Raising environmental awareness in Kyrgyzstan through film and activism

Kirsten Wessel, Staff Writer

The University’s fourth annual Sustainability Symposium “Global Sustainabilities” took place this week from April 4-8. The week began with a visit from former Member of Parliament of the Kyrgyz Republic Erkingul Imankodjoeva and filmmaker Mirjam Leuze, who presented her movie “Flowers of Freedom” to students and faculty on April 5. The film screening was part of the University’s Tuesday Film/Media Series and was co-presented by the David and Patricia Ekedahl Professorship in Environmental Studies, the Provost’s Office and the Center for Sustainability and the Environment (BCSE), the Environmental Studies Program, Geology & Environmental Geosciences Dept., German Program, International Relations Dept., Place Studies Program (in BCSE), Political Science Dept., Russian Studies Program and the Sociology and Anthropology Dept.

“The film we are showing is an excellent documentary about mining, community conflict, and activism,” Associate Professor of Environmental Studies Amanda Wooden said.

The documentary features Imankodjoeva and her experiences protesting against Canadian gold mining company Centerra Gold, which was responsible for the infamous 1998 accident in which over 1.7 tons of sodium cyanide were dumped into the Barskaun River in Kyrgyzstan, poisoning over 2,500 people and killing at least four. This catastrophe even caused some infected pregnant women to get abortions due to the high risk of birth defects due to the toxic substances. Centerra Gold is the largest private company operating in the country, responsible for 12-13 percent of Kyrgyzstan’s gross domestic product (GDP) and the only mining company in the world that is operating on top of a glacier.

The accident inspired large-scale protests in 2005 and 2010. Imankodjoeva and other female protesters faced death threats and family pressures as well as targeting by corrupt police officers and government officials, yet they continued to vocalize their concerns. Their main objective was and continues to be reaching a clean ecological state and ensuring that Centerra Gold operates in an ecologically safe and responsible manner. Because many journalists were killed during the protests and Kyrgyz rights to free speech and demonstration were limited during these years, the women also fought for democratic rights and succeeded.

In addition to the 1998 accident, many official reports claim that the Kumtor Gold Mine is also inflicting colossal damage on the environment. The mine has a tailing pond that lies over 3,000 meters above sea-level and contains two tons of a heavy metal and cyanide mixture that could break at any moment. It is an unlined pond lying above a layer of permafrost in an area of extreme geological uncertainty caused by the movement of the surrounding glaciers.

The environmental risk presented by the Kumtor mine is obvious and severe. 

“The Kumtor mine is so unique and so challenging that it’s important for people everywhere to hear more about it and understand what it is and how it ties into global processes. It has a lot to do with how western corporations operate around the world and shedding light on that is very important,” Wooden said.

Hanna Greenfield ’16 expressed her sadness after hearing about the disaster, as well as her belief that individuals like Imankodjoeva can make a profound difference in protecting the afflicted region.

“It is inspiring to see the work of Erkingul and the other women protesters as they pushed through their national boundaries when they faced domestic obstacles and are now reaching out to the international community–not only through this film, but also by coming to universities like Bucknell to tell their story,” Greenfield said.

“One of the most telling stories of the movie and events in Kyrgyzstan is of hope–that in the face of environmental degradation, the parliament of Kyrgyzstan passed a law protecting their glaciers at the potential cost of 13 percent of their GDP,” Matt Dutton ’19 said.

After the goals of the 2010 revolution were achieved, Imankodjoeva was elected into parliament and worked on writing a law to protect the glaciers. Though the law passed through parliament, it was not signed into law by the president and is not currently in place.

Wooden said that she wishes for everyone at the University to understand resistance to mining; that is, how people organize and what that process looks like on a daily basis.

“It really gives a completely human story to environmental activism and shows who the environmental activists are in Kyrgyzstan and what it takes to mobilize and organize in difficult, political circumstances. It’s one of the most inspiring documentaries that I’ve seen, and it’s really fantastic for students to watch and be inspired by the work of these women,” Wooden said.

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