Interview with Lukpan Akhmedyarov, a journalist of Uralskaya Nedelya
For the Children or Oil? Coalition
In 2015, it was decided to resettle the village of Berezovka, which had been negatively impacted by the activities of the Karachaganak gas field. How the relocation of Berezovka is different from the resettlement of Tungush (another village located dangerously close to the Karachaganak Field - editor), which occurred in 2003?
L.A .: The Tungush relocation was completely different. In Berezovka, the resettlement process is now vigorously discussed. There are leaders and activists. It was not like that in Tungush. People there were spell out the fact – you were to be relocated. Here's a house. It was a choice without a choice. The authorities and KPO, which funded it all, were engaged in populism. People were just bought with a good picture. When they moved, they saw that there were many other things that were never explained to them. People had to somehow adapt to life in the city, to find a job and earn money. People were taken from one context and moved to another where they were not wanted. When they were in a city, they found that their old way of life is completely different from what it was now expected from them, that they should reformat their thinking somehow, because their skills and abilities, which brought them income in the village, were absolutely useless in the city.
Perhaps, that was the biggest shock and differed from the relocation of Berezovka. In Berezovka, people had more time to prepare physically and financially, but also morally and psychologically. Small business owners, they would ask the question - you have migrated, and what we would earn, would you give us the opportunity to do business, would there be any guarantees?
Berezovka population varies in their opinions. There are people who want to move into an apartment, there are those who want to get a piece of land and build a house there. There are people who say they do not need either option and instead want compensation and would decide what to do. The main thing that the payment would be adequate and equitable. People have completely different interests, which is fine.
The issue of resettlement of Berezovka had been discussed since 2001. First, the authorities said that it was necessary to relocate, then there were all sorts of shenanigans, how I call them, the sanitary protection zone (SPZ) was first expanded, then reduced to 3 km only to exclude Beryozovka. All this time, people continued to be poisoned. They inhaled all of these odors and emissions. The mass poisoning of children in November 2014 was a consequence of the authorities took too long to make a decision.
But there is one plus. People in Berezovka began to understand the power and importance of civil society. The organization "Zhasyl gave" was formed, headed by Svetlana Anosova. Now, there are other leaders.
What do you think of the authorities and KPO’s idea of creating a committee of residents for resettlement?
L.A .: Authorities in Berezovka are trying to demonstrate the utmost transparency. Residents of Berezovka can affect the assessment of the evaluation committee if they do not agree by appealing an assessment. The authorities have engaged NGOs that worked with the residents, conducted focus groups and socio-economic studies. That was a positive step.
When people are cut off from the decision-making and the government takes full responsibility, people feel resentful. Authorities and KPO need to learn to delegate authority to the population in the resettlement process and to share responsibility with people. We must cease to perceive humans as a kind of cattle, for which you can solve everything. Berezovka population is very determined. People understand the significance of what is happening now and they want to take part in the decisions.
How do you assess the Deputy Prime Minister of Kazakhstan Saparbayev’s statement that the cause of poisoning of children was a school boiler room?
L.A .: The actions of the authorities in recent months have been inconsistent. Immediately after the poisoning of children in November 2014, the prosecutor arrived in December and said that there was evidence that on the eve of poisoning there were emissions in the field. People have realized that the causal link was established – there were emissions and the children were poisoned.
Then, doctors suddenly began to make absolutely irresponsible statements that children only pretended to faint under the influence of parents and that was not related to emissions. Then the prosecutor's office finished checking in two months and stated again that irregularities occurred. Moreover, a multi-billion dollar fine for emissions was imposed on KPO. Again, people caught this causal link.
Then, a few months after sluggish checks and meetings of citizens, the authorities made it clear that they did not find a link between the poisoning of children and gas field. They suggested that the children were poisoned by something else, such as a gas aerosol.
In early June 2015, the authorities gathered the residents, informed them that KPO was fined and that the village should be relocated. However according to the authorities, it had nothing to do with poisoning in November 2014. Instead that was attributed to the fact that KPO was expanding, therefore Sanitary Protection Zone (SPZ) was to be expanded.
There was an obvious inconsistency. People saw that they had been treated as fools. They were told one thing, then another. And then the Deputy Prime Minister Saparbayev comes up with the even more wild theory that children were allegedly poisoned due to the boiler in the village. We have 90% of settlements in the West Kazakhstan Oblast (WKO) with such boilers - schools, social facilities, and I do not recall that children fainted in other villages. Same gas, the same boilers, controlled in the same way, the same climate zone. It was an obvious lie coming from a high ranked person. Then, the authorities at each meeting keep mentioning the legal nihilism of Berezovka population. However, the residents of Berezovka are now demonstrating greater respect for the law than the government. In any case, they do not lie and do not try to call black white.
Most importantly , the residents of Berezovka are still stubbornly told that poisoning had nothing to do with the gas field. But some residents of Berezovka took their children to Moscow. And Moscow doctors said unequivocally that the children suffered from toxic gases poisoning. And what toxic gases occure next to the gas field? The answer is obvious.
How do you think - why the state is always on the corporate side?
L.A .: During all these years of the Berezovka relocation, its residents felt that the local authorities and the Government of the Republic of Kazakhstan had been only defending the interests of the KPO. The authorities very easily change the SPZ radius. Relocation of Berezovka was not in the interests of the consortium. So it was necessary to reduce the SPZ in order to not relocate the village.
KPO’s interest was to get international financing and prove its social responsibility - authorities willingly contributed to the intent.
When the people went to court, what did our court do? It supported KPO’s position and for a long time, the courts of the residents had to prove that they are suffering from a consortium activities.
People are well aware that Berezovka is a bargaining chip for the Kazakh authorities. When government needs to get something from KPO, it brings out this issue of SPZ and Berezovka. Having achieved its goals, government stops talking about the resettlement.
Three years ago, government wanted to include KazMunayGaz in the consortium but KPO did not want that. The authorities brought up Berezovka: turned out there was poisoning and people suffer. At that moment, the authorities became socially responsible, remembered their fellow citizens, began to detect violations, etc., even opened a criminal case against one of the investors - BG Group. As a result, KMG received a 10% share in the consortium. As the issue resolved, issues of Berezovka were forgotten.
Then, child poisoning happened. You can not simply turn a blind eye on it. How did it all happen? The first information about what happened in Berezovka mass poisoning came from, surprisingly, regional authorities. It suddenly became profitable for them to demonstrate their openness.
It was clear that they did not have the residents’ best interests in mind, it was just profitable to use the issues of the village within the context of the requirements that the authorities wanted the consortium to meet. I remember that three months before the poisoning, in late summer 2014, the Minister of Oil and Gas Uzakbai Karabalin visited Aksai and met with investors. I guess, although it looks like a speculation, he outlined the requirements of the authorities to KPO, adding that if the consortium did not comply, they would wait for any occasion to press on it. On November 28, 2014, tragedy happened.
Lukpan, what benefits does the development of the Karachaganak bring to local residents, area, country?
L.A .: When foreign companies arrived here in 1997, oil development was presented as unquestionable benefit. When foreigners came, we would be going to make money, it was thought. Then came a period of sobering up. Everyone started to realize that the presence of foreigners did not guarantee a comfortable life, because companies minded their economic interests. Then in 2001, people learned that the companies would pay social contributions and these payments were to be implemented social projects. The only things that residents of WKO received from foreign companies were an ice palace, repaired roads, and other objects of social significance. It was presented very rosy. But from the beginning it was obvious that the distribution of social benefits was extremely opaque and the public had no control over that distribution. Regional authorities and KPO decided how to distribute the money and what was to be build.
When the question was raised about the inclusion of this public, several “pocket” NGOs were created. As a consequence in recent years, we are faced with the fact that the social benefits of KPO projects can only be called social. In the area where there was not a single tennis player, the tennis court project was implemented. It turned out that one of the KPO leaders from Kazakhstan is one of the co-founders of the company "Kazzhobala", which systematically wins KPO contracts. This is obvious corruption and nobody is shy about it. Then with great pomp, the palace of marriage was built and called a project of social importance. We still can figure out who owns it and who manages it.
Now, they are discussing a project to build a 5-star hotel, which is also likely to be built using KPO money. How does this relate to social projects?! We have a lot of socially important problems - the construction of roads in remote areas and the treatment of children who are in need of emergency medical care! We need a center for children with cerebral palsy, we have 2,000 of them in the region. Nothing was done but grandiose projects were welcomed!
The apotheosis of all was 3 years ago, when the main pipeline from the station to the 7th-9th districts was built using KPO funding. That pipe was worth 2 billion tenge (about 6 million USD). The pipe was put in the ground and for three years it was idle, because it was built with violations. The contractor put the wrong type of pipe that cannot create necessary pipe pressure. Two billion tenge were just buried in the ground. There was not a criminal case opened, there were not even any checks. The KPO website has a list of social projects implemented in the WKO and this pipe was not listed there. KPO is ashamed of it; they are embarrassed to admit that they have funded a project that does not work.