The country shaken by the gold rush

The country shaken by the gold rush

Khislat Ochilov shakes a mixture of sand and pebbles with one hand, which he rinses with a stream of water. The young man meticulously searches for gold nuggets, an abundant metal in Uzbekistan, the second largest seller in the world.

After working with his sieve for a while, he finally finds a gold nugget the size of a grain of rice.

“Not bad, although I have already found one of seven grams, my record,” this 25-year-old man who works in the middle of the Uzbek steppe, near the town of Soykechar, in the southwest of this republic, tells AFP. Central Asia.

His colleague Sardor Mardiyez, 28 years old, spends twelve hours a day, six days a week working with his excavator in the earth of this immense region of Navoi, similar in size to Cuba.

Once the exclusive privilege of the State’s immense mining conglomerates, the search for gold is now authorized for individuals.

In 2023, Uzbekistan became the world’s tenth largest producer of this mineral (110.8 tons) and the second largest seller (25 tons) through its central bank, according to the World Gold Council.

But these figures are far from satisfying President Shavkat Mirziyoyev, who presents himself as a reformer eager to develop the still largely centralized economy and open up his country after years of isolation.

But this progressive liberalization has not yet appeared on the political scene, which remains locked down.

Although only 20% of Uzbekistan’s subsoil has been explored, the ruler ordered gold production to increase by 50% until 2030 and sell bars of up to one kilo, in the hope of attracting more tourists.

After authorization was granted to individuals, Zahit Khudaberdiyev acquired the rights to exploit a piece of land for three years at an auction.

“Before 2019, we did not have the right to mine gold. Some did it at the risk of death, it was dangerous,” said Khudaberdiyev, who competes with Kazakh and Chinese prospectors.

He indicated that if this land does not provide enough gold, he will look elsewhere further away.

Behind them, trucks and excavators work intensely. Khudaberdiyev commented that the machines can remove tons of debris that will produce “a daily average of 12 to 15 grains.”

As he spoke, he had one eye on the phone, monitoring global gold prices.

In March they reached a record price of $2,200 per troy ounce (31.1 grams).

“The government gave us the possibility of searching for gold to give people jobs,” he added.

The gold sector generated abundant jobs in a country where 20% of workers are forced to look for work abroad, especially in Russia.

Khudaberdiyev cited the example of his two young local employees, Ochivol and Mardiyev, one of whom was unemployed and the other worked on a farm.

“Now they earn three to four million soum ($240 to $320) on average” monthly, a decent salary in the region, Khudaberdiyev said.

New miners can’t do whatever they want with the gold they dig up. Everything must be channeled through the Uzbek central bank, which exchanges it for dollars on the international market.

The country’s growing economy depends on the injection of foreign currency to support the national currency. The Uzbek sum has a price of 12,500 units per dollar, one of the lowest in the world.

In Soykechar, where agriculture is a key sector, not everyone is enthusiastic about gold.

“The diggers dig where we graze cattle,” said Erkin Karshiev, a farmer in the region, located about 500 km west of the capital Tashkent.

“Look how the last guys left everything,” claimed the 66-year-old farmer, pointing in frustration at some 12-meter-deep holes.

Karshiev said he was “really scared that the animals would fall” into the holes. But his calls to the authorities to resolve the issue have been ignored.

“We only want one thing: for the gold miners to level the land by filling in the holes when they leave,” he said.

Source: Ambito

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