Anthropogenic Environments in the Future Tense: Living and Narrating Change in Kazakhstan's Mining Towns

Project: CRP

Project Details

Grant Program

Collaborative Research Program 2021-2023

Project Description

As conditions of the global climate crisis and resource conflicts worsen, the world has begun a protracted and multi-faceted shift, toward reducing environmental impact, as well as toward developing renewable sources of energy. As a young nation, Kazakhstan has had to rely on natural resource extraction to build its economy, a model begun when the country was a Soviet Republic. Now, however, in the wake of a crumbling Soviet infrastructure, and in the face of an impending shift from an extraction-based economy toward new energy and income alternatives in Kazakhstan, many former industrial and mining communities across the country have experienced significant social transformation: how do local communities make sense of their own shift from being a (post) Soviet resource town, toward a new future?

Communities that were once prestigious sites of infrastructural development, employment, and technological investment especially during the Soviet and early post-Soviet periods, must now shift course in the face of a clean energy future, must redefine livelihood for local communities, and must also reckon with the environmental consequences of prolonged extraction. But equally we may ask, is such a projected shift actually happening? Does the experience of local communities at mining sites match the rhetoric of the national government? How do local mining communities understand their role in a changing society, and their relationship to the environment and to the natural world?

There is a basic contradiction at industrialized mining sites: while these projects become a centralized focus of activity, livelihood, and social life for most residents, they are also often contributing to the pollution of the immediate environment, and thus jeopardize well-being in other ways. How do local residents understand what it means to live under such conditions? This project addresses this topic from an anthropological perspective, which means the issues in a holistic and ground-up manner, and this research asks several key questions:

In historical perspective, what have been the major material and symbolic benefits of life in mining areas?

What are the central forms of sociocultural and geographic order engendered by such long-term projects?

How have local environments changed, as a result of extraction projects, and how do local residents understand or make sense of that change?

How do regional communities respond to national rhetoric of a shift to cleaner energy and increased environmental protections, and how do they envision development?

Based on their own experience and understanding, what ideas do Kazakhstan’s residents have, for the future social and ecological worlds they wish to inhabit?

This project has been designed to understand local ecologies of environmental change, resources, and futures across different locations in Kazakhstan, from an anthropological perspective (Ballard, 2003). We propose to conduct ethnographic fieldwork at comparative sites in Kazakhstan: our three primary sites are located within Kazakhstan’s main centers of industrialization and extraction: Öskemen, in the Northeast, Karaganda, in the Central region, and Tekeli in Southeastern Kazakhstan. We propose to do ethnographic fieldwork across the three sites, which includes multiple site visitations, interviews with local residents and experts, community and geological mapping, collection of GPS data that will be used to create a GIS system for the three sites and the collection of stories, oral histories, and narratives at the sites. Studies of resource extraction in Kazakhstan have rarely focused on the impacts for the human and natural world, nor on a localized comparative perspective, of what these issues mean for the people who actually live them.

In our publication and dissemination of the research we would wish to foreground that local point of view, and its place in the environmental history of Central Asia and the former Soviet Union (cf Breyfogle 2018, Moon 2017). But just as communities in Kazakhstan would have specific understandings and responses to social and environmental identity and change over time, the fact remains that this is not unique to any one site in the country or region, but rather part of the global story of the role of industrialized energy resources and the extractive economy, in the history of modernist development (cf Brown 2004, 2013). Thus this history is meant not only to describe a process of ongoing social and environmental change in Kazakhstan today, but also to link that transformation to the broader study of energy and environmental futures in the anthropocene (Jacka 2018; Szeman and Boyer, 2017).


Kazakhstan is located in both the socio-political geographies of the former Soviet Union, and Central or Inner Eurasia. This region has historically faced a series of intersecting imperial expansions, and with the exception of the Uighur oases in Xinjiang, most of this region was also part of the Soviet Union until its disassembly – Kazakhstan declared its independence in 1991. Much anthropological research on environmental issues in the country to date has focused on disaster areas created by Soviet land use projects such as nuclear weapons development (Kassenova 2009, Werner et. al, Stawkowski 2016, 2017), the devastating impacts of forced collectivization on nomadic populations and life ways (Cameron 2018), and the Aral Sea disaster (Wheeler 2018), and their continued impact on local populations. The country is home to one of the largest open coal mines of the former Soviet Union in Karaganda (cf Keskula 2018) and many other mining objects, including petroleum and natural gas, metals, and minerals including gold, iron, and uranium at other sites including Öskemen and Tekeli. The mining sector accounts for over a fifth of the country’s annual GDP, is subject to environmental regulation under Kazakhstani law, but like other massive infrastructual projects, also contributes to deteriorating environmental conditions (Mahmood and Orazalin, 2017; Russell et. al. 2018). In light of this history, as well as due to? the existence of popular mobilizations around environmental sovereignty in the country (Buxton 2011; Dubuisson forthcoming; Schatz 1999; Werner and Purvis Roberts 2006, 2015; cf Agyeman 2009), in its “Strategy 2050” plan of governance, Kazakhstan has announced a new largescale shift to renewable energy.

There is thus an urgent need for additional research on the experiences and management of local sites of resource extraction at this time: is it the case that the logics of extraction are replicated from the Soviet period in these areas or are these projects a continuation of past exploitation? Are there other sources of additional commentary, alternatives, regulation, or change? How do temporal aspects of resource extraction (e.g. its past-ness in case of a closed mine, aspirations or fears of future use; cf Onneweer 2014) play into the narratives of those living in these places (cf Ferry and Limbert 2008)? Martinez-Alier (2002) has alerted us to the often contradictory and conflicting notions of legitimate resource entitlements, the distribution their respective burdens and benefits, and the scalar and temporal aspects of resource exploitation and environmentalism. Who participates in making decisions about site management and outcomes? Previous ethnographic research in Central Asia and elsewhere has demonstrated that largescale resource sites have usually become spaces of contestation between local communities, citizen activist groups, and various levels of government leadership, over who benefits from these projects, whether sites should be nationalized, how citizens can have a say in the future economic development of their country, and how to protect the natural world (cf Aitpaeva 2006, Arsel et al. 2015, Evren 2014, Feaux de la Croix 2016, Leuze 2014, Wooden 2013, Wooden et al. 2016)? Are local populations aware of, and if so, how do they assess long-term effects of different kinds of resource use (cf Nixon 2011)? This echoes research in the environmental anthropology of energy in Russia, which has demonstrated that the politics of resource management always dovetails with local conceptions of geography and place (Graybill 2007, 2013; Shayakmetov 2017, 2019). How do new generations of local citizens understand their relationships to these large-scale projects?

The question of governance emerges clearly in these discussions, as one primary arena for the negotiation of not only of public policy, but for the reconciliation of local and national priorities in environmental decision making (Vakulchuk and Overland 2018; Weinthal 2002a, 2002b). There has already been a concrete effort specifically at sites including Öskemen and Tekeli, to expand and promote an informed local governance, for the control of natural resource extraction (Nurusheva 2014). It is also necessary to understand that energy and natural resource management is also often a transnational project – as is the case between Kazakhstan and Russia (Koch and Tynkkynen 2019). However, such policy negotiations are not always successful; given the dominant economic interests of extraction projects, there is always the risk that these contestations will not be transparent (Moldalieva and Heathershaw 2020), or that public discourses of community cooperation and sustainable development can mask ongoing exploitation and imbalances of power (Kirsch 2010). Ethnographic research, established from the ground up and rooted in people’s own understanding of broad level processes, can provide a detailed description and analysis of site management, participation, and transformation over time.


This project will advance our understanding on the shifting and often uneasy relationship between resource valuation, identity and place making, and economic, social and environmental concerns. By bringing together empirical findings from anthropological fieldwork, archival research, GIS mapping and geological data analysis, this project promises novel insights into life worlds, aspirations for the future and hopes of local populations in some of the environmentally most burdened, yet also economically indispensable places in Kazakhstan. Taking up this topic from a multidisciplinary angle will allow us to trace developments through time, make changes in the natural, built and social environment visible and further our understanding of how place and personhood inform each other. We view our different disciplinary backgrounds as mutual enrichment that will deepen our understanding of both topic and work towards a more integrated collaboration between the sciences, social sciences and humanities that has repeatedly been called for but is still rare (see e.g. Di Cosmo 2018). The project furthermore speaks to several, ongoing discussions in anthropology that are detailed below. In none of these, Central Asia as a region has been treated with much attention so far.

It has been acknowledged since the beginning of resource-related anthropological research that resource valuation originates from and is intricately linked to notions of the future, in the often-quoted dictum of Erich Zimmermann (1933), “resources are not: they become”. This notion of ongoing (re-)valuation and negotiations of different aspirations towards resources is most pertinent to our proposed research: All of our research sites are transitional in the sense of being (sometimes abruptly) forced to “become”, to carve out new economic, infrastructural, social and cultural identities. The resource-human-environment nexus has come to the anthropological focus at the threshold to the twenty-first century (cf Ballard and Banks 2003, Ferguson 1999). Novel contributions have been made to accommodate local conceptualizations and taxonomies of the world (cf Dagyeli 2020), and to account for the permanent and ongoing but for the most part unconscious hybridization between nature and culture (termed NaturesCultures by Bruno Latour 1993 and others).

Sites like Karaganda, Öskemen and Tekeli with their historical background as mining and industrial towns experienced a critical time during the 1990s with faltering industries and collapsing infrastructure. This not only left their inhabitants vulnerable to volatile means of earing their livelihoods but touched the very core of local identity (cf Trevisani 2015) in a socio-cultural setting where urbanity epitomizes civilization, modernity, culturedness and wellbeing (see Laszczkowski 2016, 45, 178). At the same time, the enormous environmental costs of resource extraction and processing became visible to a wider public and it became – within certain limits – possible to speak about them. This entails questions of environmental justice as well as notions of Deleuze’s and Guattari’s “becoming of” alternative livelihoods and identities (see Biehl and Locke 2017, 42). How are local populations making sense of their own social histories, changing identities, and possible futures in the ruins of deep environmental damage?

Choosing towns with historical and ongoing mining operations as field sites, this project explicitly addresses current anthropological concerns with “living in the ruins of capitalism” in a multispecies world (see Tsing 2015, Haraway 2016). To this growing body of literature, our project will add two main, hitherto neglected aspects: 1. A Central Asian (and, by extension, Eurasian) perspective (cf Breyfogle 2018; see also Moon 2017 for the marginalization of this large region in global environmental history), and 2. a critical intervention into the Capitalocene discourse (Moore 2016) by exploring places that are more fractured, multifaceted than those case studies that inform prevalent theoretical considerations, namely places at the junction of socialist state-directed, capitalist and neoliberal economies. Exploring local aspirations, sentiments and valuations of resource use, environment, identity and conceptualizations of a “good life” will enable us to intervene in the emerging field of affective resource politics (cf Montgomery 2013, Weszkalnys 2016) and enrich a wider theoretical discussion with hitherto underrepresented insights from Central Asian empirical data.

Through a deliberate move beyond an “ethnography of decline” (Ferguson 1999) or what Sherry Ortner has termed “dark anthropology” (Ortner 2016), this project will also contribute to giving voice to socio-ecological alternatives and their possible emancipatory potential. In the face of ongoing dominant discourses on ecological crisis and catastrophes, it is crucial that anthropology moves beyond scenarios of decline, destruction and depression. What are the (potentially conflicting) views of local actors concerning their collective and individual memory of their place(s) in the past and present, and how do they envision them for the future? What are the conjunctures between economic, infrastructural, social and moral valuations in the “becoming” or “not becoming” of natural resources (see Lange et al. 2016)?


Our multidisciplinary approach that will bring together anthropological perspectives with geodata will bring environmental studies in Central Asia into conversation with mining and geography. While this collaboration does not aspire for technological innovations per se, it will probe into the potential of combining disciplinary approaches and technical systems, especially geographic information systems modeling. The application of GIS data in collaborative research has already led to novel insights concerning water access and allocation injustice (Eklund and Martenson 2012b), infrastructure access (Eklund and El-Atrash 2012a) or deepening our understanding of agricultural disaster and people’s dealings with it (Lange and Eklund 2017) in different places of the Middle East and elsewhere.

With its emphases on oral history and cultural geography, our project builds on previous successful uses of GIS in related fields, such as in endangered languages preservation (Stone 2018, Hildebrant 2017) and cultural heritage management (Bushmakina 2017, Vilekis 2020). There is no question that GIS has been one of the primary methodologies to trace the impacts of human activity on the natural environment like energy production (Verberg 2000; Bayramov 2018, 2019), and we would specifically contribute to GIS modeling of natural resource extraction sites in Kazakhstan and the former Soviet Union (Choudhary 2017, Thomas 2015). This is the more significant because public memory in Kazakhstan concerning our fieldsites is a historically and contemporary highly sensitive and politicized issue (compare Eklund and Lange 2018, p. 212). Whether a success story of industrial modernization or a decline scenario is told, the dominant narratives tend to render internal conflicts, local and contrasting articulations undesired or mute. Similar to Eklund and Lange’s (ibid.) case of tracing narratives of displacement and agricultural dynamics in Iraqi Kurdistan, GIS data in our case can contribute in important ways to unravel narratives by visualizing changes of resource exploitation, settlements and infrastructure meaningful to people’s daily lives.


Industrial centers are today often regarded top-down as a problem because of their polluted environment, the large-scale destruction to nature and the allegedly little future-oriented character of their industries. Voices of people living in, with and by these industries and their pollution are rarely heard. They experienced, however, a sharp devaluation of their former identity as (economically) privileged members of publicly appraised, modern and pioneering enterprises during transition time and struggle today to find new, alternative livelihoods and identities. The proposed project will give a bottom-up voice to these often complicated, contradictory experiences and thus enrich a public discourse on futures and perspectives of such places. It will thus also fill an often-noticed gap between detailed anthropological findings and larger societal, economic, governance and (geo-)political recognition (compare Eriksen and Schober 2018). This is a timely contribution, as Kazakhstan’s government has already encouraged local governance of mining transition at sites such as Tekeli.
Short titleAnthropogenic Environments in the Future Tense
Effective start/end date1/1/2110/5/21


  • environmental anthropology
  • cultural geography


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