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"Better I die of radiation than my children of hunger..."

In the village of Orlovka, in the Chui region of Kyrgyzstan in post-Soviet Central Asia, there used to be a uranium mine. Its closure in the early 1990s led to massive unemployment in the area. But now the desperately poor local residents have found a new way to survive.

They sift through the waste dumped near the disused mine ­– "a moonscape of grey slag" – in search of material that they can sell to scrap merchants. There is iron and other metals, and graphite, but most valuable is silicon, which fetches $10 per kilo and ends up at electronics plants in neighbouring China. About a third of the diggers are children. Some of their teachers are there too, for they can't get by on the pittance called a salary. Injuries are frequent. Some people get buried alive when the holes they are digging cave in.

Of course, there are many such places in the "undeveloped" countries. But this one has an additional hazard. The waste is full of radioactive gas (up to 400 micro-roentgens per hour). The diggers, their bodies covered with festering sores, are dying of radiation sickness. They are fully aware of the fact, but as one man said: "Better I die of radiation than my children of hunger."

Now for a little thought experiment. Suppose these people had been rounded up at gunpoint and forced to do this work on the orders of some military junta or Islamist or "communist" dictatorship. Just imagine the furore that human rights organizations around the world would raise against the regime committing such atrocities.

But they were not rounded up at gunpoint, and no armed guards are needed to keep them at their labours. They are "independent market actors" – "entrepreneurs," indeed, legally free to leave the scrap collecting business whenever they like. So none of their "human rights," as the term is usually understood, has been violated. They are lucky enough to live in a country that has been fulsomely praised as a model "democracy" with an excellent "human rights record" – at least by Central Asian standards. And yet they are not a whit better off for all that.

For there is one human right that they lack, and without it other human rights are not worth very much. They do not have the right of access to the means of life. "I wanted to work on the land," another digger remarked, "but unfortunately I don't have any." Quite so. And back into the radioactive gas...

(Source. Institute of War and Peace Reporting (London), Reporting Central Asia, No. 438, March 10, 2006.)