Bishkek and Issyk-Kul region, Kyrgyzstan – In the early 1990s, it was hoped that a large gold mine in eastern Kyrgyzstan, near the Chinese border, would lift the newly independent country’s economy out of the shards of Soviet central planning.

But after 30 years of operation, Kumtor has become for many a symbol of some of the developing world’s greatest evils: corruption, environmental degradation and neocolonial greed.

In May, it became clear that dark clouds had accumulated over Centerra Gold Inc, a Canadian registered company operating the high altitude mine, 26% of which is owned by the Kyrgyz state.

First, a court ruled that the mine had committed environmental violations by dumping
mining wastes on the glaciers, a movement that caused their gradual erosion and cost the state $ 3 billion.

Soon after, parliament backed a proposal by the Special Committee on Kumtor to introduce state management at the mine for three months.

Most of Kumtor’s workers come from the Issyk-Kul region, a picturesque lake region, where the mine is based. [Agnieszka Pikulicka-Wilczewska/Al Jazeera]

On May 14, President Sadyr Japarov approved the plan, which effectively returned the mine to state hands.

Later, a number of prominent politicians accused of Kumtor-related financial crimes were arrested.

In response, Centerra Gold initiated binding arbitration proceedings against the government for what it considered to be a violation of mutual agreements.

Its Kyrgyz units – Kumtor Gold Co and Kumtor Operating Co – have filed for bankruptcy in a US court and the company has said it will seek compensation from the government.

“In 1994, after the independence of the Kyrgyz people and with your help, we started to build the Kumtor gold mine with an initial lifespan of 18 years. To date, what we’ve created together is something special that engineers around the world come to study, ”Scott Perry, President and CEO of Centerra, wrote in a statement.

“The seizure of the mine is based on false information and baseless allegations that undermine everything we have built together. We fear that the government’s unwarranted action could endanger thousands of well-paying jobs and the businesses of hundreds of Kyrgyz suppliers.

Perceived as “a source of enrichment for the elites”

Pressure increased on Centerra after the January presidential elections, which saw Japarov claim victory after a campaign promising national renewal.

He was appointed to lead the country as interim president and prime minister following an uprising last October against political corruption and contested legislative elections, the third upheaval since the country’s independence.

And it was gold that brought him to power.

Months before he won a landslide, he was released from prison where he was serving an 11-and-a-half-year sentence for the kidnapping of a local official during one of his protests against Kumtor.

Since 2013, he has been the main figure in the movement against foreign companies, which he accuses of exploiting Kyrgyzstan’s meager resources.

A general view shows the Kumtor open pit gold mine at an elevation of about 4,000 meters (13,123 feet) above sea level in the Tien Shan Mountains, Kyrgyzstan [File: Vladimir Pirogov/Reuters]

He believed that the country’s elite benefited to the detriment of the people and the environment.

Many locals shared his point of view.

“In 30 years of an economic model based on mining, the extraction of natural resources has become perceived by the populations as another source of enrichment for the elites,” Asel Doolotkeldieva, researcher in Bishkek, told Al Jazeera. Kyrgyz capital, specializing in the policy of resource extraction.

“They believe that investors, along with the elite, seek to get rich, to plunge the resources and to walk away as soon as the resources are exhausted.

“The extractive industry provides only 3% of jobs nationwide. The mines are exploited, the resources are emptied, the government gets richer but the local communities, despite some development and charity projects, do not see any direct impact on their lives.

The Issyk-Kul region is home to Kumtor, one of the tallest gold mines in the world, and is also the birthplace of President Sadyr Japarov [Agnieszka Pikulicka-Wilczewska/Al Jazeera]

At the same time, there are concerns about the environmental damage caused by the mine.

“The waste is stored on glaciers and it is estimated that after Kumtor’s operations cease to weigh 1.8 billion tonnes. It will stay there and influence the environment. Glaciers are one of the sources of water for the Kumtor River, which flows into the Taragai River and then into the Naryn River – Syr Daria, the largest transboundary river in Central Asia, ”Kalia told Al Jazeera Moldogazieva, expert in environmental protection. .

“We spoke out against the Kumtor project from the start because it is located in the glacial zone. Glaciers are melting anyway due to global warming and in Kumtor they are further affected by anthropogenic factors. “

Support for minors for Japarov

In February 1995, Murat was not prepared for the job. The temperature was -45 degrees Celsius (-49 degrees Fahrenheit) when his feet first touched the mountain that was said to be the pride of Kyrgyzstan.

The dry, icy wind at 4,000 meters (13,123 feet) above sea level made it difficult to breathe.

“I’ve never seen anything like it before. We felt like we were on another planet, ”said Murat, 59, who worked in Kumtor for eight years. “They [company bosses] invited us to dinner in a room that looked like a restaurant. Then they gave us canned coke. It was the first time I saw him. “

He resigned in 2003, and by that time he had succeeded in building a house by Lake Issyk-Kul, where Japarov is from, and supported his family for many years.

Working at Kumtor was tough, Murat said, but the company was a fair employer.

Overtime was double paid, safety was always a priority and he was grateful to be able to work with the latest technology.

“We received medals every five years, clothes, gifts. They were good to us and at the time we
thought only of ourselves, our families, the money. Everyone wanted to get rich.

President of Kyrgyzstan Sadyr Japarov speaks after voting in the constitutional referendum in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan on April 11, 2021 [File: Sultan Dosaliev/Kyrgyz Presidential Press Service/Handout via Reuters]

But over time, Murat changed his mind. Today he is satisfied with President Japarov’s nationalist reform program.

“Kyrgyzstan was not ready for this. We agreed to mine the gold a bit too early. Our technology was not efficient enough to operate at height in the mountains, in the cold. Now we deserve Japarov. We are done with the lies.

Murat shows images from his Kumtor years and a nostalgic mood pervades him.

Soon after, he reaches out for a little book: Poems to Japarov written by his followers while he was still in prison.

“Let Sadyr be freed!” It will do the job! He has been punished for no reason, if someone like him comes to power, he will clean our country of dirt.

A general view of the Kumtor mine in Kyrgyzstan [File: Vladimir Piragov/Reuters]

Additional reports from Aigerim Turgunbaeva: @AigiTurgunbaeva



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