Kazakstan's Million Dollar Scrap

The grey-market metal trade costs people their lives and the country millions of dollars.

Kazakstan's Million Dollar Scrap

The grey-market metal trade costs people their lives and the country millions of dollars.

Dmitri is a drug addict. A former telecomms company employee, he knows just where to find the old wires and cables he sells to feed his habit. Every morning he and his brother Denis scout around Almaty's northern industrial zone with their hand-held cart hoping to pick up enough scrap to sell for their next fix.

"Our biggest success", said Dmitri, "was stealing an old generator. A hundred kilos of pure copper got us enough cash to get high for a month." Which works out at four US dollars, or four kilos of copper, a hit.

The brothers are two members of Kazakstan's "army of collectors". Each day, thousands of people comb dumps, building sites and factories for scrap metal, which they sell on to recyclers. Local newspapers report endlessly on the hundreds of looted car parts, the thousands of metres of stolen cable. Even army bases, usually considered fairly secure facilities, get ripped off. Anything is fair quarry.

Some analysts believe that this shadow economy could be costing the economy up to 100 million US dollars a year.

With such a figure in mind, it is not surprising that Kazaks - employed as well as unemployed - are rifling through the dumps. The loot is there for the asking. Kazakhstan itself is rich in metals and the Central Asian region as a whole has reserves of gold, copper, aluminium, nickel and lead.

Precious metals were readily used for electronic equipment during the Soviet era. "Soviet computers contain 20-30 times more precious metal than their western equivalents," said engineer Rustam Nuriev. Adverts now appear in national newspapers for Soviet-era electronics, and searches are organised for old equipment containing gold and other precious metals. This brings a return of 500-1000 per cent after the required metals are removed and sold. For many, this is their only source of income.

One military communications officer worked this to his advantage when he discovered scrapped military equipment was laced with gold and platinum. He claimed that, in one year, he had extracted enough precious metals to buy a small shop following his discharge from the army.

In the main, the metal, wherever it comes from, goes the route from collector to wholesaler and then onto China for recycling. According to one national newspaper, "senior officials in the border regions near China have a great interest in the 'black' export of ferrous metals."

The authorities are understandably concerned about the income bypassing the country's coffers. The lack of state controls over the trade in metals means that bribes continue to ease the traffic over the border to China. The wholesalers operate illegal networks of scrap yards beyond the reach of Kazak tax authorities. And some regional authorities close their eyes to the export of illegally collected metal in exchange for bribes. According to Serik Baimutov at the Department of Communications "the collectors lose the state revenue and are committing sabotage".

The second major problem is that thieves risk the lives of both themselves and others. Filching cables can lead to severe electric shocks and one unfortunate collector came across spent shell cases on an army firing range and was killed by when one exploded.

Those underground collectors who specialise in extracting precious metals are also face serious health risks, since components are rinsed in highly corrosive chemicals to dissolve unwanted metals. "Breathing nitrogen sulphate vapour for one hour a day whilst extracting precious metals will kill an otherwise healthy person in a year," according to one toxicologist. And it is the homeless and unemployed inhaling the deadly fumes who are dying slow, painful deaths to earn a living.

Thieves also risk the lives of others when pinching safety equipment. Train drivers often have had to curtail their journeys because of cannibalised safety equipment; villages have been left without electricity after cables have been whipped away; soldiers sometimes find themselves patrolling the markets looking for spare parts from equipment lifted by colleagues. If nothing else, the purloining of cables, safety equipment and other such property highlights the risks to people's lives due to inefficient policing.

The illicit metal trade will continue to claim victims until the government maps out a coherent policy to deal with this shadow trade. Various solutions have been suggested. One idea proposed by ecologists is to set up small modern businesses which would tackle all the problems in one go. Safe, monitored enterprises would make the trade transparent: customs could chart the traffic and people wouldn't needlessly endanger their lives. According to ecologist Alexei Ananiev, "if the state takes control, fatalities will be avoided and the treasury filled with revenue"

Although it is impossible to guard every metre of cable or each old radio, dedicated, mobile police groups have been set up in Baikonur to catch locals roaming the steppes for metal fragments and to confiscate takings. Sometimes, the justice meted out seems somewhat unequal to the petty larceny being targeted. Two soldiers got six and two year prison sentences earlier this year for stealing boxes of spare parts for which they received the grand total of five US dollars and a loaf of bread.

Eduard Poletaev is a regular IWPR contributor.

China, Kazakstan
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