Earlier this month, a British man in Kyrgyzstan was arrested after comparing a local delicacy, chuchuk or offal, to horse penis. Michael McFeat worked at Canadian-owned Kumtor gold mine in eastern Kyrgyzstan, where his Facebook comment sparked a strike by insulted workers. The controversy made global news, causing mild amusement around the world.
The Kyrgyz government apparently did not realize that their defense of national honor would transform ‘horse penis’ into a metonym for the beautiful but, for most of the world, obscure country. Most people have not heard of the small Central Asian nation, but while McFeat put chuchuk and Kyrgyzstan on the map, the scene of the crime has its own penchant for scandal.
The Kumtor mine sits at 4,000 metres in the Tian Sian mountains. Genghis Khan rode his horses here and Silk Road merchants later navigated the passes ferrying goods east and west. Today glittering glaciers, stepped mountains and majestic conifers largely disguise the open-cast mine.
Kumtor is the second largest gold mine in the world and since 1997 has produced over 10 million ounces of gold. It employs around 3,000 workers and contributes up to 10% of the country’s GDP — significant in a region that has suffered economic decline since the fall of the Soviet Union. Canadian company Centerra Gold own the mine, and following protracted dispute, the Kyrgyz government currently holds a 37% stake.
The mine is not without controversy. In 1998 a truck carrying almost 2000kg of sodium cyanide fell into the Barskaun River. Hundreds of local residents became sick and several died. Pregnant women were advised to have abortions. After local women blocked the road to the mine, affected villagers managed to secure a$3.7 million settlement.
Irregular practices continue to threaten the local environment. The mine operates in fragile permafrost and threatens the stability of surrounding glaciers, Davydov Glacier in particular. Invasive techniques like ice-mining — digging into glacial ice to release gold in the rock below — are used. Glacial melting could flood Petrov Lake 5km downstream from Kumtor, causing the mine’s tailings pond to overflow and leak chemicals into a water system that millions depend on. Kumtor has been scrutinized by a number of international organisations, and in 2013 a report by Bankwatch accused Centerra of illegally changing the boundaries of the Sarychat-Ertash national park to explore the mine.
This prioritization of profit over environment is reminiscent of another disaster, in neighboring Uzbekistan. Soviet irrigation projects caused severe depletion of the inland Aral Sea (a drainage basin lake), destroying the local fishing industry. Scientist Denys Brusden witnessed poverty and a public health disaster on the first Western visit to the area in 1990, describing it as the biggest man-made loss of water in recorded history. Today the Aral Sea is under 10% of its original size.
Water wars are increasingly common in Central Asia, and for five years, activists at Kumtor have protested the lax environmental regulations. This dissent has met with zero tolerance from both Centerra officials and Kyrgyz authorities. In 2013 a blockade of the mine turned into weeks of unrest and a national state of emergency. Clashes with security force left dozens injured. Villagers were arrested and five are now imprisoned, with another five still on trial charged with disturbing the peace.
This co-operation between Centerra and Kyrgyz police is unusual. Conflict over ownership is the rule of thumb — and the arrest of Michael McFeat could be revenge or a renewed battle cry from the Kyrgyz government. It seems the only issue on which the government and company are willing to work together is the the right of Kumtor to damage the local environment. But if warnings about disaster are not heeded by the Kyrgyz government and Centerra, a penile controversy will be the least of their worries.