What is the impact of Kumtor on Kyrgyzstan’s Gold Mining Sector?

Nationalization talks have started again in Kyrgyzstan about the ownership of Kumtor Gold Mine. Kumtor Gold Mine, operated and jointly owned by Canadian Centerra Gold via Kumtor Operating Company (KOC) and the Kyrgyz government, has always been a point of tension in the country. Marred by protests, both anti-Kyrgyz government and anti-Centerra, environmental controversy, and being the center of internal Kyrgyz political and social struggles, Kumtor remains Kyrgyzstan’s largest and the most profitable investment project and the country’s main economic asset.

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The Kumtor Gold Mine, the largest gold mine in Kyrgyzstan located in the Issyk Kul Province, is located 350 kilometers southeast from the capital of Bishkek and 80 km south of Issyk-Kul Lake. The mining operation is open-pit which uses surface mining to extract rocks and minerals. The mine has been in operation since 1997; the lifespan of the mine has been extended to 2023.

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The mine which is currently 100% owned by Canadian Centerra Gold (operated through Kumtor Operating Company or KOC) is a joint-stock company (JSC) which Kyrgyzstan via Kyrgyzaltyn owns “33% of the common shares or 77,401,766” and “as of March 1, 2012, Kyrgyzstan’s interests are estimated at $1.546 billion.”[i] Kumtor currently employs 2,617 Kyrgyz citizens (95% are full-time) out of 3,190 total employees. Kumtor accounts for 20% of Kyrgyzstan’s industrial sector and output and accounts for 8% of its GDP. With current dividends, Kyrgyzstan receives 11.3 million USD per year and KOC pays 108 million USD in taxes to the Kyrgyz government.[ii]

Ata-Meken has submitted a draft law on the nationalization of Kumtor. The last round of talks/negotiations about Kumtor took place 10 December 2014. Calls for nationalization emerged out of the failure to establish a joint-venture of the mine: “due to populism we have lost the chance to set up a joint venture [for Kumtor],” Kyrgyz President Atambayev said in a 1 December 2014 interview.[iii] The currently discussion would have Kyrgyzaltyn swap 33% of its holdings for 50% ownership of the joint venture company operating Kumtor, making ownership 50/50. Alternatively, the Kyrgyz nationalist political parties (Ata-Meken and Respublika) suggest Kyrgyzaltyn own 67% while Centerra holds 33% or Kyrgyzaltyn control 100% of the mine as advocated by Respublika.[iv]

The assertiveness of the Kyrgyz when negotiating mining contracts is due to the feeling that foreign companies operating the mines are not investing in local communities and are not promoting development in the region. This is partly because of past environmental accidents.

In May 1998, a truck toppled releasing 1700-1800 kg of toxic sodium cyanide into the Barskoon River. After the accident, local villagers reported illness (some deaths were reported by never fully linked to the cyanide spill—this is speculative) as the river is used for drinking and for irrigation. After the accident and the lackluster response by both Centerra and the Kyrgyz government, locals blockaded the roads to Kumtor and demanded that the contract be cancelled. This prompted more environmental safeguards such as immediate notification of a spill was to be implemented. Another incident occurred on January 20, 2000 where a KOC truck “carrying 1,500 kilograms of ammonium nitrate, used as an explosive at the mine, crashed, [and] spilling its contents.”[v] Kyrgyz authorities were not immediately notified of the spill.

Because of these accidents, there is concern about the use of land. The Kyrgyz Republic’s “Law on Subsoil” introduced in 1997 “governs relationships arising between the government and individuals and legal entities, and other states while using subsoil” and regulates mineral recovery (extraction), mineral deposits of economic significance, ownership of the subsoil and there within minerals.[vi] The Law states that subsoil is the exclusive property of the Kyrgyz Republic is under protection by the state. This law has been used to regulate mining activities and has been used to justify violations of environmental regulations including operations at Kumtor.

The “Law on Glaciers”—to prevent the degradation of glaciers that supply drinking water to many local villages—was passed by Parliament in April 2014, but was sent back by the President for revisions. The new law would require companies to pay for damages to the glaciers. The glaciers affected would be Davidov, Lysyi and Sarytor as KOC has put rocks on top of glaciers and removed parts of glacial ice violating environmental provisions of the project; Centerra has adjusted their operations to stop the acceleration of water.[vii] Lake Petrov is also in danger.

It is unclear whether or not the environmental laws on glaciers or subsoil are genuine attempts to preserve the environment or are a way for the Kyrgyz government to extract concessions from foreign companies to increase their profits or holdings in a company.

There are also concerns how the mining and the chemical usages to mine the gold will affect the historic freshwater Issyk-Kul Lake. The Issyk-Kul Development Fund became part of the Kumtor operation and KOC/Centerra is required to provide 1% of its gross revenue to socio-economic development of regional sectors aligned with spending is based on government priorities. The fund was started in 2009 and since then 25 million USD was provided to the fund; 4.638 million USD was provided to the fund in 2012 alone. The fund has helped build schools, kindergartens, sports clubs, and irrigation infrastructure which has been impacted by the mining.

To mitigate any significant economic effects of the nationalization of Kumtor, additional gold mining operations exist at Ishtamberdy, Bozymchak and Taldybulak Levoberezhnyi mines. Ishtamberdy is Chinese operated, protested by Kyrgyz locals, and has experienced some controversy including Full Gold Mining JSC threatening to cease operations in September 2013. The mine was to begin production in the second quarter of 2013 creating 600 permanent jobs.[viii]

Bozymchak mine would produce mainly ore and would produce 0.8 to 0.9 tons of gold. Kazakhstan’s Kazakhmys incurred an impairment charge in 2012 of $162 million USD against Bozymchak which reveals a higher operating risk in Kyrgyzstan as the company had to reduce its goodwill.[ix] The first shipment of the concentrate from Bozymchak to Kazakhstan was expected to occur in November 2014.[x] The mine was said to have completed construction in late 2013 providing 600-700 permanent jobs. Taldybulak Levoberezhnyi, an Open Joint Stock Company, is expected to be in operation until 2026: 60% belongs to Altynken (purchased by Chinese Superb Pacific Limited Company in Sept 2011) and 40% belongs to the Kyrgyz government. At the Taldybulak Levoberezhnyi, production was not expected until June 2014 according to AKIPress. In October 2012, locals picketed the headquarters of the mine in Orlovka, Kyrgyzstan. The protesters disputed the “Chinese company’s illegal sacking of Kyrgyz citizens and polluting of the local environment.”[xi]

There are also gold deposits that could be exploited including Makmal and Togolok but they are not as profitable. The Makmal gold mine was once extremely profitable. Operations at Makmal began in 1986 and excavated until 1996 producing 21.47 tons of gold. The mine is in past producer stage and its life has been extended to 2016. Geological reserves after 1996 were estimated at 20 tons of gold. [xii] Mining operations at Togolok will produce 800 jobs and its probable reserves are estimated at 86 tons in the mine deposit and the surrounding area.[xiii]

There are multiple promising gold deposits/sites are Karator, At-Bashy in the Naryn region, containing 5.5 gold reserves and the “Buchuk” gold reserve of 15-20 tons. Shambasei gold resource, a low-risk high-margin project, in Southern Kyrgyzstan has an estimated defined gold reserve of “2.5 million [tons] at 3.4g/t, or 277,000 ounces of gold.”[xiv] Karakazyk in the Chon-Alay district in the Osh region would produce 200-300 kg per year producing 100-120 jobs for the local workforce. These identified sites combined produce less gold and revenue than Kumtor and would provide fewer jobs.[xv]

The nationalization of Kumtor must be mitigated by the countries’ other mineral sectors such as copper, ore, silver, iron and tungsten. To remain economically competitive within the Eurasian Economic Union, Kyrgyzstan must develop sustainable economic and mining practices as the Kyrgyz economy is susceptible to many supply shocks; reliance on Kumtor is too heavy. By developing other sectors of the economy, Kyrgyzstan is shielding itself from a possible economic meltdown. If nationalization were to occur, would the Kyrgyz government be able to support the projects developed by the Issyk-Kul Development Fund? Poor development in the financial sector has led to poor governance of the situation prompting protests that have shut down or suspended operations.

Kumtor protests were rooted in the need to address environmental concerns, contributions to the community, and perceived unequal revenue distribution and fueled by renewed nationalism and the assertiveness of the new post-Bakiev government. South African investors (Talas Gold Company) and Australian investors (Z-Explorer of Manas Resources) have met the same challenges as Canada’s Centerra. If these issues are not resolved, can cause widespread damage to Kyrgyzstan’s gold mining and damage Kyrgyzstan’s reputation as a reliable foreign business partner. Corruption in Kyrgyzstan is also a concern. According to Transparency International 2014 Corruption Perception Index rankings, Kyrgyzstan has a rank of 27 (0 is the most corrupt to 100 which is the least corrupt).

Kyrgyzstan would most likely be unable to run the mine itself: “[KOC] does not earn money on a daily basis. It receives financial support from Centerra for most of the year until it can sell gold and pay back all of its loans.” [xvi] Pay out would not be immediate and the government would have to put the money upfront to benefit the costs. Most of the workers that Kumtor employs would most likely stay unless the nationalization of the mine were to affect their wages and Kyrgyzstan lacks the workforce to replace Centerra’s sector specialists. If nationalized, there would be higher operating costs decreasing revenue. Other companies (or countries) might be interested in developing the mine, but would most likely face the same issues as Centerra Gold leading Kyrgyzstan to become more of a high political risk country.

 


[i] Kumtor Gold. 2013. FAQ: Kyrgyzstan and Centerra. http://www.kumtor.kg/en/about/faq/centerragold-and-kyrgyzstan/ (last accessed 29 December 2014).

[ii] Gullette, David and Asel Kalybekova. 2014. Agreement under pressure, Gold mining and protests in the Kyrgyz Republic. Friedrich Ebert Stiftung. http://library.fes.de/pdf-files/id-moe/10927.pdf (last accessed January 3, 2015). Page. 15.

[iii] Kg.24. 2014. Kyrgyz moves towards Kumtor nationalization. The Times of Central Asia. http://www.eng.24.kg/bigtiraj/173638-news24.html (last accessed 29 December 2014).

[iv] Gullette, David and Asel Kalybekova. 2014. Agreement under pressure, Gold mining and protests in the Kyrgyz Republic. Friedrich Ebert Stiftung. http://library.fes.de/pdf-files/id-moe/10927.pdf (last accessed January 3, 2015). Page. 15.

[v] Norlen, Doug. 2000. The Kumtor Gold Mine: Spewing toxics from on high. Pacific Environment and Resouces Center, September 2000. Bankwatch Web site. http://bankwatch.org/documents/kumtor_toxics_09_02.pdf (last accessed January 4, 2015). Page 2.

[vi] United Nations Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE). Law of the Kyrgyz Republic on Subsoil. United Nations Economic Commission for Europe Web site (UNECE). http://www.unece.org/fileadmin/DAM/hlm/prgm /cph/experts/kyrgyzstan/documents/law.on.subsoil.pdf (last accessed January 5, 2015)

[vii] Centerra Gold. 2012. Environmental and Sustainability Report 2012. Kumtor Gold. http://www.kumtor.kg/wp-content/uploads/2014/01/Eco2012_en.pdf (last accessed January 3, 2015). Page 28-29.

[viii] The State Agency on Geology and Mineral Resources of the Kyrgyz Republic. 2014. The mines of the Kyrgyz Republic. http://www.geology.kg/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=200&Itemid=242&lang=en (last accessed Jan 2, 2015).

[ix] Kazakhmys. 2013. KAZAKHMYS PLC HALF-YEARLY REPORT FOR THE PERIOD ENDED 30 JUNE 2013. KAZAKHMYS WEB SITE. http://www.kase.kz/files/emitters/GB_KZMS/gb_kzms_reliz_220813_en.pdf (last accessed January 3, 2015).

[x]The Times of Central Asia. 2014. Kazakhmys to start shipping concentrate from Bozymchak in Kyrgyzstan in November. http://www.timesca.com/news/9961-kazakhmys-to-start-shipping-concentrate-from-bozymchak-in-kyrgyzstan-in-november (last accessed December 30, 2014).

[xi] Trilling, David. 2012. Kyrgyzstan: Chinese Respond to latest mine attack. Eurasianet.org Web Site. http://www.eurasianet.org/node/66121 (last accessed January 2, 2015).

[xii] Kyrgyzaltyn. 2011. Makmal Gold Mining Combinate. Kyrgyzaltyn Web site. http://www.kyrgyzaltyn.kg/en/filialy/63-kombinat-makmalzoloto (last accessed December 29, 2014).

[xiii] The State Agency on Geology and Mineral Resources of the Kyrgyz Republic. 2014. The mines of the Kyrgyz Republic. http://www.geology.kg/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=200&Itemid=242&lang=en (last accessed Jan 2, 2015).

[xiv]Proactive Investors. 2014. Manas Resources updates Shambesai gold resource to latest standard

http://www.proactiveinvestors.com/companies/news/58591/manas-resources-updates-shambesai-gold-resource-to-latest-standard-58591.html (last accessed January 3, 2015).

[xv] The State Agency on Geology and Mineral Resources of the Kyrgyz Republic. 2014. The mines of the Kyrgyz Republic. http://www.geology.kg/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=200&Itemid=242&lang=en (last accessed Jan 2, 2015).

[xvi] Gullette, David and Asel Kalybekova. 2014. Agreement under pressure, Gold mining and protests in the Kyrgyz Republic. Friedrich Ebert Stiftung. http://library.fes.de/pdf-files/id-moe/10927.pdf (last accessed January 3, 2015). Page. 10.

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Samantha Brletich

Samantha M. Brletich is a researcher and writer specializing in Central Asia and governance, security, terrorism, and development issues. She possesses a Master’s in Peace Operations Policy from George Mason University in Virginia, United States. She works with the virtual think tank Modern Diplomacy specializing in Central Asia and diplomatic trends. Her work has appeared in multiple publications focused on diplomacy and Central Asia respectively. She is currently an employee of the U.S. Federal Government.

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