Maria Kolesnikova
Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan
head of the environmental organization "MoveGreen"
(Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan)
Maria, for how long have you been working in an environmental organization?
I came to the organization in 2015 as a volunteer. I had another job; my background is completely non-ecological; I worked in communications, PR rather, and worked in non-governmental organizations. In 2011, an ecologist named Catherine Hall came to Kyrgyzstan; I met her on a trip to Issyk-Kul. I did not really understand what she was doing, what environmental problems there could be. Catherine inspired and motivated me so much that I, not even fully understanding what all these environmental initiatives were, decided to volunteer. It all started with a strong impression: Cate and I went to the Osh bazaar, and she would politely tell everyone there, "I don't need a plastic bag, I don't need it," and it seemed to me that it was absurd, because so what that they give you plastic bags? Then we talked a lot, she said, "You have such a beautiful nature, but there's trash everywhere, because all this is free, so you don't appreciate it." It was a kind of revelation for me. A little later, Catie, again, showed me some photographs by her foreign friend who had taken pictures of Bishkek in September 2014. Bishkek was not visible in those pictures. And it amazed me so much. I asked, "What is it?" Back then, no-one was talking about smog, no-one understood what it was over the city and how dangerous it was for one's health. And when I would talk to some colleagues from other organizations, it was surprising that many of them, who are now my friends and promote environmental legislative initiatives together with me, told me back then, "No, don't even think about using the word 'smog,' because we do not have smog, it's simply impossible in Bishkek." I guess it was a challenge, a desire to understand, and interest. Then we wrote our first project and got a grant. Now, our activities have become very focused on air quality.
Maria, did I understand you correctly that environmental awareness is not a self-generated thing, that it needs to be promoted?
I believe in storytelling, in success stories. We run seven-day schools, and they have shown that the success of one person can inspire others. In their motivation letters, the participants of our school often say that they would like to join like-minded people. When you find yourself in the right environment and when someone motivates you, you start to think and act in a completely different way.
Representatives of four countries of the region are taking part in the Air project; have you seen any intersection points? How similar are our situations?
In general, everything is very similar. It all depends on the government, which is not ready to make decisions in favor of improving the environmental situation; everyone works outdated ways. For example, our participant from Uzbekistan works in an industrial city. No-one talks about adopting greener technologies there or about switching to a green economy; everything works in old ways. All that can be fought for at this stage is the installation of filters on the main polluting objects. The same is in Tajikistan. In general, I would say that our problems are the same: worse in some aspects, better in others, again, because somewhere, for example in Almaty, activists started acting earlier. In Tajikistan, there is still no movement or organization that deals with air quality; nor in Uzbekistan, but slowly, gradually, small progress begins. People are beginning to understand that there is a problem, that it must be solved, and that it's primarily about the value of health.
What sources of information did you use when writing the material? What problems did you face?
Since we are working in this sphere, we know who officially monitors air quality in Kyrgyzstan: it's Kyrgyzhydromet; we also work closely with partners in Kazakhstan, so there were no problems with requests. Of course, there is a problem in the quality of the data provided and in the form of data presentation. Our data is different from that from Kazakhstan, for example, in terms of quality: it is more developed there; there are a lot of stations, and they are quite modern, so you can get a lot of data there. We were given data only from the automatic station because it's the only one that measures PM 2.5, and we decided to focus on these measurements in our material. Data is generally not easy to find; moreover, if you find it, you need to pay for it.
What data do you need to pay for?
We wanted to compare not only air quality data but also respiratory diseases in Bishkek. I made a request to the eHealth Center (EHC), where they gave me free information. Hydromet did not provide data in the form we needed, so I made a more detailed request to the National Statistical Committee, and from there, I received a message that this information could be provided for a fee.
How much does it cost?
Two hundred soms per page. We needed 200 pages. This is a serious amount: almost 15 thousand soms ($220). And no-one guarantees that the information will be presented in the form that we need. Our colleagues from Tajikistan and Uzbekistan had the same situation.
Wait, what about the Open Data Law? Isn't this information of public importance?
We have the Aarhus Convention, according to which we are entitled to this data as it's related to the environment and our health. And the National Statistical Committee charges money, as it were, not for information, but for the fact that they process it. Two years ago, we took their processed information, but in the form in which they provide it, it was almost impossible to work with this information. I would not want to pay for such data.
Where did you find the hero?
I made an announcement on Facebook because I knew there would be a response. I saw in my feed townspeople's statements about the air, a discussion of this topic. Many attributed the deterioration of their health to the poor environmental situation and wrote, "In Bishkek, during the heating season, I suffocate. As soon as I leave the city, I begin to breathe." I knew that there would be many who would like to speak up. In the end, we found a family who talked to us and showed us their life. I spent a lot of time with the heroine; she was open, her whole family was open, they showed me everything in their house, I mean the coal, the stove, where they keep what. We were able to film and photograph everything. The heroine honestly admitted that she did not know how to alter the situation but was ready to participate because she was worried about the health of her child.
Did you change your opinion on any issues after this interview?
No. We have worked with people more than once, and I know that people now cannot afford to switch to gas because they have a very difficult economic situation. I saw more terrifying situations when I went to eco-control inspections. We walked around the single-family home area and saw houses being heated with scraps of synthetic fabric (waste from sewing workshops). These people would say things like, "Do what you want, we won't pay any fines, we won't change anything, we cannot do it any other way, we have no other opportunities."
In your material, there are eco-cards; what are these and what for?
When we were picturing what the long read's layout would look like, we wanted to diversify it somehow. We saw that there would be something similar from other countries. When everyone was interviewed, we realized that all of our heroes were also very similar. They have similar problems and the same worldview. We wanted to address our heroes directly. This can be done easily and unobtrusively. We decided that we would do it through cards. This appeal to heroes is an educational component of our project.
In your article, the expert is a doctor; considering your experience in summer, when doctors were forbidden to give comments and people were fired for talking too much, how did you manage to involve him in this topic?
I've wanted to interview this person for a very long time. He is an out-of-staff pulmonologist of the Kyrgyz Republic Ministry of Health, a person who is engaged in science. He was also part of a team that dealt with indoor air pollution. There is a study on it. I read it, and I knew for a long time who to contact. Once, we crossed paths with him on one of the television programs. I had a short talk with him and saw that he was very open. When we came to him for an interview, he had a scientific conference via Zoom in English; he was taking an active part in it, but he found time for us, too.
In your story, data is presented in the form of infographics: is it because it's trendy?
Because it is convenient. Data is a talking thing. Today, for many, this is a new trend; people no longer want to read texts, but they study these graphs that can be compared, viewed by seasons, played with. We give them a kind of a toy, a Rubik's cube to solve. People have a lot of stereotypes. Once, when we just installed sensors at the intersection of Molodaya Gvardiya and Bokonbaev streets, there was a person who did sports there, jogged in the mornings, and he told us, "I jog here in the morning because the air is cleanest in the morning." But when we looked at the data, everything turned out to be the opposite! By seven in the morning, the largest amount of harmful substances accumulates there. People burn fuels in their houses, and the wind from the single-family home area brings all this there to the lowlands; because of the cold, nothing is ventilated out; smog and hazardous emissions remained there until sunrise. Data is evidence that helps us see non-obvious things.
What was the most important thing for you in this project?
The result, of course, is what makes me feel good. This is the first work like this that has united the region, although not the entire one, but our four countries for sure. We found each other, found like-minded people, and we will be able to continue to share our experience; this media project is the first step for further cooperation in the field of air quality. It is very inspiring to think that we will continue to work, we will continue to share our experience. That is, I really hope for such a relationship, and I am warmed by the thought that, in the future, we will create a hub or a communication platform at the level of four countries to promote joint initiatives. It is very important to know that you are not alone, that there are experts like this. It's important for me. I have hopes for this project; I have hopes for further partnership.
Diana Svetlichnaya
project mentor
Maria Kazakova
design, layout
The project is implemented by n-ost (Germany) and the International Center for Journalism MediaNet (Kazakhstan) in partnership with the Center for Media Development (Kyrgyzstan), and the editorial offices of Anhor.uz (Uzbekistan) and Asia-Plus (Tajikistan), as well as the online magazine Vlast (Kazakhstan) with the support of the Federal Ministry of Economic

Cooperation and Development of Germany.
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