A new grant programme in Mangystau region will put money in the hands of the region’s citizens for projects to solve local environmental problems. The programme aims to encourage both environmental activism and citizen engagement.
The Small Grants Programme, jointly organised by Kazakh nongovernmental organisations Eco Mangystau, Eco Museum and CINEST, along with Arnika of the Czech Republic and financial support from the European Union, will distribute grants for 5 – 10 small projects of up to six months that aim to solve local environmental problems. The total fund for the grant programme is 16,000 euros; average grants are expected to be 1,500 – 3,000 euros, according to a press release issued by the programme. Applications were submitted through the end of January 2015 and approved projects will be funded and able to launch by March 1. The programme will run through 2016.
The programme is part of the larger project, “Promotion of the rights of citizens for public participation in decision-making about environmental issues: practical implementation of the Aarhus Convention in Mangystau”, which has the goal of strengthening civil society by improving the living conditions of Mangystau region residents. Funding of the project, 336,120 euros, was provided by the EU.
“Our objective is to support civil society in participating in decision-making on environmental issues – it simply means that people should be much more interested in the areas surrounding their houses, and be active,” Martin Skalsky, executive director of the Arnika Citizens Support Centre and manager of development projects in Kazakhstan, told The Astana Times in a written interview on Jan. 30. “The environment affects not only our health, but also the price of our properties and the prosperity of our communities in general. And not only politicians, officials, landlords and owners of the industry should make decisions – every single person has a right to add his or her word, too.”
Kazakhstan has signed the Aarhus Convention on environmental democracy, Skalsky noted. “The citizens do have many rights, but so far they do not really use them,” he said.
Mangystau has a number of environmental problems, Skalsky explained, including a lack of drinking water, a lack of trees and greenery, oil leaks, poor waste management resulting in illegal landfills and the pollution of natural areas. “We will see in the next months what local citizens will consider the most painful issues,” he said.
Applications will be evaluated by an expert committee of five, Skalsky said. The programme’s website says it will support projects that address local problems like the ones described above through information campaigns, organising public debates, liaising with officials and government agencies, conducting examinations and evaluations, actively solving problems and preparing documentation including videos and photos for journalists, about environmental problems. The experts will evaluate projects for their potential long-term effects, the active involvement of the public, the opportunities they create with entrepreneurs or government bodies, their use of media, their potential effectiveness and other criteria. The grants are geared toward small, local, nongovernmental and non-professional organisations.
Citizens will be supported by experts from the involved NGOs, Skalsky said, and workshops will also be organised in May and October of this year.
The programme’s official materials also say it aims to prevent social tensions. “Probably everyone remembers recent events in Zhanaozen and nobody wants a repetition of similar incidents,” said Skalsky. “This is the result of social tensions: when problems of the community remain unsolved by those at the power, they keep growing – and one day, the situation becomes unsolvable. In the Small Grants Programme, we wish to support projects … activating citizens, but also opening dialogue between people, private companies, state authorities and experts. We believe that free discussion can really avoid any violent scenarios.”
Small Grants Programmes have already been run in central and eastern Kazakhstan, with projects on illegal dumping, radioactive waste, metallurgical waste products and chemical pollution having been funded and completed in those regions.
Asked why civil society should take on the burden of environmental cleanup, Skalsky said this: “Of course the state is obliged to deal with environmental problems, but who is the state? It is also the citizens, it is us. … If people just sit at home and wait [to see] who will clean the garbage in the park, they cannot really expect better future. Sometimes we need to do something by ourselves.”
There are different, effective ways to engage with problems, Skalsky said. “Some people prefer to help their community themselves, others prefer organising campaigns and improving the system. I believe that the quality of public space as well as standard of the state institutions depends on the level of citizens’ activity. And in this regard, countries of the EU would like to inspire citizens of Kazakhstan to be more active in influencing life and environment of their communities.”
The sparsely populated Mangystau region, which includes the shores of the Caspian Sea, is a centre of the oil and gas industries in the country.