Creating Paper Parks or Biodiversity Value in Kyrgyzstan?

In 1995, the Kyrgyz Republic established the Sary-Chat Ertash Reserve or Zapovednik (SCER/SCEZ) near Centerra Gold’s high altitude Kumtor gold mine. While inaccurate maps and politics seem to fuel misunderstandings about the SCER’s boundaries and Kumtor’s impacts, an important question deserves more attention: Is the SCER just another ‘paper park’ or is it generating biodiversity value?

When the European Bank (EBRD), the International Finance Corporation (IFC) and Export Development Canada (EDC) were considering the financing of the high altitude Kumtor gold mine in the mid 1990s, the Kyrgyz Government was being encouraged to formally establish the Sary-Chat Ertash Reserve (SCER). While working as a Principal Environmental Specialist at the EBRD at that time (I left the Bank in 2003), I was promoting these conversations at ministerial level.

Creating a Paper Park

I recall being excited to hear that a Kyrgyz Government Decree had established the SCER in 1995. The intent of the SCER was to be adjacent to (and not overlapping with) Kumtor’s activities. Little did I know about some of the challenges that lay ahead. This includes the decimation of snow leopards and its prey species I bloged about here: Rangers, poachers decimate Snow Leopards, but Kumtor Mine gets NGOs’ attention. It took collaboration with and learning from Fauna & Flora International (FFI), a conservation NGOs, and others to appreciate the difference between a ‘paper park’ and generating sustainable biodiversity value.

Generating Biodiversity Value

A number of capacity building initiatives were developed and co-sponsored by the EBRD, IFC and Kumtor (see here for an example published by the IFC). These initiatives were implemented by FFI and the International Snow Leopard Trust (ISLT) in collaboration with other NGOs, the staff of the SCER and other stakeholders. These were designed to strengthen the SCER and support associated stakeholders in order to generate biodiversity value through community supported protection of rare, threatened and endangered species.

Surveys summarized in Kumtor’s Annual Environmental Reports demonstrate an increase in wildlife around the Kumtor operations. The very presence of the Kumtor mine, which enforces a no-hunting policy and also reduces access to potential poachers, is contributing to this outcome. In effect, the Kumtor mine and its surroundings have become a refugia for the amazing wildlife – such as snow leopards and Marco Polo sheep (argali) - in the high altitude Tian Shan Mountains

Back to Paper Parks?

The most recent (late 2011, early 2012) conversation about the SCER in the Kyrgyz Republic appears to be following a different narrative. A Kyrgyz Intergovernmental Commission (Kumtor Commission Report_28.12.2011_eng) and the CEE Bankwatch Network  have been asserting that Kumtor’s concession and exploration licenses “illegally” overlap with the SCER and its “Buffer Zones”. A map that seeks to consolidate the different land designations is inserted at the start of this blog entry. It shows the SCER, the Kumtor Concession and exploration areas, “Buffer Zones” and special hunting areas.

Maps fueling confusion

At first glance, it seems that the interpretation of such maps by the Commission and other groups is, perhaps, not unreasonable assuming the map and land use designations shown are accurate and consistent with relevant Kyrgyz decrees and regulations. However, an Independent Assessment by Prizma, which covered this and other topics (such as transparency, water quality, glaciers, geotechnical issues and mine closure), highlights that part of the information contained in the map above is simply wrong and appears to be misleading stakeholders.

Underlying Facts

In the Kyrgyz Republic, specially protected areas can only be established (or changed) by government decree. A Kyrgyz Government Decree established the SCER in 1995. This Decree defined the size of the SCER to be 72,080 hectares. It did not specify the creation of “Buffer Zones” (within the 72,080 ha or in addition to it). The Decree features a descriptive process (read: inexact) to define the boundaries of the SCER. Also, the demarcation of the SCER on Soviet-era maps did not benefit from modern mapping technology and software. In 2009, the Kyrgyz Government clarified and removed an apparent or virtual overlap of about 260 ha of the SCER  (the correction represent about 0.36% of SCER’s total area) in favor of the Kumtor Concession. The latter is defined very exactly, has been approved by the Kyrgyz Government and ratified by the Kyrgyz Parliament. Although these facts appear clear, they don’t seem to be widely known and/or reflected on various maps in circulation and/or accepted by some of the critical stakeholders.

Refocussing on creating biodiversity value

While experts, including those from relevant Kyrgyz Government Agencies, need to continue their collaborative efforts to clarify the boundaries of the SCER, this does not seem to address some of the more basic questions: First, has the SECR successfully transitioned from a ‘paper park’ to one that generates tangible and sustainable nature conservation value ? Second, how do performance, challenges and opportunities at SCER compare to reginonal peers in Central Asia? Third, does the Kumtor gold mine, which contributed some 10% of GDP of the Kyrgyz Republic in recent years, have a significant negative or positive impact on the SCER and biodiversity? And, fourth, what will happen to the SCER after the closure of the Kumtor mine (currently projected in 2021)?