In early November, travelers and environmental activists alerted citizens and the media about the threat of a planned hotel near Mangystau’s unique Bozjyra Scarp. Environmental activists and experts warn of the possibility of multifaceted and potentially irreparable damage to the local ecology if this project moves forward.
Adamdar/CA spoke with Azhar Dzhandosova, an environmental activist and one of the leaders of the Save Kok-Zhailau movement which has secured the preservation of the famous natural area near Almaty. Azhar Dzhandosova spoke about how Ustyurt feels like the cosmos, about the similarities between the cases of Bozjyra and Kok-Zhailau, and how to save Kazakhstan’s nature from destruction.
What is Bozjyra for you?
I was lucky to be there five years ago as part of a Nomad Explorer expedition. During my life, I have visited more than 40 countries. As an amateur mountain climber, I have seen many natural wonders, but I have never seen a landscape as majestic as Ustyurt’s in any corner of the world. There, you truly feel as if you are a small dot on the endless Earth. To say that it is beautiful and majestic is not enough. You feel as if you’re in the cosmos.
In your opinion, how appropriate is an attempt to build up and "refine" this place with a "boutique safari hotel"?
Any construction in such a unique place as Bozjyra is inappropriate, let alone a large-scale project as is proposed in the Safari Hotel. The ecology of Bozjyra, and of Ustyurt in general is very fragile. It looks like a desolate desert, but in fact, it is a living organism. Soil, plants, insects, and animals have all existed here in harmony for millions of years. And in just a few years, a person can destroy this balance. On top of this, Bozjyra’s landscapes themselves will lose their value. And let me remind you that it is the landscapes that primarily attract tourists. Any urbanized object within sight is a stain on this beautiful landscape and strips it of its enchanting outer space feeling.
You are one of the originators of the Save Kok-Zhailau environmental movement. Do you think there are parallels in the case of the attempt to build in the Bozjyra Canyon with the many years of attempts to construct development projects on Kok-Zhailau?
The parallel between the two projects immediately comes to mind. Under the guise of the idea of developing tourism in Kazakhstan, projects are being pushed that destroy our nature, which is our national heritage. It seems that the main goal of these projects is simply to find something on which to spend city and national budgets. No convincing arguments were made that the development project would be an economic boon to the area around Kok-Zhailau. However, there was plenty of evidence that huge damage to the environment would be caused. Now the same is happening in Ustyurt.
Under the guise of the idea of developing tourism in Kazakhstan, projects are being pushed that destroy our nature, which is our national heritage
What options do you see for the development of tourism in Kazakhstan?
This is an extremely difficult question. The development of tourism will likely create jobs in Kazakhstan. But I believe that in no case should you follow the path of mass tourism. It is the most destructive type of tourism. It scares me when Kazakhtourism talks about their goal of reaching five million tourists in Ile-Alatau National Park in 2021, and then even more in the future. Kazakhstan’s enormous territory contributes to the dispersal of the tourist flow in many directions. Nowadays, many travel by car, but even though the roads are not bad, there is an acute shortage of motels, gas station complexes – not standalone gas stations, but complexes – which are able to offer more services to motorists. We do not have enough children's camps in rural areas, sanatoriums, or hospitals. One must understand that tourism alone cannot provide the livelihoods of an entire country.
Unfortunately, in Bozjyra's case, the officials did not deviate from their usual methods of doing everything on the sly. As far as I know, there was no extensive public discussion of the project in its earliest stage. It was almost by accident that information was leaked. An uproar on social media followed. The question arises: do the authorities have a development plan for tourist infrastructure of the entire region, and if so, what does it include? Will the proposed projects include assessments of environmental impact?
What measures are needed to preserve and protect unique natural and historical sites in Kazakhstan?
There are laws in place to ensure the full preservation of natural, historical and cultural monuments. But the destruction of many of these places speaks to how effectively these laws actually are. Even if they are not destroyed physically, their original value is completely lost during restoration or "upgrades." National Parks are created for the express purpose of preserving natural territories. The creation of a National Park at Ustyurt or at least its inclusion in a nature reserve will help protect this unique location from development and environmental destruction. We also advocate for the incorporation of Ustyurt as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Most critical, though, is to create a management system for specially protected areas, which should, firstly, preserve the flora and fauna and restore landscapes from any harm that befell them, and secondly, regulate human activities on the territory, including tourism. No hotel or visitor center can guard against the damage that humans cause. We need rules for management of natural areas, rules for guests in the area, high fines for violations, and environmental police that are granted the necessary powers of enforcement. Most important is environmental awareness and stewardship for everyone – citizens, businesses, and government agencies alike.
What lessons learned from the experience of defending Kok-Zhailau can be useful today to civil and environmental activists working on Bozjyra?
Our experience has shown that consistent, uncompromising steadfastness to our principles through multiple channels, involving local and international experts, and gaining the support of independent media has significantly expanded the group of people advocating for the preservation of Kok-Zhailau. Over 50,000 people signed our petition. This gave the president enough of a reason to shut down the project. To save Bozjyra, it is necessary to unite the efforts of all activists, concerned citizens throughout the country, and even across the world. It is necessary to use all channels possible: petitions, letters, public hearings, round tables, flash mobs, art projects, peaceful meetings and pickets. The support of the media is very important, and in today's electoral period it would be good to include the issue of Bozjyra in the platforms of candidates for deputy. The issue of construction on Bozjyra can become a litmus test for all public figures, journalists and bloggers that shows the degree of their environmental and cultural awareness.
The issue of construction on Bozjyra can become a litmus test for all public figures, journalists and bloggers that shows the degree of their environmental and cultural awareness