On Sustainability in Uzbekistan: an interview with Suna Park 10 min read

 In Central Asia, Civil Society, Interview
Suna Julia Park is a political consultant working on local approaches to sustainable development in Central Asia, based in Tashkent, Uzbekistan. She is passionate about integrating local traditions into sustainability practices. She established the social project ‘Hashar Week’, centred around a historical Uzbek practice named Hashar. 

Hashar: an ancient tradition, predominantly in Uzbekistan, of collective help and voluntary participation in beautification of public spaces. 

Born in Uzbekistan, raised in Kazakhstan and educated in London, Suna relates how her multinational background shapes her perspective on global environmental issues in the Central Asian context today. She also shares the unexpected joy she has found after returning to Uzbekistan. 

Firstly, can you tell me a little more about your background? 

I have quite a multinational background. I’m an ethnic Korean, Soviet Korean. There was a whole diaspora, which migrated back in those days to northern parts of Russia, and then was transported forcibly to Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan and other Central Asian countries. 

My mother tongue is Russian. My parents are of the Soviet generation. Russian is their first language. That’s why if you think about a good identity for my parents, it is Soviet. There were no nations back then. Even in terms of meals and cuisine. One day, we can have Kazakh, another day we can have something Russian and then something Korean. I mean, globalisation has facilitated that. But for us, it was always like that, because we were always exposed to so many different cultures. 

I was born in Uzbekistan. However, I never lived there. When I was six, my family and I moved to Kazakhstan and I lived in Kazakhstan for 10 years. Then, after that, I went to London. I did my bachelor’s and master’s degrees there and I set up a company in London. Just a little over four years ago, I moved back to Uzbekistan. My grandmother still lives in Uzbekistan and I used to come back regularly to visit. During one of these trips, I realised that it could be very interesting to try moving back. 

How would you describe the work that you do? 

This is the most difficult question people ask me. How would you present yourself? How should we present you? I do so many things simultaneously, but the way I usually narrow it down is that I’m an international political consultant, working with governments. I started this activity back when I was in the UK, because I worked for a political consultancy there. I also worked briefly at the British Parliament. 

I advise government ministries and ministers on a range of reforms. I’m involved in and invited to work as a consultant on various projects by international organisations. Our most recent projects have been with the Asian Development Bank, where we worked on sustainable urbanisation, water supply and sanitation sector development. 

Simultaneously I also run a company in Tashkent. I set up a company, a British-Uzbek sustainability advisory consulting company, where we also consult with businesses here on corporate social responsibility, sustainability, and environmental management. 

Then the third part of my work is the social project, Hashar Week. It’s mostly aimed at literacy, sustainability education, and we work mostly with people and local communities. As you can see, it’s really so varied. 

Where did the passion for sustainability come from?

I suppose a turning point was when I set up my own company in London. It was focused on the design and production of packaging products. Once I started this business, I realised how much packaging is used for a small snack, for example. 

Of course, as a political scientist, I always look at development from the point of view of the dark sides of globalisation and neoliberal capitalism and how it all plays together. The effects on the environment was something that I did not necessarily study at the university but rather came to me as part of my professional formation. The packaging company really became a turning point in opening up the extent of the problem that exists even on a consumer level. 

At that time, neither in Kazakhstan nor Uzbekistan, no one ever really thought about what sustainability means. When I came to Uzbekistan, I remembered an image that had stayed with me in my memory from growing up in Tashkent. This was women sweeping streets and their homes and backyards. Sweeping is something that is very ingrained into the local practice. 

I came to Uzbekistan with all that knowledge built up in London and gained through some projects and I saw how this sweeping is no longer part of local practice, just as I was exploring the relationship of people towards waste. I had this memory but it no longer was the case. This dilemma, this dissonance between my memory and what I saw, pushed me to explore how sustainability can be adapted and brought into this local context. 

Now I can say that it’s not only sustainability that I’m interested in professionally, rather that I’m interested in exploring local or original approaches to sustainability. 

What does a typical workday look like for you? 

You know, what I like about them is, although they can be really busy, it’s not as hectic as it was in London for me. It’s not as, I’d say, stiff, as it was in London. There is a lot of the community feel about it. Even meetings are always accompanied by shared meals and they’re not as formal. 

There could be days when I am fully engaged in various meetings, meeting with ministers, meeting with governmental officials, meeting with international partners. There could be days when we work on a social project. There are days where we go to talk to actors to prepare theatrical performances and others where we work on an art exhibition. My day is so diverse here. 

What is the general attitude towards sustainability in Uzbekistan now?

Sustainability cannot be the same for different countries. It means different things for different cultures and in different countries. Sustainability in Uzbekistan is more ingrained into the cultural code of people than in other Central Asian countries, such as Kazakhstan. As I said before, sweeping streets was something which is very common in any family. It’s just a local practice. I looked at this and I realised that something was different here. 

Four years ago, I was involved in a mentoring campaign in Kazakhstan and noticed how environmental literacy was very low. I was in Almaty visiting my parents just a week ago. Everyone is recycling! Everyone is talking about sustainable consumption and zero waste! It’s a completely different picture. It resembles what I saw in the UK because all these trends are coming from the West. Kazakhstan is more Western-oriented. 

In Uzbekistan, on the other hand, there are so many local practices and strong cultural, historical predispositions that point to sustainability. This is why our social project is called Hashar Week. It’s this practice of voluntary participation in the beautification of streets. The shared responsibility for keeping this place clean. 

When we first started the social project in March 2019, no one was talking about sustainability. There were no massive campaigns. We brought attention not only to sustainability, but to local solutions to sustainable development. 

To go back to your question, how is sustainability received in Uzbekistan? It is received well, especially now because people hear all these stories about climate change and pollution. But my argument is that if you accentuate local practice, there will be even higher ownership when it comes to sustainable development. Because it comes from the people, because it is something that they’re familiar with. 

Have you experienced any kind of cultural or generational resistance to your work in Uzbekistan?

Many people in Uzbekistan are confident that you should start with children, that older generations are hopeless and that they will not be able to understand sustainability or apply it to their everyday life. Well, I completely disagree with that. I remember when my parents would tell stories of my grandparents, they were very resourceful. They would only use paper packaging and they would always reuse some things, very resourceful. The older generations from Soviet times and in more traditional communities practice sustainability in their own way. 

All of the relatively new trends on social media, such as zero waste or climate change, are reaching, mostly, the younger generation. This is the division that I see at the moment. The older generation do not understand some of the newest things and the younger generation do not really know what Hashar is. 

I would say there’s no resistance as such, but there’s a huge gap in knowledge. This is the biggest problem that we have faced. Many people simply lack knowledge about climate change, about the depletion of the ozone layer, about consumption and resources and all of these things. Of course, education is partially to blame for it. That’s why we are also trying to launch a range of programmes, which could align with the state educational programmes at various levels. To bridge that gap.

You were born in Uzbekistan, but you spent most of your life outside of the country. Are you treated in Uzbekistan as a local or as a foreigner? Has there been any tension in that? 

It’s a lot about identity. I never expected that after 11 years living in London, I could live in Central Asia, in Uzbekistan. I remember when I first decided to move, which was quite a random decision. Even my family, they said to me, you will not be able to stay there for long. But this was one of the best decisions of my life. Even though in London, I always felt at home, just because I was formed as a person there. But when I came to Uzbekistan, I realised that this is what I missed living in London. All of this I think is part of identity because I feel so at home here, so in my own place. I do not feel like a foreigner. 

However, I still notice that there is a difference in how some local people treat me. Although I’m very much culturally assimilated in terms of language and I, of course, share a history. This is my motherland. This history was passed through my parents as well because my entire family’s from here. 

But at the same time, a lot of local people still treat me as a foreigner. Not in the way of someone who is a tourist or visitor, but they do see that I was not formed in Uzbekistan as they were formed, not shaped here. Yet, strongly, I feel a sense of belonging. The biggest, the strongest of those identities in me is back, I really do feel strongly that it is back. But people sometimes treat me as a foreigner. 

What’s next for you and your work? What would you say your goals are for the next few years?

Personally, I’m very much keen on working hard to promote sustainable development as an alternative model. On the level of policy and Hashar week as a project, we really want to tackle the issue of education. We have already developed a curriculum for the Ministry of Preschool Education here. We have piloted it and it has been quite a success. We want to move in that direction, to work on education and to make environmental sustainability education part of the official curriculum. 

My ambition is also to work towards sustainable cities. Right now, we are thinking of launching a division, where we would not advise central ministries, but we would advise local authorities of different cities on how to make their cities more livable, more sustainable. 

Featured image: Beautification / Amanda Sonesson
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