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Lessons on Alternative Energy, from Tajikistan

The passengers on the 3AM flight from Khujand to Moscow were Tajik laborers, the majority of whom were flying for their first time. The men fly to Moscow to make ten times the amount of money as construction workers than they would make working at home. Half of Tajikistan’s economy is made abroad, primarily in Russia, which has absolutely no cultural relationship with Tajikistan’s Persian-speaking, Central Asian culture. The women on this flight are taking the opportunity to sell “Lapyoshkis” (traditional Tajik bread) on the streets.

As soon as I took my seat on the plane, automatically I buckled up. The other passengers around me looked at me with curiosity and asked me to help them figure out their seatbelts.

During my short journey in Tajikistan, I didn’t once observe any signs of anger or violence. Not once did I hear anyone shout with anger, a car beep its horn, the look of disappointment, fear, or stress on their faces. It took me a while to take that in, or even recognize it, let alone accept it. I was met only with openness, compassion, hospitality, and observed devotion, respect, kindness, generosity, and smiles. 

Over 80 percent mountainous, abundant with rivers, waterfalls, mountain meadows, and poppy fields, Tajikistan’s geography is a nature-lover’s fantasy. Culturally, Tajikistan is fascinating in that it is the only Central Asian country whose language is not of Turkic origin. The Tajik language is more similar to Farsi than French is to Spanish or Ukrainian to Russian. From north to south, as you move closer to the Afghani border, the language becomes less affected by Slavic influence.

In my experience, I encountered fewer Tajiks than Kazakhs who speak Russian although enough Tajiks spoke Russian for me to engage in conversation and get a glimpse into my third post-Soviet republic. It amazes me to realize that the enormous territory of the Soviet Union once stretched from the borders of Poland to Afghanistan to Mongolia, and to the Pacific Ocean. One lasting benefit of the widespread Soviet culture is that you can communicate with most people along these borders in Russian.

Unlike the rest of Central Asia, Tajiks were never nomadic and have always settled in civilized places, such as what is now Uzbekistan’s Samarkand and Bukhara, rather than in rural areas. These borders throughout Central Asia were determined by what some say was Stalin’s brilliant plan to strategically cause these tribes to fight against each other. Unfortunately, the success of his plot can be seen today in the ethnic cleansing in Kyrgyzstan and the political fights between Uzbekistan and Tajikstan.

My Los Angeles-groomed lungs are like a canary in a coal mine and typically sense the first hint of urban air pollution. I was curious to know what the Tajiks were doing right to contribute to the clean air in urban Dushanbe and Khujand. I came to learn that this is primarily thanks to the fact that the country’s major energy source is hydropower rather than coal. Yes, I am using the phrase “thanks to hydropower”, that evil word that we West Coast environmentalists are trained to protest. Is it possible to build safe hydropower? What does “small-scale” hydropower really mean? Once I overcame the image of hydropower as Hoover Dam, and stretched my mind a little, I listened to the arguments of the staff of Tajikistan’s largest hydropower station. The state-owned joint stock company Barqi Tojik, entirely controls production, transportation and distribution of electricity in Tajikistan.

We stood on a metal bridge, which hovered over the hydropower station. The entire station couldn’t have been more than 1,000 square feet. This “large” station powers the entire local region of Tajikistan! I looked out onto a picturesque landscape of a flowing river, tributaries, and rolling green hills – to me, it looked like practically untouched nature.

Makhmud, dressed in his hardhat, leaning on the railing over the rushing water, stared at me as I asked him, “What are some examples of the ecological impact of this dam”?

He said, “It’s impossible to take an energy source without spoiling some aspect of nature. We can’t get something for nothing. You look at wind farms and see how much land that takes up. You see how it disturbs nature. Where there is a wind farm, there is a loss of life – animal, insect, and plant life are ruined. You look at solar power farms and see how much land they consume. The disturbance of fish life here has been a problem, although we don’t have much of a choice.”

To what degree are we willing to disturb nature for our human needs? Who has the power or should have the power to make this decision? What kind of responsibility do we have to cross political boundaries in order to exchange best practices and ideas rather than preach them?

The next day, as I went a little deeper into Tajikistan’s mountains, I passed through fields of red poppies, along waterfalls, and small rivers. My friend pointed out to me what “small” hydropower looks like. He stretched his legs across this little river and said, from one leg to another, we can build a hydropower “station” which could potentially power the few houses that are around here.

As we grapple with how and which renewables to invest in, support, advocate, Tajikistan reminds me that we must first look at the natural landscape, and see what best fits. And as I go deeper into the Russian-speaking lands, I slowly strip away my own bias toward what I’ve learned is the “right” approach to energy saving techniques, recycling, and nature preserves. What makes sense in our sans-winter-wonderland of California doesn’t necessarily apply to the rest of the world.

Melissa Prager
With the Center for Safe Energy, a project of the Earth Island Institute, Melissa organizes two-way environmental exchanges between the U.S. and the countries of the former Soviet Union. Her most recent exchange took place this summer, when she brought three environmental delegations to Ukraine, Kazakhstan, and Russia’s Siberia. In Ukraine, together with the city of Berkeley’s Climate Action Coordinator the group met with local government and NGO leaders. In Kazakhstan, Melissa brought the city of San Francisco’s recycling coordinator to address issues of waste management and recycling. In Siberia, together with an EarthCorps volunteer and trails expert Melissa visited Lake Baikal’s two major National Parks to help promote regional ecotourism.

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