Kaisha Atakhanova led a campaign that successfully thwarted the commercial import of nuclear waste into Kazahstan. She received one of six 2005 Goldman Environmental Prizes for this effort. A biologist by training, Atakhanova studied the genetic effects of nuclear radiation before founding and directing the Karaganda Ecological Center (the EcoCenter), which promotes grassroots democracy building and environmental protection in government and civil society. Even without importing additional nuclear waste, the Republic of Kazakhstan is already ravaged by nuclear contamination. For 40 years,the Soviet government conducted over 450 nuclear weapons tests at Kazakhstan’s Semipalatinsk test range [an area covering about 18,000 square kilometers, or about 6,950 square miles] often without alerting or protecting local people. The combined radiation was more than that of 100 Hiroshima bombs. Today, radiation continues to taint the country’s soil, water, crops, and livestock, causing severe health problems for one in 10 Kazakh citizens.
How did growing up near the Semipalatinsk nuclear test site affect you and your family? `I am from the city of Karaganda, which is near the southern perimeter of the testing area. During my childhood we always felt these small earth quakes, but we didn’t understand what they were. We were 400 km [about 250 miles] away from the explosions, and so we couldn’t see the nuclear mushroom. But we could always feel the earthquakes. The dishes on the shelves would clink, the light fittings would shake, everything shook. Our parents guessed that the earthquakes probably had something to do with the military, but didn’t know for sure. People who lived closer to the site also weren’t sure what was happening. The military would only tell them not to go out on the street and not to look at the sky.
Now cancer is the main disease in our region. My father, my mother, and my sister all died of cancer, and only the day before yesterday I buried my brother, who also died from cancer. When people in my family die, they die of cancer.
Why did you leave research to found the EcoCenter of Karaganda?
When I went to university I went into Semipalatinsk and studied how radiation causes genetic mutations in animals. I also saw how, because of poor social and economic conditions, the local people often grazed their herds on the contaminated fields, ate fish caught from the contaminated lakes, and used building materials from contaminated structures.
Over the years, I saw so many scientists from all over the world conducting research on the people and the land of Semipalatinsk. The local people hoped that this research would lead to some kind of help for them, but nothing changed. With all the world studying them, the people began to feel like white mice. During the Soviet era, they were white mice for the military. And then they were white mice for the scientists who were now coming to study how they die.
I was ashamed and against further research. We have already learned everything we need to know about the effects of radiation on humans. I thought: “What’s the point? Why defend [my] dissertation? How would that help?” I decided that the right thing for me to do would be to research how best to live in those conditions, and then to explain this information clearly and simply to the local people. I cannot give these people a clean piece of land, but I can give them information. It is important that they learn how to use that information correctly and to make better choices.
What were the greatest challenges you faced in establishing the EcoCenter?
The greatest challenge was lack of finances. My university helped some by letting my colleagues and me continue to use equipment and a laboratory, so long as we worked for free and trained students. My husband also helped, as he was then in business. It was not a big help, but it helped us to survive.
Another early challenge was the old communists in the government, who were very aggressive. They said, “Kaisha is selling the country’s secrets abroad for dollars,” and tried to keep me from sending my results to Europe and the U.S. One threatened to use the successor of the KGB to stop my work.
They couldn’t do too much since I worked with famous scientists. When they threatened me, it was like they were threatening the scientists. Those who were against my research back then now sometimes come to my seminars and receive certificates from the center.
How did you find out about the proposed law to lift the ban on the importation of nuclear waste into Kazakhstan?
In 2001, we received a confidential phone call from a government official telling us that KazAtomProm, the commercial branch of the Kazakh State Committee on Nuclear Energy, was secretly trying to pass a law that would allow nuclear waste to be imported into Kazakhstan. The law’s supporters said that the money would be used to help Kazakhstan deal with its own nuclear waste problems. We were angry that, despite the talk of glasnost and perestroika, such an important law was going ahead without discussion
How did EcoCenter block the passage of this law?
I first wrote a letter to all Kazakh social organizations in our paper, EcoPravda, suggesting that we conduct a mass campaign against the proposed law. I then asked for help from international organizations like Ecozashchita [a Russian environmental NGO], EvroAsia, the Soros Fund, OSCE [Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe], and Greenpeace Russia. Eventually, 60 NGOs joined together for this campaign.
The first year was the darkest. Since the law’s progress was kept secret, it was like fighting a shadow. The media were at the behest of government officials, and so paid no attention to us. It was then that we decided to work at the grassroots. “Let them not write about us,” we said. “We are closer to the people.”
The first thing we had to do was give out the correct information, including reasons why the law would not help Kazakhstan. Kazakhstan is a resource- rich country, and so we have other ways of improving our economy besides importing even more radioactive waste. Also, more nuclear contamination would deter international tourists from traveling to the country. Our final point was that, since corruption is widespread, no one could guarantee how the money from the nuclear waste would actually be spent.
We created an information booklet to give to regional leaders and local deputies. We held public hearings in all the big Kazakh cities and gathered signatures from people in over 100 cities. We had exhibitions where people could walk and see information and sign petitions. Every region decided how it would deal with the campaign, but we made sure they all had the same information.
We also provided sample letters for local people to send to officials, and leveraged a law guaranteeing that all letters to officials are answered within a month. Our last campaign was a fax attack just before New Year’s Day of 2003. Letters came from cities all over Kazakhstan, asking lawmakers how they would vote on the law.
The government backed down a month later.
What were some of the difficulties of organizing so many people and organizations?
Every time we met I said, “If we argue between ourselves, we will lose.” Thank God people were clever enough to realize that this was true.
There were moments early on when there was a divide. One group said that we had to stop the law altogether, but another group considered that an unachievable aim, and suggested that we instead lobby for more openness and transparency in the law.
I said that we cannot afford this second experiment. We told those who were in the second group that they did not have to show public support for our efforts to block the law. But we also asked them not to discuss their alternative strategy openly. It was important that our campaign be united against the law, rather than divided over our aims.
Your protest strategies have so far not involved public demonstrations or marches. Why do you stay away from these tactics?
During the time of the Soviet Union, people always went to protest on the street, and it often ended in violence. We try to use methods that don’t force people to face possible threats to their safety. Instead, we want to make the powers that be answer our serious questions through the courts, through petitions, through public opinion. In the KazAtomProm campaign, this tactic revealed that the lawmakers had no real answers or arguments. They were weak and confused.
How did you get funding for the EcoCenter?
Most of our funders found us, rather than the other way around. HIVOS from the Netherlands funded us for the last eight years, training us in organizational development. ISAR [the Institute for Soviet and American Relations: Resources for Environmental Activists] also helped us stay on our feet.
One of the biggest aids was a grant to me from the MacArthur Fund. It was $16,000, a huge sum. We had never even seen dollars before. We didn’t have currency exchanges or bank accounts. I had to fly to Moscow and open an account there.
Are there any Kazakh donors ?
There are no Kazakh donors, but we do have partners for the exchange of information. The best help is when people don’t interfere with us.