“It smells horrible and there are flies everywhere: we can’t even open the windows! When it catches fire we have smoke here for days…everyone here, every single household here, is against the landfill!”
In Uzbekistan’s arid Karakalpak region, dozens of people are living just over 500 metres away from a series of landfills. The conditions are unbearable. But the fate of this community, far away from the largest cities in the eastern region, does not receive much attention.
The landfills, on the contrary, are about to receive new funds. The European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) has recently proposed to expand and transform some of these facilities, to develop better waste management and recycling systems.
We went there to meet the local communities, understand their concerns, and ask them what they thought of the landfill and the proposed expansion. They were all against the project. They were clearly very angry and keen on venting about their problems with us, a group of foreigners.
But when I asked, through our Karakalpak interpreter, whether they had raised this with the authorities or with the company managing the landfill, all but one person said no.
I pressed on with the interpreter: “Why?”. Nobody answered. The interpreter tried to fill the void: “you know, in our country…”, but she stopped half-way, with a sad, resigned look on her face. When I suggested “People are afraid?”, she nodded.
The only one who dared to speak out publicly and lodge formal complaints is a pensioner. We met him while he was tending to his livestock outdoors. He told us he wasn’t afraid, he didn’t care; but his neighbours had warned him he shouldn’t complain, that it would be dangerous for him to do so.
Two men who seemed somewhat out of place were sitting facing our table, where we were having a meal with a group of local activists, in one of Uzbekistan’s largest population centres. They were dressed in all black. When I looked their way, they were staring at the television just above our table, showing static pictures of far-away seaside holiday destinations.
Three people in our group had noticed them. When we left the restaurant, we discussed among ourselves that they looked a bit suspicious. Then we got a message from one of the activists we had been with, confirming what we feared: the security services were monitoring us and one person had even seen one of the men filming the group with his phone.
Two days later another message came through: at least two of the activists were called in by the security services. They were questioned about meeting us. In Uzbekistan, civil society organizations need to request a permit to organize a meeting. They were told that our meal together in the restaurant amounted to an unsanctioned meeting and warned not to participate in similar activities in the future.
She was almost crying. Up until then she had been steadfast, indignant and even angry about how the company was destroying livelihoods including her own, polluting lands and paying labourers ridiculously low wages. She had been telling us about all this for close to two hours. Then we asked her about her own security and whether she had faced any threats or other retaliations for publicly voicing her concerns.
Police had taken her in for eight hours just weeks before. The internal security services were abusive, hurling insults at her while detaining her. They took her to “visit” a prison and showed her the prison conditions she would have to live in, if she would not stop complaining about the company that had come to “do good” for the country. They threatened to have her siblings fired from their jobs. Her siblings then also put pressure on her to stop.
When we spoke about people being called in for questioning, the officials at the international development bank financing the company were not too surprised. You could expect security services to interrogate pretty much anyone in the country if you dare raise your voice: this is Uzbekistan.
Uzbekistan has become a major recipient of development bank funding in Central Asia, receiving millions in investments from the likes of the World Bank, the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development and the Asian Development Bank. These banks all pride themselves in how they listen to voices on the ground. They all recognise, at least on paper, that allowing people, especially impacted people, to have their voices heard makes their projects stronger and more sustainable in the long run.
This all sounds great until you see that development banks are supporting the expansion of a landfill that has left people living in unbearable stench, without a single mention of any complaints from communities nearby. They seem to be ignoring the fact that people are simply too afraid to speak out. And we all know why.