Muazama Burkhanova
environmental organization "Foundation to Support Civil Initiatives" FSCI, Dastgirie-Center
For how long have you been working in an environmental organization?
Since 1995. Everything was falling apart back then; we had a difficult war. Before that, I worked at the Academy of Sciences, headed the department of energy and water problems, and defended my Ph.D. thesis in Russia. Many of my colleagues were leaving the country then, fleeing the war. We, in turn, created the "Foundation to Support Civil Initiatives." We have a wide range of interests, we help people in different fields and, of course, we deal with environmental issues. We understand that our country needs changes; this is very important, but now we are stagnant. Most of the population are passive and patient people; "as long as there is no war" is their main priority.
What problems in Tajikistan do you consider the most urgent today?
We have a lot of problems. People call and text me every day, telling me about their problems: what to do with waste, why are there problems with water, what's with the air? We provide informational and consulting support; they trust us; we are well-known in the country.
What are the most appealing examples of your organization's work that you can give?
We are dealing with water problems, participating in the development of documents related to the policies of public organizations; now, we have seriously approached the problem of climate change. We have a network of NGOs working on adaptation to climate change, and we are discussing renewable energy sources. To do specific things, you need money. We are rather doing information work. Also, we have well-established analytical expert work. I am often engaged as an expert in various projects.
Are the citizens of Tajikistan worried about environmental problems?
They are if they are affected personally. Recently, I got a call from the Pamirs; people complained and asked to solve water problems; a call from the Rasht district, where they have a problem with waste; a call from Dushanbe, where an area suffers from emissions. There are a lot of small workshops in the capital now, you know, private ones. All of them are engaged in the processing of iron, and it produces a lot of pollution; emissions of heavy metals and harmful substances go into the air. They also burn plastic. The population suffers greatly from this, they call us, ask what to do, they talk, they write letters to all authorities, but no one responds to them. Recently, I got a call from Parkhor—it's a place on the border with Afghanistan—they said that bees are dying en masse there, and this has been happening for many years. Desperate beekeepers ask what to do. They already know perfectly well why all this is happening: as soon as the fields are sprayed with pesticides, they immediately experience a massive death of bees. I tell them to come here; we will write letters to all the authorities together, we will publish a letter with photographs and signatures on our website. What else can I do? Due to the pandemic, I was stuck in the city for the whole summer; usually, I leave: I cannot be here in the heat because I depend very much on the air, on what I breathe. While I was here, I wrote an article on air quality in Dushanbe, many people read it, the central magazine Khabar reprinted it, so did our republican newspaper, then radio Ozodi turned to me for an interview. Everyone supported me, called me, told me how important it was to raise this topic. We are not used to such activism; people are afraid to speak out loud.
And what are people afraid of?
We have no freedom of speech. Letters at the local level can be written as much as you like; they either come back or someone can come from some ministry in response to a letter and ask ambiguously, "What are you unhappy about?" People, of course, are afraid; nobody wants problems.
What's the situation with open data in Tajikistan? Where did you go for information?
I turned to the Hydrometeorological Service to collect data on air pollution. This is done for a fee, it is delayed, and questions arise about what it's for and so on. There was no time to wait, so I turned to an old colleague who works with the environmental department. He found all the necessary data for me. I also turned to experts. And most importantly—to ordinary people who could become the heroes of the material.
Where did you look for a hero?
In Dushanbe, in the Pervy Sovetsky microdistrict, there is a mahalla; the head of the mahalla is a woman; I went to her, and we talked a lot about the problems of the city, about air pollution. First, she agreed to an interview, and we even agreed on the exact time, but then she refused. I met with other residents of this mahalla, and they all talked about their long-term problem of polluted air, told me how many letters and petitions they had written; their leaders are mostly women; they have been fighting for a long time, trying to fight these emissions. At night, it is simply impossible to breathe there: the walls of their houses are black, the gardens are dying. They struggled with this problem for a long time but to no avail. Small and medium-sized businesses pay taxes, no-one will close them, and the fact that people cannot breathe does not particularly bother anyone. Today, the inhabitants of this area are in fear; women are forbidden to speak by men. We go into one house, and the woman seems ready to say something, and the man upstairs, the son of this woman, shouts, "I told you, mother, do not give any interviews. Stop it, don't, it's useless."
That is, they did not give an interview not because they were afraid but because they thought it would be useless?
Both. They thought it would be useless, and they were under pressure. I went to the territory of the plant to talk to the workers. I asked them what they thought about the heavy air around, and I even tried to shame them for killing all living things with their work. They replied, "If they don't like it, let them leave." Nobody wants to lose their jobs. They hold on to these meager salaries, which are 500 to 600 somoni ($ 50-70) per month. They hold on to them with all their might. The most difficult situation. It hurts to talk about it.
What do you think is the best way to convey to the population the idea that we all share the same air?
The population understands everything perfectly. The barbecue houses in the microdistrict are family businesses; there are only chimneys around, they're all smoking, there is already its own microzone with all these smells that no longer fade away. Those who live there see everything and understand everything. If these people had an opportunity to go to another place, they would leave, but they have no money for this. Many of the residents of the microdistrict also work there. For them, this is at least some money. Understanding what's in the air is one thing, but living in poverty is another. Poverty and misery give rise to slavish behavior; everyone is silent, and they agree to everything. It hurts, but it's a fact.
What do you think about the dissemination of environment-related information on social media? Will it be effective in Tajikistan?
The advanced part of Tajik society is all on social media, but most citizens have neither knowledge nor opportunities. We also have a very bad and expensive Internet connection. Our entire Internet goes through the government; that is, the government buys the Internet and then distributes it to companies; we are the only country in the world that has managed to do this. The Internet is used mainly in cities; these are progressive youth, government officials—a small part of society. The rest just cannot afford the Internet. Of course, I would very much like the Internet to become available to everyone. We could work more effectively.
In your opinion, in what language will the material on air quality in Central Asia be read by more people, Russian or Tajik?
In Russian, because communication on social media, as far as I can see, is mainly in Russian. Almost all progressive and social media people in Tajikistan speak Russian.
What were the most difficult and the most enjoyable things about this project?
The difficult thing was that I had never been involved in journalism; for me, it all was the first time. I had never been on social media; I did not have time for this. And then, I was forced to delve into everything on my own; I had no assistants. It was quite difficult for me, but at the same time, it is an important new skill; I learned a lot, and it turned out that it wasn't so scary. Now I am on Facebook; it turned out that there are many interesting things. I saw what a useful tool it is; I will use it. A lot of new information. I am learning all these journalistic tricks from you. This project stimulated me to get involved in a more active information life; I used to run away from this. A lot of information comes from everywhere, a lot of different programs. It was pleasant to expand connections, to have an opportunity to do something useful.
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 (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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