Sunday, July 18, 2010

Alternative Energy in Central Asia's Tajikistan

The passengers on the 3AM flight from Khujand to Moscow were Tajik laborers, the majority of whom were flying for their first time.  The men fly to Moscow to make ten times the amount of money as construction workers than the alternative of working at home. Half of Tajikistan’s economy is made abroad, primarily in Russia, which has absolutely no cultural relationship with Tajikistan’s Persian-speaking, Central Asian culture.  The women on this flight are taking the opportunity to work in the land of profit selling “Lapyoshkis” (traditional Tajik bread) on the streets.

As soon as I took my seat on the plane, automatically I buckled up.  The other passengers around me looked at me with curiosity and asked me to help them figure out their seatbelts as they laughed and interacted so easily, as I so commonly experienced in Tajikistan.

During my short journey in Tajikistan, I not once observed any signs of anger or violence.  Not once did I hear anyone shout with anger, a car beep its horn, the look of disappointment, fear, or stress on their faces.  It took me a while to take that in, or even recognize it, let alone accept it. I was only met with openness, compassion, hospitality, and observed devotion, respect, kindness, generosity, and smiles.   

Over eighty percent mountainous, abundant with rivers, waterfalls, mountain meadows, and poppy fields, Tajikistan’s geography is a nature-lover’s fantasy.  Culturally, Tajikistan is fascinating in that it is the only Central Asian country whose language is not of Turkic origin. The Tajik language is more similar to Farsi than French is to Spanish or Ukrainian to Russian.  From north to south, as you move closer to the Afghani border, the language becomes less tainted with Slavic influence.

In my experience, I encountered fewer Tajiks than Kazakhs who speak Russian although enough Tajiks spoke Russian for me to engage in conversation and get a glimpse into my third post-soviet republic. It amazes me to realize that the enormous territory of the Soviet Union stretched from the borders of Poland, to Afghanistan, to Mongolia, to the Pacific Ocean.  One lasting benefit of the widespread Soviet culture is that you can communicate with most people along these borders with the ability to speak Russian.  

The melodies of Tajik folk and classical songs sound like the scales of North Indian Classical music with Persian-like instruments and typical Central-Asian finger plucking-a beautiful convergence of its neighboring cultures. Unlike the Kazakhs, there is no visually identifiable evidence of Genghis Khan’s genes in their physical features, no yurts or horses. 

Unlike the rest of Central Asia, Tajiks were never nomadic and have always settled in civilized places such as what is now Uzbekistan’s Samarkand and Bukhara rather than in rural areas.  These borders throughout Central Asia were determined by what some say was Stalin’s brilliant plan to strategically cause these tribes to fight against each other. Unfortunately, the success of his plot can be seen today in the ethnic cleansing in Kyrgyzstan and the political fights between Uzbekistan and Tajikstan. 

My Los Angeles groomed lungs are like a canary in a coal mine and typically sense the first hint of urban air pollution. I was curious to know what the Tajiks were doing right to contribute to the clean air in urban Dushanbe and Khujand.  I came to learn that this is primarily thanks to its major energy source being hydropower rather than coal. Yes, I am using the phrase “thanks to hydropower”,  that evil word that we west coast environmentalists are trained to protest.  Is it possible to build safe hydropower?  What does “small-scale” hydropower really mean?  Once I overcame the sole image of hydropower as Hoover Dam, and stretched my mind a little, I listened to the arguments of the staff of Tajikistan’s largest hydropower station.  The State-owned joint stock company Barqi Tojik, entirely controls production, transportation and distribution of electricity in Tajikistan

We stood on a metal bridge which hovered over the hydropower station. The entire station couldn’t have been more than 1,000 square feet. This “large” station powers the entire local region of Tajikistan!  I looked out onto a picturesque landscape of a flowing river, tributaries and rolling green hills-to me, what looked like practically untouched nature.

Makhmud, dressed in his hardhat, leaning on the railing over the rushing water, stared at me as I asked him, “What are some examples of the ecological impact of this dam”? 

He says: It’s impossible to take an energy source without spoiling some aspect of nature. We can’t get something for nothing.  You look at wind farms and see how much land that takes up.  You see how it disturbs nature. Where there is a wind farm, there is a loss of life-animal, insect and plant life are ruined. You look at solar power farms and see how much land mass they consume.  The disturbance of fish life here has been a problem, although we don’t have much of a choice. 

To what degree are we willing to disturb nature for our human needs?  Who has the power or should have the power to make this decision?  What kind of responsibility do we have to cross politically boundaries in order to exchange best practices and ideas rather than preach them? 

The next day, as I went a little deeper into Tajikistan’s mountains, I passed through fields of red poppies, along waterfalls, and small rivers. My friend pointed out to me what “small” hydropower looks like. He stretched his legs across this little river and said, from one leg to my other, we can build a hydropower “station” which could potentially power the few houses that are around here.

As we grapple with how and which renewables to invest in, support, advocate, Tajikistan reminds me that we must first look at the natural landscape, and see what best fits.  And as I go deeper into the Russian-speaking lands, I slowly strip away my own bias towards what I’ve learned is the right approach to energy savings techniques, recycling, and nature preserves. What makes sense in our sans-winter-wonderland of California doesn’t necessarily apply to the rest of the world.

Monday, June 28, 2010

21st Century Waste on the Silk Road

21st Century Waste on the Silk Road

The Silk Road still plays the role of the world’s marketplace, where Chinese goods, Afghan opium, and oil are traded. Kazakhstan, the largest and wealthiest of the Central Asian countries, is at the center of where east meets west—geographically, politically, economically and culturally. Kazakhstan is the ninth largest country in the world and is the largest landlocked country. It is rich with fossil fuel resources, and its Caspian Sea is being scavenged for its oil, which is mostly being exported to Russia.
Kazakhstan is constantly feeling its way between the western and eastern world. Bordering Russia, Turkmenistan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan and China, and housing parts of the Caspian and Aral Seas, Kazakhstan is of crucial importance as a bridge between east and west. On the one hand, its technology, government and business culture, education, and cafes are very European. On the other hand, inside the home is a different world. Not too long ago were they nomads, horsemeat is still commonly eaten, and a combination of Muslim and native spiritual traditions are followed.

We brought in our team of American recycling and waste management experts to share our best practices in the field. Our Kazakh partners who work for local environmental NGOs put together conferences in which we participated with local NGO and government representatives. As with all of the countries of the former Soviet Union, Kazakhstan is slowly stepping into its own identity and defining who is responsible for what. So, figuring out what to do with waste and who should handle it is still a bit “up in the air.”
In Berkeley, California, we tend to take for granted our well developed three-bin-waste system, where we can even throw our food scraps into our green bins and at the end of month can take all the fresh compost we need free of cost from the city. That system is even operated by our non-profit organization, the Ecology Center. In Kazakhstan, it’s a bit of a different situation.

From egg shells, to plastic bags, to batteries, to asbestos-it’s all going into one big landfill and being burned in Kazakhstan. There are plenty of people grappling with what to do with the waste and how to possibly make the management of waste profitable.

We were very happily surprised to see how well our environmental NGO partners are doing. In the past years, our partners were poorly organized and had a challenging, if at all existent, relationship with the government. Now, we are sitting at the table with our NGO partners together with Managers of the Ministry of the Environment. At times, the government now calls on the NGOs as experts and consultants. That’s a victory.

Imagine being under communist rule for almost a century. Imagine a world where the government took care of everything and neither the individual nor the community had a say in decision-making. In that same world, you could trade in your old clothes for new clothes, return glass bottles, and have all your utilities provided for by the government. Post-Soviet citizens are used to the government handling everything and neither Russia’s Medvedev nor Kazakhstan’s Nazarbayev is offering much assistance in such social services. Opportunists see this as a golden time to open businesses—and they are.
Our colleagues have made suggestions to the local government to create a waste management system that would collect and separate bio-waste and possibly paper, plastic, and glass. The question is, once you collect it and separate it, where does the waste go? Even in California, we are shipping much of our recyclable goods to China to be recycled. Kazakhstan would like to create a one-stop plant where the waste would be brought to a central place and be sorted and recycled.

Some believe that the Ministry of the Environment of Kazakhstan will step forward and take these recommendations. Others don’t have much faith in the government to do anything and rely on the business sector to pick up the slack. Once there is some proof that the end product is profitable, perhaps the investors will appear.

Often, when we make our presentations to our Russian-speaking partners, they feel discouraged because our American models of success look so simple and out of reach to them. Our U.S. recycling specialist made a presentation about composting at a conference in Almaty, Kazakhstan. The representatives from the Ministry of the Environment were ready to leave before the presentation even began. They said, “You are from California, where you don’t even have a winter, and you think that we can compost year-round in Kazakhstan! It’s impossible!” Alex continued with his presentation, which he had specifically prepared based on comparable cold climates such as Alaska and Canada. After his presentation, the government officials said, “Let’s do it!” We’ll see what that means in due time, although all were satisfied with an initial verbal agreement.

Most of our colleagues look to European models of waste management, recycling, energy saving technologies and renewable energy. Our Kazakh partners are convinced that the enclosed incinerators are environmentally clean. I’m of course skeptical, as I’m a Californian environmentalist, and have a gut reaction that says “no to incineration no matter what!” An enclosed, clean incinerator, sounds too much like “clean coal” to me—it doesn’t exist. But, of course I am curious and open to learning from the environmentally progressive countries of Germany and France who commonly use these clean incinerators. The only incinerators we are familiar with in the U.S. are of old technology and don’t meet any environmentally clean standards. Something we should dare look into?

For all we know, soon we may be looking to the lands of the Silk Road for the latest environmental technology. Tune in for more in the next installation.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

The Funeral

The Funeral

I stepped into the small house and immediately the smoke of the frankincense brought me back to prayer services in Egyptian mosques. Today, these clouds of incense were hovering over a yellow corpse lying peacefully in his living room, in a small Ukrainian village nestled in the foothills of the Carpathian Mountains. The deep sounds of the church Slavonic prayers chanted by the villagers surrounding this elderly man vibrated in my chest, and the sound of the roosters, the rays of the early morning sun, and the frankincense, transported me to a 19th century Chagall-painted world.  My 5’4’’ height allowed me to see well over the heads of the babushkas which were covered with black scarves as is traditionally worn when in mourning.

I’m holding one side of a wreath, in line with the other women, as we walk through the village from his house, to the church. Lesya is holding the other side.  The shopkeepers step outside of their shops, the kids stop their bikes, the cars shut off their engines, as we walk through the village, singing these ancient prayers with the priest and the corpse. 

An hour and a half of standing in this 18th century church, decorated with icons and gold- painted walls, candles illuminating from within, frankincense burning…I wonder how these grandmas can stand so long with their swollen feet in their tiny shoes. I wonder if besides the occasional ring of a cell phone, the prayer services were really like this hundreds of years ago.  The service was reminiscent of a traditional Jewish prayer service, with parts that the leaders would recite, and parts that the congregation would chime in, prostrating themselves at times.

As we continued the procession from the church to the cemetery, we stopped in front of the school where this elderly man taught folk music for most of his life.  The children ran out to the courtyard to see us and give respect.  Lesya and I put down our wreath for a moment while we stopped and I looked at her solemn face, in mourning of her uncle.  She looked at me and said in her beautiful Ukrainian-village-Russian, “I wonder what’s really there”, her head motioning to the heavens.

I was reminded yet again that we really aren’t so different from each other, even though we are often made to think that we are. To stand here with my new friend, I felt grateful to have made it to this point in my life, and to have been created as an American woman in the 20th century, able to see the world like this. Something none of my ancestors were ever privileged enough to do.

Language in Post-Soviet Ukraine

The Eastern-Western Ukrainian Debate

After more than seventy years of being under Moscow-based Soviet control, when all of the countries of the former Soviet Union were required to speak Russian, these countries are now returning to their native cultures and languages since the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991.  As they should! Ukraine is culturally split between east and west. There tends to be a lot of tension between the two which makes for a hot political climate. Western Ukrainians are often identified by eastern Ukrainians as “nationalists” because they want to speak only Ukrainian and demand that all government documents be written only in Ukrainian. It is said that they refuse to speak Russian even though they are fluent in both languages.  Eastern Ukraine, which borders Russia, culturally identifies more with Russian culture.  The Ukrainian Prime Minister doesn’t even speak Ukrainian!

Here are a few arguments that I came across on my travels for both points of view:

Pro Ukrainian language: We live in the country of Ukraine.  We are Ukrainian, NOT RUSSIAN, and we should speak Ukrainian!

Pro Russian language: We have been speaking Russian for the past century. My mother who is 70 years-old only knows Russian.  Now that all of the official government documents are written in Ukrainian, she can’t understand them!  It’s unfair!

The uncommon, yet diplomatic point of view: This was Kiev-Rus, we should have both languages as official languages.

What I found to be true of Western Ukraine is that they were the most hospitable folks I’ve ever encountered on the planet. Their land is lush with rolling green hills, healthy soil, rivers, lakes, and streams flowing with pure water.  In the villages, yes, it was true-most people only spoke Ukrainian, although those who could speak Russian, definitely spoke Russian with me.  It may have been due to the fact that I was a foreigner and not a Russian, and they didn’t have to make a point to not speak Russian with me. It was the only way we could communicate!

In regards to language, it will be interesting to capture the differences between Ukraine and other countries of the former Soviet Union. Do the Kazakhs feel strongly about speaking Kazakh or do they mostly speak Russian?  I suppose that is like comparing apples and oranges considering that Kazakh culture has absolutely no connection with Slavic culture although they were forced to speak Russian and were ruled by Russia.

I leave Ukraine with a bit of sadness. I fell in love with the rivers which they call Ukraine’s Amazon-a bird-lovers paradise, the fairy-tale-like Carpathian Mountains, and the quaint, cobbled-stoned beautiful city of Lvov.

I’m definitely returning to this rich land next year. Would you like to join me?

One of the greatest lessons I observed in Ukraine is the response to the economic crisis (a phrase I heard constantly).  I was puzzled by how extravagant Ukrainians live and how well-kept their cities were.  I definitely didn’t see any signs of economic crisis here.  The cafes and shops were filled with Ukrainians.  There were more Mercedes and BMWs here than in San Francisco.  They repeatedly asked me whether we sense the economic crisis in the states. I said that I am constantly reminded of the crisis in the NGO world which has lost most of its financial support by 30%, the teachers who are loosing their jobs, the stores which are going out of business and the vacant buildings in Berkeley.  My Ukrainian friends tell me as we sit around a full table of caviar, grapes, champagne, salmon, and meat, “We’ve had to deal with so many crisis and unknowns that we’ve learned to enjoy today because we have no idea what tomorrow will bring”.  An attitude I think that we Americans could embrace.

Ukraine 2010 Slideshow

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Oksana Kozmina: A Righteous Woman

It is no secret that Chernobyl left millions of people with life-threatening illnesses. Many of them fled to southern Ukraine, far away from the radiation zone which surrounded northern Ukraine's Chernobyl. Camps were created in the south where children could stay and recover from the negative impacts of the radiation. If one adult came to the camp with one child, only the adult would be required to pay and the child would stay for free. If one adult came with many children, they would pay less, etc. In the 1980's soviet era mothers didn't exactly receive much of a maternity leave. Most of them stayed home without pay for the first three years. While most of the mothers were working, who was to take the ill children to the southern camps? Oksana Kozmina, with two other righteous women, opened these camps through their NGO, Mama 86, 1986 being the year of the Chernobyl disaster.

They received mostly European funds to help create and maintain these camps. Even the Soviet Army donated beds, utensils, and necessary materials. When I asked Oksana what the Soviet government thought about the army helping her NGO, she explained, "The army is like the government of the government, and in the army, people also have children!". Oksana single-handedly brought hundreds of affected children to the camps, allowing the mothers to continue to work. Eventually many others joined the camps including the elderly and frail. For three years they ran these camps while Oksana traveled back and forth from Kiev.

Red Cross supported many children who were affected by Chernobyl by sending them to Yugoslavia. Oksana explained that with the same money, they could have helped 10 times as many families by bringing them to safe places in Ukraine. One positive result of Chernobyl is that the foreign humanitarian aid that fled to Ukaine, helped give birth to the third sector in the former Soviet Union. People began to create non-profit organizations in order to receive the financial assistance. Then began the growth of NGOs including the national Ukrainian environmental movement, of which Oksana became very active.

Never did she think she would be labeled as an "environmentalist". When asked how she became active in the environmental movement she answered, "After Chernobyl, I realized that we have to do something to ensure that our children and grandchildren will have a safe future on the planet".

A daughter of a world renown nuclear physicist, she was expected to follow in her father's footsteps. She said, "Why would I always want to be introduced as my father's daughter?". So, she became an artist. She hand-painted Ukrainian folk instruments for twenty years.

After years of being involved in the environmental movement in Ukraine, including working as a trainer of Deep Ecology, modeled after Joanna Macy, she eventually became fed-up with the culture of the environmental movement in Ukraine. She says, "I got sick of people 'singing to the choir', and arguing about the importance of saving the planet only amongst themselves. How are we going to make change that way? I'm also tired of hearing the negative news about our dying planet. It's too depressing. I understand quite well the severity of the environmental problems we are faced with, and i've suffered enough in my life."

I give Oksana a badge of honor for her righteous work to protect the well being of thousands of children. May we all be inspired to be as courageous as Oksana, and do the work so that those like her can rest a little already.