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

Uzbekistan: New Gold Rush Offers Poor Prospects

Penniless Uzbek farmers are trying to eke out a living by searching for gold dust in abandoned Soviet-era mines.
By Artur Samari

Every day, the residents of Kizilch and Nurot, once famous for their livestock and animal husbandry, head for the nearby mountains. Continuous drought and government directives to replace fodder acreage with cotton and grain crops have decimated a once lucrative industry, so the 8000 Navoi province villagers have reinvented themselves as gold miners.


They are working abandoned mines in the nearby Zarafshan valley, which were more or less exhausted during the Soviet era. There is a rigid division of labour. Young men dig pits and remove the soil and sand, then women, children and older people pan the sand for specks of gold.


The mining is hard work. "We usually dig a pit of about five or six - but sometimes up to 14 - metres deep, which takes about a week," said miner Khamza Ruzmetov. "From a pit that size, we extract about 100 buckets of sand a day. The prospects of finding gold are by no means certain. You need to pan about two tonnes of sand to find one gram of gold."


The average miner extracts no more than 5 grams of gold a month, which makes them the equivalent of around 45 US dollars. "We sell to intermediaries who resell it at a profit to jewellers or dentists in town," said Ruzmetov.


Like most of his neighbours, Ruzmetov did not work as a miner when the gold mines were first worked. Until a few years ago, he owned an animal farm with 70 sheep, but was forced to sell most of his herd to feed his family. Gold mining offers the only alternative to working at the local collective farm or kolkhoz.


Uzbekistan still upholds a Soviet law whereby gold prospecting is the sole preserve of the state. Illegal prospectors face a fine or up to three years in prison if caught, but the miners say that in the last two or three years the authorities have given up trying to enforce the law.


In the Kushrabad district of Samarkand province, where old gold mines are also being worked, community assemblies made an attempt to crack down in 2000.


An illegal miner was tried and sentenced to three years in prison, but with no other means of survival, the punishment did little to deter other villagers from prospecting. Finally, the authorities left the miners alone, realising they had no alternative employment to offer and fearing social unrest if they arrested more miners.


"The authorities must have realised that threats will accomplish nothing," said one gold miner, a former teacher. "I'll suffer anything to feed my children."


Some, such as geologist Hakim Tillyaev, believe that since the government has no other jobs to offer, it should at least legalise gold mining, so that it is viewed as a regular private enterprise. But with little immediate prospect of legalisation, the miners continue to lead a twilight existence, working illegally while the state turns a blind eye.


The age-old dangers of gold mining are ever present, with young miners particularly vulnerable to accidents in their eagerness to dig ever faster.


But in an unofficial, unregulated industry, the victims of accidents are invisible. "Four or five people were killed recently by an earth fall in Hanbandy," said veteran miner Vladimir Yezhov. "No one knows how many died in total. No one keeps these kinds of statistics."


Artur Samari is an independent journalist in Uzbekistan