Environmental Advocacy and the Movement for Nuclear Safety in Kazakhstan

2005 Goldman Environmental Prize Winner From Asia to Speak on April 26

Apr 15, 2005

Just Announced! 2005 Goldman Environmental Prize-winner Kaisha Atakhanova will speak at the center on April 26, 2005, 3:30-5:30 p.m. Atakhanova, 47, is leading the campaign to prevent nuclear waste from being commercially imported into the Republic of Kazakhstan. A biologist specializing in the genetic effects of nuclear radiation, Atakhanova founded and directs the Karaganda Ecological Center (known as EcoCenter), which promotes grassroots democracy-building and environmental protection within government and civil society.

A Devastating Soviet Legacy

The entire Central Asian Republic of Kazakhstan is highly polluted by nuclear contamination, a 40-year legacy it inherited from Soviet rule. Radiation resulting from nuclear testing equal to the explosion of 20,000 Hiroshima bombs contaminated the country's crops, land, and livestock, and caused severe health problems among local people. Kazakhstan currently houses 237 million tons of radioactive waste at more than 500 locations. Experts say that nearly one out of every 10 Kazakh citizens is directly affected by the Soviet nuclear legacy.

A New Nuclear Threat

In June 2001, KazAtomProm, the commercial branch of the Kazakh State Committee on Nuclear Energy, quietly introduced legislation to allow nuclear waste to be imported commercially for disposal in Kazakhstan. The move directly challenged existing legislation outlawing such importation. The money (potentially in the billions) would be used to help Kazakhstan deal with its own nuclear waste problems, proponents said.

When news of the KazAtomProm plan was leaked to the public, Atakhanova organized a meeting of NGO leaders to plan a campaign against the legislation. Fifteen organizations formed a steering committee to reach out to other NGOs across the country and build a campaign against the proposed change in law. Eventually, 60 NGOs joined the grassroots network and challenged the assertion that nuclear waste importation would generate large revenues for the country. Their argument was threefold: Kazakhstan is a country rich in oil, gas, and other natural resources, which precludes the need to raise money by importing radioactive waste; increased nuclear contamination would deter international tourists from traveling to the country; and, because corruption in Kazakhstan is rampant, there would be no guarantees that the revenues would be spent wisely.

Grassroots Victory in the Halls of Power

Learning that the vote was scheduled for January 2003, Atakhanova helped develop a New Year's letter that was sent to all Parliament members via registered mail, asking them to state their intended vote on the issue. Atakhanova exposed the ministers' votes and ultimately influenced them to declare that they would not pursue the importation of nuclear waste. At almost the same time, the Kazakh Parliament proposed legislation that would weaken civil society organizations and limit their ability to organize against the government. Atakhanova and her colleagues lobbied against this legislation, and the president withdrew it from consideration in October 2003.

Creating a Roadmap for Democracy

As a result of Atakhanova's efforts, the nuclear waste legislation not only was stopped, but the visibility of nuclear contamination issues has reached new heights across the country. The budding grassroots civil society movement asserted its right and ability to challenge the government's anti-democratic interests in an entirely new way. In addition, under Atakhanova's leadership, EcoCenter has helped develop an environmental movement through EcoForum, a network of more than 100 NGOs nationwide.

Goldman Environmental Prize

Founded in 1990, the Goldman Environmental Prize awards $750,000 annually to environmental heroes from six continental regions. Nominated confidentially by a network of renowned environmental organizations and environmental experts, recipients are chosen for their sustained and important environmental achievements. The Prize offers these environmental heroes the recognition, visibility, and credibility their efforts deserve. For more information on the prize, please see: http://www.goldmanprize.org/

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