Shahter Baimuratov, a former uranium miner, commends WFP for creating jobs in Min-Kish and breathing new life into the community. Copyright: WFP/Elizabeth Zalkind
WFP’s food-for-assets activities brought jobs and revived hope for about a hundred people in the isolated village of Min-Kush. The village is nestled in the mountains in the remote province of Naryn, Kyrgyzstan’s poorest region.
In the mid 1950s, Min-Kush was a key strategic structure in the Soviet nuclear programme. Uranium for the first Soviet atomic bombs was extracted there. However, Min-Kush’s glorious past ended with the Soviet Union’s collapse. Thousands of people were left behind to survive high levels of radiation from abandoned uranium tailings and critical poverty and desperation. What previously was a prosperous township of 20,000 inhabitants turned into a dying isolated settlement where the remaining population of 2,000 is essentially jobless and relies exclusively on scarce pensions and social benefit.
Shahter Baimuratov, a former miner from one of four uranium mines surrounding Min-Kush, lived on a pension of less than US$60 a month and had barely enough to eat every day. He had no hopes or prospects to improve his life. “We do nothing because there is nothing to do here,” he said. a common refrain by all Min-Kush residents.
Last winter the situation changed after WFP launched its food-for-assets project offering the poorest residents the opportunity to volunteer their labour in return for a basic food ration. Participants worked on reinforcing riverbanks as well as restoring an easier passage to Min-Kush through reconstructing a community bridge that massive avalanches had swept away.
“After being unnoticed and humbled for years, we felt needed again and motivated to work as it would bring us a hope to feel alive again,” Shahter says. In this isolated part of Naryn province with almost no other opportunities to earn a living the programme sent each participant brought home with a ration of high¬-quality wheat flour enriched with essential nutrients and vegetable oil. “We cherished the very opportunity to work even more than the food rations we received in return for our participation,” says Shahter showing with pride the segment of the riverbank he reinforced with gabion nets and cement.
This summer, WFP continued its food-for-assets interventions in Min-Kush as the community identified a key priority project to protect their houses and wellbeing from landslides that could lead to the destruction of the exhausted uranium tailings and cause leakage of uranium wastes. Led by experts from the regional forestry agency, a group of 30 volunteers climbed over rocky cliffs to plant about 14,000 trees on mountain slopes prone to landslides and mudslides. While paying immediate food dividends for volunteers, the benefits of this act would also last for years to come.
“Hope has returned to Min-Kush, thank you!” says Shahter.