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.



Mining Company Shirks Blame for Glacier Damage in Kyrgyzstan

The most controversial gold mining project in Central Asia is back in the spotlight again this month. Canadian mining company Centerra Gold has re-launched its public relations campaign in Kyrgyzstan to improve the company’s image over the status of glaciers at the Kumtor gold mine, one of the world’s biggest open-pit gold mines and a flagship project that accounts for 90 percent of company’s profits.

Representative of Kumtor mine explaining glacier retreat as a result of climate change, rather than mining activities (source: Kumtor)
Representative of Kumtor mine explaining glacier retreat as a result of climate change, rather than mining activities (source: Kumtor)

Central Asia’s Tien Shan mountain range is the site of a heated battle over gold, water, and ice, as GlacierHub has previously reported. Stretching 1,500 miles along the borders between China, Kyrgyzstan, and Kazakhstan, the mountain’s steep peaks are home to some of Central Asia’s most important glaciers, which are critical sources of water for the region.

In an April 12 statement, Centerra’s subsidiary, the Kumtor Gold Company, proclaimed: “Conditions of glaciers in Kyrgyzstan, that influence of operations to glaciers in the Kumtor area is minimal and cannot be compared to the climate change processes.”

Kyrgyz environmentalists responded to Centerra by highlighting the negative impact of mine blasts and excavation of glacier masses at Kumtor that have exacerbated ice melt at the site. Isakbek Torgoyev, director of the Geomechanics and Subsoil Resources Use Institute under the National Academy of Sciences of Kyrgyzstan, said:

The Kyrgyz Republic’s whole water fund is also made of the Petrov and Davidov Glaciers that have been formed over the centuries, and in the past these glaciers have had 700 million cubic meters of ice mass, but now, only 200 million cubic meters are left. The destruction of glaciers has created massive waste mixed with ice, acids and heavy metals which estimated at 2 billion tons. After Canadians depart, melting masses will inevitably end up in Lake Issyk-Kul and the Naryn River. Therefore, this is scary.

And William Colgan, an assistant professor in the Lassonde School of Engineering at York University, Toronto and a geologist with a specialty in climatology, has been studying glaciers and their response to global warming, told The Diplomat magazine in November in 2014:

[While] climate change is undoubtedly the main factor driving glacier retreat across the Tien Shan range, the Lysyi and Davydov glaciers are special cases because they are impacted by the Kumtor mine. These glaciers are not retreating due to accelerated surface melt alone, but also by increased ice removal at their termini. In the case of the land-terminating Lysyi and Davydov Glaciers, this ice removal is a consequence of mining activities, as the ice overburden must be removed to access ore located beneath the glaciers. The perimeter of the Kumtor mine open ice pit appears to have been excavated up glacier at greater than 30 meters per year between 1998 and 2013. Over the same period, nearby land-terminating glaciers appear to have retreated at closer to 10 meters per year. Local mining activities are clearly a larger factor in the recent wastage of the Lysyi and Davydov Glaciers than regional climate change.

Moreover, in his 2015 interview with Radio Canada International, Colgan added that, “Kumtor is not known for sharing information with the public, especially geotechnical information.”

Loading ice recently removed from glacier onto dump truck at Kumtor (source: Kumtor)
Loading ice recently removed from glacier onto dump truck at Kumtor (source: Kumtor)

European environmental non-profit organization CEE Bankwatch, which has extensively monitored Kumtor’s gold mine, has highlighted Centerra’s misconduct. CEE Bankwatch’s latest assessment on the Kumtor mine, after visiting Kyrgyzstan in October 2015, indicated that:

[T]he mine is a prime example of mining’s negative impact on glaciers. First and foremost, twenty years of extraction and fifteen years of dumping waste rock on top of the glaciers have caused an accelerated glacier terminus surge. In other words the glaciers are now advancing into the open pit, which is creating great challenges to the mining operation.

Nonetheless, Centerra’s powerful financial supporter, the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD), ignored public calls for the bank’s compliance with its commitment to “high standards of transparency, environmental, health and safety conduct” and to “support the development of the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative in the Kyrgyz Republic.” These stipulations are in line with the EBRD’s 2008 environmental and social policy, which strongly emphasizes “compliance with EU environmental standards,” and promotion of “good practices among the Bank’s clients.” EBRD is seemingly not willing to re-evaluate the bank’s environmental policies toward this mining project. Alistair Clark, EBRD’s managing director for the environment and sustainability, told GlacierHub last year in Tbilisi, Georgia that “maybe glaciers are retreating with nothing to do with mining.”

Dump truck carrying glacier ice away from Kumtor mine (source: Kumtor)
Dump truck carrying glacier ice away from Kumtor mine (source: Kumtor)

Based on the company’s estimate, Kumtor mine will be operational for another ten years. Centerra disagrees with Kyrgyz public intentions regarding modifications to the country’s water code, which would restrict the company’s practice of moving ice. “Should Kumtor be prohibited from moving ice (as a result of the purported application of the Water Code), the entire December 31, 2015 mineral reserves at Kumtor, and Kumtor’s current life of mine plan would be at risk, leading to an early closure of the operation. Centerra believes that any disagreement in relation to the application of the Water Code to Kumtor would be subject to international arbitration under the 2009 agreements governing the Kumtor Project,” the company stated in its 2015 annual report.

It is unclear how recent political developments, after yet another prime minister’s resignation in the Kyrgyzstan earlier this month, will affect Kumtor mine operations. However, the Canadian company does not seem to have reservations about threatening to abandon its cash cow project in Kyrgyzstan amid the latest reshuffle in the country’s government and ongoing political opposition to destruction of glaciers. Kyrgyzstan is scheduled to hold presidential elections in 2017; though the groups that are likely to form the new government seem inclined to support keeping Kumtor mine operations steady, the political winds may shift, and Centerra might once again face strong pressures.

[GH: please note comment below]

Kumtor Gold Mine Threatens Central Asian Glaciers and Water

Tien Shan mountain range rising behind Issyk Kul lake, © Thomas Depenbusch
Tien Shan mountain range rising behind Issyk Kul lake, © Thomas Depenbusch

Central Asia’s Tien Shan mountain range, Chinese for “celestial mountain,” is the site of a heated battle over gold, water and ice. Stretching 1,500 miles along the borders between China, Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan, and reaching up to 7,000 meters above the sea, the mountain’s steep peaks host some of Central Asia’s most important glaciers, which are critical sources of water for the region. But Tien Shan is also home to one of the world’s biggest open-pit gold mines, Kumtor, in Kyrgyzstan.

The controversial project is quite literally a gold mine for Kyrgyzstan’s impoverished post-Soviet economy: it accounted for almost 8% of the country’s economic output in 2013. But it also poses major threats to the glaciers, and to the water supply for those who live downstream—not just in Kyrgyzstan, but across the border in neighboring countries. The mine’s major gold deposits happen to lie under several glaciers in the Issyk Kul province, 220 miles southeast of the capital of Bishkek and adjacent to a state wilderness reserve.

Centerra Gold, a Canadian mining company that shares ownership in the mine with the Kyrgyz government, has been operating the mine since 1997. Until recently, Centerra dumped waste rock directly onto a glacier called Davidov, in violation of its environmental permits, as the company admitted in its 2012 environmental and sustainability report. (Dumping ore on ice speeds up glacial melting, already accelerated by climate change.)

Centerra wrote in that report that it has also removed parts of the Davidov, Lysyi and Sarytor glaciers that overlay gold deposits—and plans to continue doing so: it estimates total removal of 147 million tons of ice between 1995 and 2026, the life of mine. (According to Centerra, that is equal to approximately 5 percent of the estimated ice losses for the five Kumtor area glaciers attributable to climate change during the same period.) Without meltwater from the glaciers, the Naryn and Syrdarya rivers that supply water for the region could ultimately run dry in hotter summer months.

Petrov glacier and Petrov Lake. © Kumtor Environmental and Sustainability Report
Petrov glacier and Petrov Lake. © Kumtor Environmental and Sustainability Report

Perhaps the most immediate risk, however, is that Lake Petrov, a glacial lake at risk for outburst flooding, sits directly above the mine’s storage pond for waste rock, or “tailings,” which contains toxic cyanide and heavy metals. If that facility were washed out during flooding, it could result in a major catastrophe, according to Isobek Torgojev, a Kyrgyz geophysician studying the risks of the mine. Torgojev spoke to non-profit Bankwatch for a short documentary on the subject. (In its 2012 report, Centerra pledged to take measures to mitigate the risks of an outburst flood.)

Centerra has also been charged with contaminating local rivers with toxic chemicals, by at least one widely cited independent global mining expert—Robert Moran. But two foreign geological research institutes—one German and one Slovenian—hired by the Kyrgyz government to provide evidence of Centerra’s environmental recklessness, claim Centerra’s impact on the health of the rivers is neutral, according to Radio Free Europe.

Kumtor tailings pond. Flickr photographer, anonymous.
Kumtor tailings pond. Flickr photographer, anonymous.

In Conflict

In September of 2013, protests against Centerra erupted in the Issyk Kul district, with locals demanding better environmental protections and free medical services. Protestors blocked roads and cut power supplies to the mine, and ultimately became violent, taking the governor hostage and threatening to burn him alive in his car, according to Al Jazeera. The Kyrgyz government declared a state of emergency and sent in troops, but in the end it used the incidents to push for a higher stake in the gold mining operation.

The company and the government agreed to a joint venture in which the government would take an equal ownership stake with Centerra, up to half from a third. The agreement called for further audits of the mine’s operations, and for the government to continue pursuing claims against Centerra worth some $471 million for economic and environmental damages. But the Kyrgyz government is now threatening to expropriate the mine unless that stake can be raised to at least two thirds. In a Dec. 1 television interview, Krygyz President Atambayev said that nationalization of the mine would be the only option if a deal with the Canadian company can’t be reached by December, although some investors think nationalization is unlikely.

In April, a new glacier law was passed by the Kyrgyz parliament that would have made it impossible for Kumtor to continue operating, but it required the signature of the president. An online search does not turn up any record of the president having signed it. A change to the water code proposed by the government in June may serve as a work around: it would allow companies that make a significant contribution to the economy to search, explore and exploit deposits in glacier areas. In the meantime, also in June, the government gave the mine the necessary permits for its 2014 mine plan after the company threatened to shut the mine down if it did not receive them.

Kumtor mine, Flickr photographer, anonymous.
Kumtor mine, Flickr photographer, anonymous.

According to a recent article in the Asia Times, given the risks to regional water supplies, approval of the mine’s operations by the Kyrgyz government may violate a water resources treaty between Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan and Tajikistan. “The signatories committed not to allow any operations in their respective territories that would harm the interests of the other states parties, that would inflict damage on them and lead to the contamination of their water resources,” the authors write.

Mistrust of Centerra has been simmering since 1998, when a company delivery truck carrying over 1.7 tons of sodium cyanide overturned, releasing its contents into the Barskaun River, which flows into Lake Issyk-Kul. Some local and international media organizations claimed the incident poisoned hundreds of people and caused several deaths, but an independent group of experts said there was no major environmental impact. Eventually, around $4 million USD was paid in compensation, though different media outlets report different figures. Bankwatch claims that came to about $25 per person.

William Colgan, a researcher studying glacier-climate interactions at the Geological Survey of Denmark and Greenland, discussed some of the challenges of mining deposits that sit under glaciers, including Kumtor, in a recent post on his Glacier Bytes website.