Economist with a people focus

"The economy has to serve the people and not vice versa", said German Chancellor Angela Merkel in June at the celebrations for the 100th anniversary of the International Labour Organization (ILO) in Geneva. Beril Ocaklı would agree with this statement. As an economist, her research focuses on human beings – or, to be more precise, on the people in Kyrgyzstan. At the Integrative Research Institute on Transformations of Human-Environment Systems (IRI THESys) at Humboldt-Universität zu BerlinBeril Ocaklı is exploring how mining in this Central Asian country is leading to conflicts over resources and how people are dealing with this.

Kyrgyzstan's economy depends on mining

Economist with a people focus 640x360
Beril Ocaklı, pictured here during a work stay in Georgia, is doing her PhD on mining conflicts in Central Asia.

Kyrgyzstan has extensive deposits of rare earths and gold – both raw materials are in considerable demand worldwide. "The country's economy", explains Ocaklı, "depends to a large extent on mining, yet there are increasing conflicts". She witnessed these at first hand when in 2012 she began travelling through the countries of Central Asia as the head of a mineral resources project for the Federation of German Industries (BDI) on behalf of Germany's Federal Government.

"We realised that Kyrgyzstan is a special case", says Ocaklı. Far more than anywhere else in Central Asia, the local population protested against poor working conditions, the granting of prospecting rights and environmental pollution. By early 2013 at the latest, the rest of the world became aware of the unrest when Kyrgyzstan's government declared a state of emergency in the region around the Kumtor gold mine in the northeast of the country. "As a business representative, I was unable to explore why the population was up in arms", says Ocaklı. This was why she decided to embark on a scientific study of the conflict over resources.

From business consultant to PhD student

Beril Ocaklı, who in addition to her native tongue Turkish speaks fluent German, English, Russian and Spanish and can also communicate in Kyrgyz, spent three years conducting research while continuing her day job. She was particularly interested in the way that local people showed a mixture of cooperative behaviour and a willingness to engage in conflict. She interviewed representatives of the government, of companies and of NGOs, conducted field studies in the capital Bishkek and at the sites of the protests: Altynken mine near the capital and Shambesai gold mine in the south of the country on the border to Uzbekistan, which is out of operation due to the ongoing protests. The experience she gained during her many years in the region has helped her enormously, as have her contacts to authorities, associations and companies in the mining sector.

The population is willing to cooperate, but distrustful

The economics researcher's focus on the people at the heart of the conflicts has provided her with an important insight: "The critical attitude of some groups of the population in Kyrgyzstan has nothing to do with a lack of willingness to cooperate", she explains. She goes on to say that those who work in the mining industry are interested in principle in a well-functioning mineral resources industry, as this is how they earn their living. On the other hand, people who depend on agriculture, such as those who live near Shambesai gold mine, are concerned: will the state and companies ensure that they also benefit from the profits generated by the mining sector? Or does the mining of gold pose a risk to the land and water they depend on for their livelihoods? To this extent, their protests are not directed against the authorities or mine operators per se. "Possibly they are simply the expression of a deep distrust in the state and big business."

In Berlin: working together on an equal footing

Ocaklı is now in the final phase of her research work and has taken time out from her work for the Federation of German Industries. She spends more time in her office at the IRI THESys research institute in Berlin. "I have only now really come to realise how lucky I was to find this place to do my doctoral thesis", says Ocaklı. She appreciates the fact that she meets not only other economists in the institute's hallways, but also ethnologists, sociologists, agricultural scientists, geographers and climate researchers. As she explains, it is no less important that she is able to work on an equal footing with other doctoral students, postdocs and professors.

A wide range of research opportunities in this area is also available at non-university research institutions, for example at the:

German Development Institute, Bonn
GIGA German Institute of Global and Area Studies, Hamburg
Institute for the World Economy (IFW), Kiel
Max Planck Institute for Research on Collective Goods, Bonn

Integrative Research Institute on Transformations of Human-Environment Systems (IRI THESys)

Climate change, the loss of biodiversity and growing economic inequality are global problems that can only be resolved by shifting to more sustainable systems. The objective of researchers at the IRI THESys at Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin is to better understand these global developments. To this end, economists, natural scientists, social scientists and humanities scholars are working closely together here – on subjects such as land and resource use, urbanisation in the 21st century, the impact of climate change, and environmental justice.