One of the local residents being arrested for protecting tree from felling in the protest on June 2, 2017. Source: 5news.kgOn 2 June 2017, police arrested ten people protesting against the felling of decades-old trees for road expansion in central Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan’s capital, implemented with Chinese grant funds. More than a year on, many of the trees that line Bishkek’s large boulevards are still being cut by local municipalities to build parking lots and for housing construction, degrading the city’s air quality. Citizens have organised to research the subject of air pollution and have established platforms to discuss this topic in order to try to influence decision-makers.
The project to renovate the city’s roads was granted by the Chinese government through the China Road and Bridge Corporation under China’s Ministry of Communications in September 2016, but the actual reconstruction works only started on 2 June the following year. On that day, a group of about 40 local residents and activists protested on Dushanbinskaya Street in east Bishkek to prevent the trees from being felled, with some physically trying to stop bulldozers and municipal workers by hugging trees and sitting on branches. The city police arrested ten people officially for “road blocking” and “failure to obey the police.” Later that day, the Pervomaisky court released all of them with a warning to desist from protesting. By then, 140 trees had already been cut down to expand Dushanbinskaya Street.
The incident highlighted the existing divisions in Bishkek between those who support the protesters, as they advocate for green conservation to balance Bishkek’s arid climate, and those who continue to consider road expansion as development. Obviously, recently ousted city mayor Albek Ibraimov led the latter camp. In a recent interview, Ibraimov stated that “urban greenery hadn’t been previously cut down because there was no Chinese grant for large-scale street reconstruction.” He added that road expansion is important because Bishkek is developing – there are five times more cars in the city than there were seven years ago. On social media, opponents of the road works have taken to scorning Ibraimov with the label “drovosek”, a Russian term that rhymes with his name Albek and translates as “the woodcutter.”
The indicator of green areas per citizen has dropped sharply in Bishkek in recent years. “In the 1980s, the norm was 21 square metres of greenery per citizen compared to today’s 3.5 square metres,” said retired architect Natalya Mukhamadiyeva at a roundtable organised in May 2017 by the Archa Initiative NGO, whose staff (including the author) was among the ten arrested at the protest site on Dushanbinskaya Street. Rapid population growth cannot alone account for such a dramatic drop, as Bishkek’s population has seen roughly a 50% increase since the 1980s according to the Kyrgyz government’s Statistics Department, while green areas have shrunk by six times in the same period.
“In the 1980s, the norm was 21 square metres of greenery per citizen compared to today’s 3.5 square metres”
Mukhamadiyeva has spent her life planning urban projects in Bishkek’s architectural bodies, such as the Kyrgyz State Institute for Construction Design and the Frunze City Design Institute. At the roundtable, she stressed how “insufficient irrigation system and irrigation water deficit, as well as the totally inadequate number of nursery areas and the lack of a unified strategic policy in city greening” are leading to the disappearance of urban parks.
In contrast, former Mayor Ibraimov argued that if “we look at the classification of urban greenery per square metres per capita, it is not catastrophic.” But Dmitry Vetoshkin, a local environmentalist, who was also detained at the protest, agrees with Mukhamadiyeva’s analysis. “This microclimate of green areas creates a favourable temperature and humidity in (Bishkek) city, protecting city dwellers from noise, dust and chemical pollution,” he told me, adding that the project of road expansion “satisfies the interests of particular housing construction developers,” rather than the needs of the people living in the city.
However, the former Mayor seemed uninterested in engaging with protesters to address their grievances. “The day before the 2 June massive tree-cut, the Mayor’s office promised to meet with Dushanbinskaya Street residents – but they met only on 3 June,” Raushanna Sarkeyeva, the head of the Urban Initiatives NGO and who was also detained, told me. “No environmental assessment and no public hearings were done to discuss the feasibility of expanding the street.”
Urban air quality
Meanwhile, local experts are sounding the alarm on air quality in Bishkek. Rustam Tukhvatshin, a professor at the Kyrgyz-Russian Slavic University, shared his research on the link between urban air quality and reproductive health at the Green Bishkek Forum, which was also organised by Archa Initiative NGO, in June 2018. “Together with Kazakh colleagues, we studied the air quality at the busiest street intersection in the city. It turned out there was a tenfold increase of one of the most toxic and carcinogenic substances, formaldehyde.”
Tukhvatshin added that when they examined pregnant women living in the area, they found that almost 100% of newborns had defects to their internal organs. As he explains in his research, formaldehyde concentration was one of the leading ecological factors causing perinatal mortality. Moreover, even when babies are born, they will likely have congenital defects due to car-produced formaldehyde and the lack of greenery in the city.
Chinese grant kills residents of Bishkek. Source: kloop.kgTukhvatshin’s findings echo warnings by the state-owned meteorology unit KyrgyzHydroMet, which states that there is an excess of the maximum permitted concentration of hazardous elements in Bishkek air. “In June (2018), it was observed that the maximum allowed concentration of nitrogen dioxide was exceeded for 25 days, (while) the daily average allowable concentration for (...) nitrogen oxide was exceeded for 21 days and for formaldehyde for 24 days,” KyrgyzHydroMet reported. The MoveGreen civil movement also published the results of their research, which shows a growth in formaldehyde concentration. Activists deployed three monitors, two in the city centre and one in the local botanical garden, who measured air pollution and followed air quality trends through the free online app Aba.kg. All results showed that the air was “unhealthy” between December 2017 and January 2018.
Bishkek city sits in the Chuy Valley at the feet of the Tian Shan mountain range in the largely arid region of Central Asia. During Soviet times, the Botanical Garden planned the city’s green spaces, which was then implemented by the municipal services. Emil Shukurov, 80, a biologist and well-known environmentalist, remembers how Bishkek was turned into “an urban oasis. I recall it was even windy in Bishkek because streets were in the shade.” The current tree-cutting spree is reversing this trend. The Urban Initiatives NGO used a thermal camera in areas of the city that have been deprived of greenery. The results show temperatures reaching more than 50 degrees celsius with differences of more than 20-30 degrees celsius between areas in the shade and in the sun.
Corruption has roots
Meanwhile, the BishkekZelenKhoz municipal body cut down about 3,000 trees in 2017 and planned to purchase new trees for 60 million KGS (about 880,000 USD). Some were surprised that the price tag per young tree was between 4,000 and 9,000 KGS (about 60-130 USD) for trees purchased from Poland by the Mayor’s office. Environmentalist Dmitry Vetoshkin believes that “these are not only expensive if compared to local market prices, but those trees are often not adaptable to Bishkek’s climate.”
A new parking area in central part of Bishkek, where trees used to grow before the cut. Source: “Urban Initiatives” NGO.Importing trees at prices considered high in comparison to local producers suggests taxpayers’ money has been squandered. An investigation by two journalists in April 2018 found that the former Mayor purchased foreign trees at prices 50 to 100 times higher than local ones, to which Deputy Mayor Erkinbek Isakov replied that “there are no nurseries close to Bishkek with large-sized trees.” Nevertheless, a week after the article was published and shared across many local media outlets, the State Committee for National Security (GKNB) opened a criminal case against the Mayor regarding the purchase of imported trees. Moreover, following a no-confidence vote in the City Council in mid-July unrelated to the tree-purchase investigation, Mayor Ibraimov has been removed from his post.
While the Green Bishkek Forum tried to involve the competent state institutions and the public in a dialogue about the consequences of Bishkek’s disappearing urban greenery, the Mayor’s office sent a letter to the organisers after the Forum in which local municipal services denied that “massive tree cutting” is taking place in the city, indicating that there is little political will to even recognise the problem. As the Mayor’s dismissal appears to have little to do with his tree-cutting policy, it remains to be seen if his successor will choose to engage with civil society or continue to ignore protesters. As Dmitry Vetoshkin comments, “at a time when car fleets in developed countries are shrinking, public transport is developing, lanes for bicycles and pedestrians are being created and green areas expanded, our city is being designed only to individual cars with air conditioners. Do ordinary people really need (such a) city?”