- Eastern Europe and Central Asia, Kyrgyz Republic
- Personal Essay
Josh Priollaud served as a Peace Corps Volunteer in the Kyrgyz Republic from 2003 to 2005. His assignment was primarily to work with local people to help them develop new and sustainable ways of obtaining or raising food and running businesses.
I lived in a town called Cholpon-Ata, in the province of Issyk-Kul. Cholpon-Ata was a couple of miles long, stretched out along the shore of a massive lake (you couldn't see the opposite shore across the lake). Lake Issyk-Kul is the world's second largest alpine, or mountain, lake. It would take you about six to eight hours to drive around it on a perfect highway at highway speed. The town faces the lake with its back to high peaks. It is green in spring and summer, and almost barren gray in winter. The town resembles an oasis, with arid lands on three sides. Poplars line the broken concrete streets. Their roots are watered by an invisible creek flowing from the mountains behind the town.
Much of the town's infrastructure was built during the era of the Soviet Union, so you can visualize a lot of older concrete buildings and shack-like houses lining the streets.
If you imagine a small town in the mountains in the United States, but one with run-down features (broken sidewalks, gravel, ragged foliage, chipped paint) and less lumber-based infrastructure, you can get a feel for my town.
At the center of town, tucked away behind some very high fences, is a large culture park on the shore of the lake. Built by a local tycoon-politician (some would say oligarch), the park offers visitors five gleaming white shrines dedicated to five of the world's major religions.
With perfectly trimmed grass, the park stands in contrast with the rest of town. The park also offers the more distinguished guests (for example, foreign dignitaries) an elaborate meeting hall, a breathtaking auditorium with the lake as a backdrop, a swanky swimming pool lounge, and even an upper-class condo-like yurt, which the owner calls home. Perhaps a symbol of the wealth that the community has seen pour in over the past few years, the park does not represent the feel of the overall community.
Outside the park, the community is bleaker. Most homes are built of concrete and are heated by coal furnaces. Children walk to school on treacherous broken footpaths. Several roads are washed out completely. Abandoned buildings are common, as is garbage at different points throughout the town. Animals are herded along various routes in the town, leaving not-so-pleasant trails for the town's inhabitants.
But in spite of its shortcomings, the town is showing signs of a viable economic future. Remodeled homes and new structures are sprouting up like new buds in several neighborhoods.
The Economic Problem
One of the economic problems generally accepted by the community was the rapidly declining supply of fish in the lake. As the residents of Cholpon-Ata rely on tourism for their very survival, many of the residents directly or indirectly spur the consumption of fish. Restaurant owners sell fish (the most popular is mountain trout, which is much like salmon) to an endless sea of hungry tourists; locals consume it in their homes regularly; and some portion of the catch is exported to the national capital, three hours away by car.
During the era of the Soviet Union there was a complex network of hatcheries at various points around the lake. With the fall of the Soviet Union, most of the biologists who managed such facilities fled north to Kazakhstan and Russia. Government funding halted and the facilities shut down.
So with almost no production and with increasing consumption, the supply of fish has been falling rapidly. The few surveys that have been conducted offer various estimates, but there is one consistent conclusion: The fish population is dwindling, making fish scarce.
Because the fish of Issyk-Kul are such a key feature of the tourism-based economy, the supply of fish must be protected to protect the tourism industry. And with few other economic options and a poverty level well above 50 percent, residents of Issyk-Kul Province also have the potential with increased fisheries to feed themselves and to export fish to the major population centers of Central Asia and surrounding nations.
Question: If you were a Peace Corps Volunteer in Issyk-Kul, living in the town of Cholpon-Ata , what would you do to help solve the problem of the depleted fishing industry?
The Beginnings of Solution
Strategy: Spend the money on a public-private partnership that demonstrates fish farming as a feasible and lucrative venture.
With the goal of stimulating market forces, I worked with Bektemir Samaganov, my counterpart in MASHAV (the Israeli equivalent of USAID), a local entrepreneur named Nikolai Batskaleov, and prominent fish biologist Dr. Konurbaev to set up a fish farm as a demonstration. The fish farm was designed to generate revenue for Nikolai Batskaleov, which would in turn enable him to create jobs, and to serve as a model and inspiration for interested aquaculture entrepreneurs in the province.
Nikolai, the entrepreneur, is a devout patriot and an older man without a strong sense of competitiveness or grand dreams for acquiring wealth. I had been concerned that he might not want to discuss his technical and financial details with the general public, for fear of giving away his business secrets and stimulating competition against him. I pointed out to him the huge scale of the problem, which calls for some nontraditional industry-support tactics, at least in early stages, and that, as a patriot, he could afford to lose some market share for the sake of his country. But my concerns were unwarranted. He was a willing and cooperative partner.
Question: What happens if your counterpart changes his mind on how to spend your grant funds after the budget is already approved and published? What would you do as a Peace Corps Volunteer?
The Project Continues
Strategy: My strategy was to ask myself what I wanted to get done. If I demanded that my counterpart spend every penny as planned without transferring funds from one item to another, how much progress would we make?
If I wanted to be flexible with the budget, could I be so without breaking the law or the rules of the administration of the grant? How would I explain to our donor that we changed course on the budget? My solution was to ask whether the budget changes were reasonable and in line with the end result. If I allowed one change to the budget, would that set a precedent for how I would react to more requests for changes?
How could I ensure that the money was being spent according to budget? Should I trust my counterpart with cash and simply accept the receipts for expenditures (the receipts were faintly printed slips in a language foreign to me, with an obscure signature)? My answer was to find a happy medium between by-the-book administration rules and the flexible as-you-go changing circumstances.
I knew I mustn't break the rules and misspend money, but I also knew I could not risk offending my counterpart to the point that our project was "frozen" and transformed into a bitter disaster with finger-pointing. I had to be flexible and ethical, to maintain principles and be realisticic.
Private investment had begun in the Issyk-Kul aquaculture sector?on its own, without any connection to our project. Right after I finished my Peace Corps service, such investment had been used to construct a multimillion-dollar floating-cage fish-farming operation in the lake itself.
But, so far, our demonstration farm has achieved its goals to some degree. (I have not collected data but was told that Nikolai generated revenue from selling fish produced by the farm.) With a roadside billboard attracting students and other curious citizens, the farm is successful insofar as it highlights the issue of fish farming to an audience of hundreds, if not thousands, who visit each year.
The desire to earn profits is naturally serving to replenish the fish population in the lake. Not only is the private operation creating jobs and contributing to tax revenue, but it is also returning fish to the lake for natural reproduction.
Furthermore as the operation gradually improves, experience should lower costs, and fish farmers should be able to sell in the same market as other fishermen. This in turn will attract even more entrepreneurs to compete in the aquaculture arena.
While the private sector is initiating the largest rescue operation in the lake (the major cage-based operation), the demonstrational fish farm, as a government sector component, complements the private operation by advertising the need for saving and raising fish, and it shows one way to farm them.
In theory, as the economy of Issyk-Kul rebuilds, the community should regain the ability to finance the reactivation and modernization of the fish hatcheries that existed during the Soviet Union.
As a helper in the community, I had to keep in mind the ultimate goal of the economic development that I sought through complicated projects, budgets, negotiations, and planning sessions. In final analysis, what mattered most was heating in schools, food on the table, books in the library, and beds in the hospital?a measure of a thriving economy. The ultimate goal is a better life for the people who make up the economy?and for all, not just some, of the living beings in nature. We must honor the balance of nature and also strive to maintain not only the things we want in our homes, but the things that the fish require for a healthy life, too.
Such a pursuit is what made my Peace Corps service seem worthwhile.