Laura Luciani | Armenia, Armenia, Armenia, Disaster, Disaster, Mining, Mining, Mining, Press, Press, Press, Publications, Publications, Publications, Disaster

On the 2nd of October, CATAPA had the honor of receiving Armenian activist Anna Shahnazaryan, from the Armenian Environmental Front. She is part of the Save Amulsar campaign, which for years has been opposing the Amulsar gold mine by Lydian International. The Amulsar mine is the second largest gold deposit in Armenia. Shahnazaryan travelled to Belgium to have conversations with EU lobby groups and managed to give a short presentation with CATAPA.

During this gathering, we also meet Laura Luciani, who is a PhD student at the Centre for EU Studies of Ghent University, where she researches human rights and civil society in the South Caucasus.

Here you can read the English translation of the original Italian article.

Armenia: Almusar, the Mountain where the Water is more Precious than Gold

In 1986, a group of 350 Armenian intellectuals wrote an open letter to Mikhail Gorbačëv to denounce the catastrophic consequences of pollution caused by the heavy industry, promoted by the soviet authorities which ignored the deteriorations. Even though the environmental protests have been cyclically going for over thirty years in Armenia, and despite the monitoring of damages caused by irresponsible industrial practices, today the citizens still have to take the streets to avoid another ecologic catastrophe.  

For seven years, local communities and environmentalists’ groups have opposed the construction of the gold mining in Amulsar – mountain area in South of Armenia, located in the center of the national water supply. But in the last year this local protest has taken a trans-national dimension in the wake of the political changes that have affected Armenia and the “velvet post-revolution” government led by Nikol Pashinyan has to handle it with caution.

The project and the impacts

Armenia is a rich country in mineral resources including copper, gold, but also zinc, silver, zinc and other industrial minerals; these constitute more than a half of the country’s exports. Today Armenia, a country with a surface of less than 30.000 km2, counts around 27 mineral sites authorized and 17 of them are active. However, for decades the exploitation of these deposits has been the subject of controversy related to mismanagement and extremely negative environmental effects of many extractive projects. 

In 2012, a mining company Lydian Armenia (subsidiary of an offshore company called Lydian International) signed a first deal with the new Armenian government, at that time led by the Republican Party. In 2016, the company receives the final mine operation permit, even if the project’s implementation is highly problematic. Amulsar, which is the 2nd largest gold deposit in Armenia, is in fact located only 6 km away from the spa town of Jermuk, famous for its thermal water: the inhabitants (who were not been consulted about this project and its impact) are afraid that the proximity to the mine and the pollution resulted from it may discourage tourist flows there, thus affecting the main source of income of the community.

Moreover, scientists also indicate that the project could cause ecologic repercussions on a larger scale: Amulsar’s deposit is, indeed, located in an earthquake area and it increases the risk of contamination caused by processes of acid drainage, accelerated by the excavations, not just in Jermuk water supply but also in the adjacent rivers (Arpa, Vorotan and Darb), with negative consequences for agriculture and livestock. Furthermore, the contamination risks to arrive until Sevan lake – the biggest freshwater supply of the country and an almost sacred place for the Armenian popular culture. In conclusion, the project would alter Amulsar’s ecosystem, a place which hosts different protected species, among them the Caucasian leopard (or Persian Leopard) – that counts just 10 in Armenia.

A turning point 

After years of protest, in June 2018 local communities decided to take advantage from the opportunity offered by the “velvet revolution” that took place over one month before (thanks to the unprecedented wave of massive peaceful protests). So, they decided to take a direct action and block the streets which bring to the mine. That’s how the campaign #SaveAmulsar was born: for over a year and a half, local people supported by environmental activists have been supervising the entrance to the mine by taking turns guarding the checkpoints they have built, effectively preventing the continuation of work on the site.

The citizens’ euphoria received a severe blow on 9 September this year, when the prime minister Nikol Pashinyan has unexpectedly given the go-ahead for the digging in the gold mine of Amulsar asking the liberation of the streets, after having opened an enquiry and commissioned an independent report to assess the environmental impact of the project. As explains Anna Shahnazaryan, activist of the movement Armenian Environmental Front, interviewed by Kiosk, “the independent report, published in August, declared that the estimations made by Lydian about the mining impact on water supply were incorrect, and the project had different errors of assessment – including intentional mistakes. Therefore, the procedures of environmental impact mitigation adopted by Lydian were not adequate”. 

Nevertheless, the Investigative Committee in charge of the enquiry and the prime minister himself concluded that the company would be able to manage all environmental risks. “For this reason, – Shahnazaryan continued – in the two months the situation has become frenetic: the prime minister has taken the side of Lydian and has organized different meetings with the company’s representatives, in the meantime we activists have taken over the streets both in Amulsar and in Erevan”. 

The issues of the Armenia “post-revolution”

The experts suggest that Pashinyan is protecting the private interests of Lydian Armenia and its investors (among them USA, United Kingdom and different international financial institutions) to avoid that the company asks for the Investor-State Dispute Settlement (ISDS). It is an international request which allows a foreign investor to ask an arbitration by a commercial court in the case in which the State violets its right: this decision can cost to Armenia around two billions of dollars, that is two third of its national budget.  

However, there are also those who believe that Pashinyan’s ambiguous position is symptomatic of some of the criticalities of the post-revolutionary government: first, the lack of an ideology that goes beyond the overthrow of the corrupt political system that had been in the hands of former president Serzh Sarghsyan for ten years. According to Anna Shahnazaryan, “the present government uses many slogans, but behind the slogans there is little action. And one of these slogans is ‘we will not follow the economic path traced by the previous government, which focused on the mining industry, but we will try to develop new sectors such as tourism and the IT sector'”.

In practice, the “economic revolution” that Pashinyan wants to bring about in Armenia seems to be based on the same neo-liberal approach as the previous government, aimed at “opening up the country” to multinationals and foreign investors (with the 400 million for Amulsar, Lydian would be the largest single investor in the history of  the independent Armenia). An idea of “development” to which ecological considerations, human rights and the well-being of citizens are subordinated.

Another problem, Shahnazaryan points out, is that “with the revolution in Armenia a certain idolatry has developed towards the current premier, who is considered the leader of the revolution. Many former activists who participated in the revolution and were then elected to Parliament have now expressed ‘unconditional support’ to Pashinyan’s position on Amulsar. According to the activist, this would have raised many concerns, even among those who were not necessarily opposed to the project, “because it is something that damages the democratic structure of the country: the legislative body should not ‘unconditionally support’ the person who is in charge of supervising”.

#SaveAmulsar continues 

Last year, the Armenian Environmental Front launched a petition asking to municipal councils in Jermuk and other towns in the region to ban all mining activities and declare Jermuk an ‘ecological area’. Although the petition has collected 12,000 signatures so far, the government has recently appealed against this initiative. Lydian Armenia is also putting pressure on protesters through legal channels.

Meanwhile, activists are trying to internationalize the movement, with the aim of denouncing the responsibilities of international financial institutions (in this case, the European Bank for Reconstruction & Development) and other project funders (notably, the Swedish government which channelled money to Amulsar through state export-credit funds) in the global phenomenon of extractivism – namely non-sustainable development practices based on the extraction of mineral resources at the expense of the interests of local communities and the environment on which they depend.

Anna Shahnazaryan is convinced that the government cannot give to Lydian the definitive authorization “because the citizens are firmly opposed to the project, and if Pashinyan decides to use violent methods it will only turn against him”. The stake for Amulsar seem to be very high: what is at stake is not “only” the protection of the environment and natural resources, but also the legitimacy of Nikol Pashinyan and the future of democracy in Armenia.

ORIGINAL ARTICLE in the East Journal in Italian, by Laura Luciani.

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