In June 2021, Samarkand became the first Uzbek city to join the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD)’s Green Cities investment program. This offers an opportunity for the city to improve transparency and public participation in decision-making, which often prove problematic in Uzbekistan.
Through the program, the EBRD supports the development of a comprehensive Green City Action Plan (GCAP). The aim of the planning process is to help the city identify and deal with its environmental issues, mitigate carbon emissions, and adapt to climate change. The process should have broad public engagement in planning and decision making on urban development.
To kick off Samarkand’s entry into the Green Cities program, the EBRD plans to invest in the development of electric transport. According to the Bank, this should contribute to the sustainable development of the city and the achievement of carbon neutrality in Uzbekistan by 2050.
Civil society in Uzbekistan has much to contribute to the discussion about urban development and the greening of Uzbek cities, if the GCAP process provides a safe space for stakeholder engagement. In recent years, activists have been raising the alarm about numerous problems, such as the reduction of green spaces in cities, the mass demolition of houses, and forced evictions. Samarkand is no exception.
Cutting Down the Trees
In the cities of Uzbekistan, trees are being cut down on a massive scale. With the country’s arid climate, the important role of green spaces cannot be understated. Trees help regulate the temperature in urban spaces, improve air quality, act as carbon sinks, and support the water system and urban fauna.
Instead, the trunks of perennial plant trees, including oaks and other valuable species, are used mainly in the production of furniture in Uzbekistan.
Trees are often considered an obstacle to urban development. For example, in 2019, the trees on Samarkand’s University Boulevard were almost cut down in order to build bike paths and fountains, and in 2020 trees were removed to construct a swimming pool.
Local activists refused to comment publicly on this situation due to concerns about their security.
In 2019, Uzbekistan introduced a moratorium on cutting down valuable species of trees and shrubs that are not part of the State Forest Fund. Its validity was extended until 2024. However, during the first year of the moratorium, 3,307 trees belonging to valuable species and 4,547 of rare species were nonetheless illegally cut down. One hundred and sixty-seven of those violations were committed by officials.
The reason for the removal of green spaces in the cities of Uzbekistan is also that developers want to maximize the use of the land by constructing buildings with little space in between them. As a result, not only trees are being evicted, but also people.
The public in Uzbekistan has long spoken out about the widespread problem of mass demolitions and forced evictions of residents. These evictions occur in violation of Uzbek and international law for the protection of human rights. Uzbekistan has ratified the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights, which protects the rights of homeowners. In practice, however, courts rarely appeal to international legal norms. At the same time, national legislation – Article 71 of the Housing Code – protects the rights of private owners, but not the rights of residents.
The head of the Humanitarian Legal Center, Shukhrat Ganiev, reveals that over the past two years, his organization has registered over 40 complaints directly related to housing demolitions and compensation. Up to 75 percent of these applications come from women and pensioners, the most vulnerable groups in society.
“This is associated with many risks, one of which is the growing distrust of society in the justice system, the system of human rights protection that exists in Uzbekistan today. Moreover, I believe that corruption is the main motive for construction projects, evictions, and disproportionate compensation for housing,” Ganiev says.
For example, in 2017, a group of developers bought fake permits from the local administration for the construction of new elite housing estates on the territory of UNESCO-protected sites. One-day companies with an authorized capital of less than $30 million received permission to build high-rise buildings on plots where it was absolutely illegal to build.
The same year, in the settlement of Tinchlik, a developer came to the residents of several houses with documents stating that he was allowed to build new facilities on their land. Allegedly, the existing buildings were deemed to be in such a state of disrepair that they posed immediate danger to the residents and needed to be demolished. Later, an independent examination found that the state of the buildings did not constitute grounds for an emergency eviction.
Residents were promised apartments in the newly constructed buildings. Many residents agreed to the proposed compensation, but the Rozikova sisters, who lived in the apartment building, refused. Representatives of the developer’s company threatened the sisters with claims that they would seek an eviction order through the courts. Local officials launched an active campaign against the dissenting residents, in particular against one of the Rozikova sisters, Dilorom; she was called “greedy” and accused of blackmail. The Rozikovas appealed the decision to evict them to the Supreme Court, but their inquiries were left unanswered.
In early 2020, a verdict for forced eviction came into force and Dilorom, as well as several other tenants, were about to be evicted. In response, Dilorom threw a burning towel at the Bureau of Forced Eviction, for which she was convicted and sentenced to two years in prison. She served five months of that term, was under a house arrest for another seven months, and was finally released after one year for exemplary behavior. In the end, Dilorom was evicted, just like the rest of the residents.
Sayera Khodjaeva from the Institute for Democracy and Human Rights believes that cases of victory in the legal field are extremely rare.
“In September 2020, members of the Central Asia Right to Adequate Housing Network made an official appeal to the President and Prosecutor General of Uzbekistan and called for respect for constitutional rights to adequate housing, as well as protection from forced eviction and resettlement,” Khodjaeva says. “The document was signed by the heads of NGOs – members of the Network from Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. However, since September 2020, we have not received any response.”
How to Make Samarkand a Truly Green City
To make Samarkand a sustainable city, the EBRD and the municipality should utilize all possible tools to ensure meaningful citizen participation in the development of the action plan and projects’ implementation. Urban development must be based on the respect for the rights and needs of residents, especially marginalized ones. It should address environmental and social problems at a comprehensive level, and this won’t happen if citizens’ voices are not heard and their rights are not respected.
The protection of Samarkand’s green zones and the limitations for urban infill may be as effective climate solutions as electric transport. At the same time, the human rights to a clean environment and adequate housing must not be undermined. These issues should be prioritized in the Green City Action Plan.
Samarkand’s participation in the Green City program constitutes a great opportunity for the municipality and a venue for it to establish a dialogue with its citizens and civil society organizations based on the principles of transparency and inclusion.
The EBRD also has a significant role to play in ensuring a safe space for the citizens to freely contribute to the action plan’s development. It is not enough to just transfer the money and call a city green. One of the key conditions is non-retaliation and freedom of speech. In non-democratic countries such as Uzbekistan, where human rights defenders are under threat and independent CSOs are not allowed to register, the EBRD must provide the mechanisms by which it can meaningfully and safely engage with civil society prior to giving a loan.