3, Ishenbai Kadyrbekov, the former speaker of the lower house of parliament, wrote that the bill would create a “desert for descendants in Central Asia.” He also stated, “[B]y the end of the [Kumtor] mine’s development, close to 100 million cubic meters of ice mass will disappear. …. Thus, not only the intensive melting of glaciers [due to climate change], but also the illegal man-made act, will lead to the destruction of glaciers, a natural storehouse of fresh water that is the property of all mankind, and not only of the Kyrgyz Republic.”

Scientific research supports this assessment. A review in 2016 by glaciologists to assess the impacts of mining concluded “First, … the dumping of mine spoil on receding and thinning glacier snouts has initiated the first ever recorded human-induced glacier speed-up events or surges. In addition to this, between 1999 and 2006 the Davydov Glacier had been artificially narrowed by initial spoil dumping, further accelerating its flow rate. Second, the expansion of spoil dumping onto down-valley areas … has triggered the reactivation (internal creep) of the glacier ice due to increased overburden. Third, the removal of substantial areas of the … glaciers will inevitably result in continued, and likely accelerated, ice drawdown from the accumulation zone, resulting in significant incursions of ice into the pit walls and the need for costly mitigation, in the form of either ice excavation or of temporary barrier construction, to allow continued mine operation.”

William Colgan, a climate and glacier scientist at York University, told GlacierHub that his observations also demonstrate that the impact of mining on adjacent glaciers at the Kumtor mine has been very negative over the years. However, he added that climate change has resulted in more ice loss from the Tien Shan mountain range than mining activities. He added, “Even if all mine activities stopped tomorrow, I do not think there is a reasonable expectation for either Davydov or Lysyi Glacier to recover to shapes characteristic of pre-mining conditions. The application of overburden, and subsequent changes in ice flow, appears to have irreversibly altered both glaciers. I suppose this makes the decision to allow mining to continue understandably pragmatic; the glaciers cannot be rehabilitated.” He noted that the removal of glacier ice by Centerra Gold would nonetheless further accelerate the loss of glaciers, and contribute to the growing water deficits in the region.

The activists seemed to have little chance of blocking these amendments. The consensus in the government is based on the assessment that glaciers cannot be protected, because they have already experienced the impact of ice removal during 20 years of mining. The authorities stated that since two-thirds of Davydov and Lysyi glaciers have been destroyed, the loss of the remaining 20-30 percent would not have a negative impact on the neighboring glaciers in eastern Tien Shan.

Environmental groups organize protests

Nonetheless, environmental groups organized demonstrations in front of the presidential palace in the Kyrgyz capital, Bishkek, on November 8. Kalicha Umuralieva, the head of the NGO Nashe Pravo (Our Right) NGO, complained of lack of public hearings about the amendments. A video of the demonstrators can be seen here.

A meeting between representatives of environmental organizations and members of parliament on November 10 quickly revealed the tensions between the two, as can be seen in this video of the meeting. That day, the Vice Prime Minister Duishenbek Zilaliyev stated his decision not to withdraw the proposed amendments.

Tense meeting between environmental activists and government officials in Bishkek, November 10, 2017 (source: RFE/RL).

The Kyrgyz government and the mine organized a visit for activists and officials to Kumtor on November 14, with the hope of a possible reconciliation. However, there were further protests in Bishkek against the amendments on November 16.

On November 19, the parliament approved the amendments. But on November 20, President Almazbek Atambayev stated that he might not sign the amendments. A failure on his part to sign them would  prevent them from becoming law. The situation remains unresolved at present, and may return to the status quo, in which permits are issued each year to allow Centerra to continue to remove glacier ice at Kumtor.

Experts comment on this conflict

Two researchers have offered comments on this case.

Amanda Wooden, a professor of Environmental Studies at Bucknell University, wrote to GlacierHub,

It is important to bear in mind that in 2014, the Jogorku Kenesh – Kyrgyzstan’s parliament – passed a Law on Glaciers, led by then-MP Erkingul Imankojoeva [an activist in the environmental NGO Karek] that would have outlawed mining glaciated areas. The passage of this law was a reflection of widespread public concern about mining impact on the glaciers in the Ak Shirak mountains, a section of the central Tien Shan range east of Lake Issyk Kul, where the Kumtor Mine is located. The president, Almazbek Atambayev, chose not to sign this protection into law. The fact that the current parliament is now changing the water code to create this permanent loophole, allowing continued damage to these glaciers, is a good indicator that these practices were not allowable under the water code before.

Anthony Bebbington, a professor of geography at Clark University, stated in an on-line interview,

This case demonstrates the way in which early impacts of a mining project structure any discussion of its later impacts. The justification for increased removal of ice from the glaciers in question seems to be that the earlier impacts of the mine on ice cover have been so significant that the glaciers are no longer viable – so why protect the little that is left given that it is likely to disappear anyway? One can imagine other variants of this same logic. In a region where indigenous peoples have been displaced by earlier rounds of extractive industry investment, some may argue “why should the last few indigenous people living in voluntary isolation be protected, when their long-term viability is unlikely, and the oil we could extract from this area will benefit millions?” Or in a region where most forest cover has already been lost to oil palm, soy bean or resource extraction, some may argue “why protect this last forest island when its ecological benefits are limited and we could instead clear it and generate wealth for the nation?” The implication for those who mobilize against the environmental impacts of resource industries is that you don’t want to lose the first arguments, because winning the later arguments is likely to be even harder.

Demonstrators in Bishkek, November 16, 2017 (source: RFE/RL).

Whatever the final outcome, this set of events shows the determination of environmental activities and organizations in Kyrgyzstan, an unusual case in Central Asia, often seen as a bastion of authoritarian govenrments. And it also shows the power of glaciers to stimulate concern within civil society.