Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Kyrgyz Cannabis Boom as Tourist Trade Slumps

People living around Lake Issykkul say they have few options but to exploit the illegal narcotic growing on their doorstep.
By Cholpon Orozobekova

Cannabis has always been grown in the area around picturesque Lake Issykkul in northern Kyrgyzstan, but observers say production has boomed following the decline in the tourism industry because of political turbulence earlier this year.


The tourists – who mainly come from Russia and neighbouring Kazakstan, but also from further afield – have stayed away this year because of months of unrest that peaked on March 24 with the “tulip revolution” which ousted President Askar Akaev.


While the wave of demonstrations, about a variety of local concerns, continued after March, the threat of serious unrest has receded with establishment of a new administration and the election in July of Kurmanbek Bakiev as the country’s new president.


But outside Kyrgyzstan, the perception of instability appears to have deterred many of those who normally take their summer holidays in the resorts and sanatoria that dot the shores of the lake.


“There are only a third of the usual number of Western tourists, and the number of Kazak tourists has halved,” Svetlana Usubalieva, a representative of the Glavtour travel agency, told IWPR. “The only comforting factor is our own tourists from within Kyrgyzstan.”


Kubanychbek Isabekov, a member of parliament whose constituency is the Jetioguz district on the southeastern side of the lake, says the increase in cannabis growing has followed as a natural consequence, “It’s a result of the unsuccessful tourist season this year. The only chance residents in this province [Issykkul] get to make money is in the tourist season. People are tired out, and growing potatoes and garlic doesn’t bring them any money.”


Dealing in cannabis is a serious crime in Kyrgyzstan, and anyone caught processing or trafficking the drug could face a jail sentence of ten or even 20 years. But the problem facing law-enforcement officers is that the plant does not even need cultivation as it is indigenous to the area and grows prolifically. Kyrgyzstan’s Drug Control Agency estimates that cannabis grows on about 7,000 hectares of land in the Issykkul region alone – the equivalent of an area 260 by 260 kilometres.


In a sign that production has rocketed because of the slump in tourism, the Drug Control Agency reports that enforcement officers seized 310 kilogrammes of narcotics, the bulk of it cannabis, between January to August this year. That is just five kg less than the interior ministry says were confiscated in the whole of 2004. But narcotics experts say that actual production here is probably closer to 10 or 20 tonnes annually.


Sadyrbek Japarov, whose parliamentary seat is in Tup district at the eastern end of Lake Issykkul, says local people have few other options but to turn to narcotics production. “Children need clothes and shoes to go to school…. Where do the parents get money from if they’re unemployed?” he asked.


The story told by a woman called Anara living in the Aksuu district, next door to Japarov’s constituency, appeared to bear out the politician’s claims. “I made three matchboxes of hashish and sold them for 300 soms each [7.50 US dollars], and used the money to buy bags and school clothes for my children,” she told IWPR.


Japarov’s constituents have suffered particularly as this part of the shoreline sees fewer tourists than the popular north side. “Some of the locals used to be able to earn money by delivering food and drinks to the shore, but this year they weren’t able to do even this,” he said.


Kaparbek, a pensioner from the village of Keregetash in Aksuu district, has just packed his daughter off to college in the capital Bishkek. He is funding her education by the 20 days he spent collecting cannabis to sell.


“This year we couldn’t earn money from the tourists, as there were so few of them,” he explained unapologetically. “Every year I used to go to Cholponata to earn money, but this year there have been few tourists and there’s no work.”


A young man called Nurlan who worked in the illicit trade for similarly altruistic reasons - funding his sister’s studies for three years - explained the practicalities of processing cannabis plant into blocks of marijuana, “You need to collect the resin from the cannabis leaves on the palm of your hand by moving it lengthways.


“We call one such layer of resin gathered on your palm a ‘chocolate’. You need to rub for about half an hour to collect it, and it takes three or four ‘chocolates’ to fill a matchbox.”


In the last four or five years, people have become more and more blatant about their involvement. At peak season, when the cannabis plants ripen in early August, entire families turn out to gather the crop. As one a local man told IWPR, once the leaves are stripped off the plants, the plants will ripen again for a second harvest at the end of August or in early September.


“It’s very hard work. So to make sure the work goes more quickly, everyone gets involved, from children to the elderly,” said Mairam, a woman from Tup. “It takes at least two hours’ work to fill one matchbox.”


One woman from Aksuu district who gave her first name as Ayjamal said, “During the day we note where cannabis is growing, and after dark we sneak back there and rub [the leaves] between our hands until morning.”


She added that more and more women are involved in the harvesting, in part because they are less likely to by suspected by police. “It’s safer for us,” she said.


Sometimes villagers find wild cannabis has sprouted in their gardens. Then they have two choices – to uproot the plants before the police spot them, or to sell it on to a dealer, in which case they get to keep half of the marijuana packed into matchboxes.


Prices are going up, with one matchbox-full of resin – the standard unit – changing hands locally for 300-350 soms, between 7.50 and nine dollars, compared with 100 to 150 soms two or three years ago. But once it is trafficked out of the Issykkul area, the prices start multiplying. The interior ministry says the same matchbox will have a street value of 25 or 30 dollars elsewhere in Kyrgyzstan, and 280 to 300 dollars in Russia.


Timur Isakov, a narcotics expert working for the Drug Control Agency, says the inflation is mainly due to an increase in drug use within Kyrgyzstan. “About 35 or 40 per cent of the drugs produced in Issykkul stay in Kyrgyzstan,” he said. “That implies a very large increase in the number of local consumers.”


Turatbek Orozakunov, who heads the interior ministry’s counter-narcotics department, believes foreign demand also plays a part, because marijuana from Issykkul is held in high esteem by users because of its potency.


Law-enforcement agencies complain they have far too few resources to tackle the trade, especially when an attempted arrest results in violence.


“We don’t have the basic conditions we need to do the job,” said Isakov from the Drug Control Agency. “The [Issykkul] regional counter-narcotics department, for example, has only four officers. How can those four control an entire region? The Aksuu district has just two counter-narcotics officers.”


For the police, Orozakunov said officers on monthly salaries of about 2,000 soms, 50 dollars, had little incentive to risk they lives.


“Our work is very dangerous, people can shoot us at night and flee,” he said. “There’s no incentive for our officers - officers who seize a consignment of heroin or opium, classified as hard drugs, are awarded small bonuses, but they get nothing for a hashish seizure, however bit it is.”


Local people say some policemen are susceptible to bribery. “If you give the police 1,000 soms [20 dollars] immediately after you’re arrested, you’ll walk free,” said Janybek, a resident of Aksuu district. “If you don’t, you will have to give them a cow, a horse, or 1,000 dollars.”


Things can turn ugly when the harvesters take weapons along to fend off police raids.


Orozakunov said local people commonly carry knives and sometimes guns. Two of his men were seriously injured when they were stabbed while attempting to arrest cannabis harvesters last autumn. But he noted that although the villagers have firearms, they have so far used them only to “shoot into the air to scare the police officers”.


A young man who gave his name as Asangazy admitted that he had been involved in skirmishes with police, although he said he and his friends only carried sticks. Like many rural Kyrgyz, they travel on horseback.


“Once there were about ten of us and we had to do a runner,” he recalled. “A policeman dragged one lad out of the saddle and chased after the rest of us. When he was about to grab another one, I shouted out, ‘Hey, Aman, shoot him! Who’ll ever know who killed him? Go on, shoot him!’ But we didn’t really have any weapons. The policeman got scared and left us alone. So I saved my friend.”


The Issykkul region’s most important economic asset is the large gold mine at Kumtor. Local people have taken to using the name for their other precious, if slightly less legal, form of wealth.


“No one round here calls it dope,” said Tup resident Mairambek. “We say that we’re going out for Kumtor, or that someone has Kumtor in his garden.”


Cholpon Orozobekova is an IWPR contributor in Kyrgyzstan.