The article was written by Mary Matosian Tufenkian Foundation country director and was published in The Armenian Weekly.
Young Armenians concerned with environmental threats in Armenia created the Save Teghut civic initiative in Nov. 2007. Many participated in successful actions to save Kacharan, in the Syunik region, from harmful mining and Trchkan waterfall from destruction.
These activists are not affiliated with any organization or political party and they insist on covering their expenses either through their own means or donations from the general public. While they started with about 20 activists, today Save Teghut has over 6,000 followers on Facebook, and many more supporters in the regions of Armenia without internet access. Groups who support the Save Teghut movement have so far been established in Moscow, Germany, and Los Angeles.
Save Teghut addresses the disastrous environmental situation in Armenia. It aims to raise awareness among Armenians of the environmental dangers looming over our country, as well as the irresponsible, illegal, and secret activities of mining companies in collaboration with the oligarchic system in Armenia. The group works to protect the ecosystem and promote public health by ensuring that Armenia’s water, air, and land are clean. In the Teghut forest, specifically, the civic initiative demands the end of the mining project.
Unfortunately, environmental restrictions are not enforced in Armenia for most of the major mining operations, which results in damages to the ecosystem of the surrounding areas. Often corruption originates at the stage of issuing licenses and acquiring permits. Corruption in the forest sector is widely believed to be associated with businesses sponsored by high-level government officials. The government’s actions have been insufficient to stop the destruction of Armenia’s forests as a result of illegal logging. In addition, the government has recently reclassified many forest areas without due justification, and has allocated them to local communities or private individuals.
The Armenian Copper Program (ACP), whose majority shareholder is the Vallex F.M. corporation, has been awarded a 25-year exploitation license by the Armenian government to extract the copper and molybdenum ore buried in the Teghut mountains. ACP is in the process of developing an open pit mine. The amount of forested land the company plans to clear cut is around 1,500 hectares (approximately 650 football fields). Several rivers will be polluted or dry up. It takes around 200 years for a forest to recover. Armenia has lost 7-12 percent of its forests since 1998.
Furthermore, villagers relate that they received miserable remuneration. One villager stated that he applied to the mining company for a job and was offered a salary of 60,000 AMD ($155) per month for very hard work, and had to decline the job offer. He complained that parcels of lands were announced as eminent domain and were bought by the mining company for 38 AMD ($0.9 cents) per 1 square meter. No effort has been made by the government to develop agriculture or to invest in the area.
Since November 2007, environmentalists have tried to halt the further development of copper and molybdenum processing near the village of Teghut in the Lori province, which, they say, will irrevocably damage the ecology and surrounding villages. Twenty-five years from now, when the Vallex Corporation finishes mining in the region, the arable and surrounding land will no longer be fertile or usable.
The health risks of mining are quite apparent, especially in Armenia where no regulations, safety standards, and monitoring are implemented. Irresponsible mining in Armenia has created devastating health problems for the population, including unnaturally high rates of birth defects, developmental defects, and chromosomal disorders accompanied by increased respiratory diseases, allergies, and other health problems.
Many environmental problems in Armenia—including those related to water resources, mining, forests, and protected areas—are closely associated with corruption. The exploitation of natural resources takes place without due justification of decisions and with restricted public access to information. Furthermore, decisions can typically be traced to special interest groups and are made without due attention to the declared long-term sustainable development goals of the government.
The Zhoghovurd Daily, for example, reported that a 148-hectare forest was allocated to Arab Sheikh Mohammed Musallam by Armenian Nature Protection Minister Aram Harutyunyan, but in return for what, it asked.
The construction of the ore processing plant, as another example, and the exploitation of the copper-molybdenum mine in Teghut will ostensibly result in a breach of 77 Armenian laws and a range of international conventions signed and ratified by the Republic of Armenia, such as the UN Aarhus Convention Compliance Committee. In 2009, the UN Economic Commission for Europe (ACCC/C/2009/43) condemned the decisions of the government of Armenia regarding its exploitation of the mine in Teghut and adjacent territory since it does not comply with the Aarhus Convention.
The 44 members of the UN Economic Commission for Europe have strongly condemned Armenia’s continuing violations of international obligations and demand that all decisions regarding the Teghut mining exploitation be considered invalid. On Jan. 25, 2012, the members also signed a declaration condemning the flagrant human rights violations associated with the exploitation, and demanded a stop to mining in Teghut forest.
Armenia’s laws do not allow the exploitation of areas populated by endangered species, nor do they allow damage to archeological sites. Teghut forest houses 19 animal and plant species that are part of Armenia’s Red Book of Endangered Species, and an archeological team from Armenia’s Academy of Sciences uncovered many artifacts dating back to the Bronze Age and many other Christian-era monuments. If mining continues, these will be completely lost.
Activists, energized by the results from Trchkan and Kacharan, have undertaken the defense of the Teghut forest. On Jan. 15, around 250 people visited the area in a hiking action initiative to familiarize people with the issue. Media coverage was significant, and the Teghut issue was featured in articles, TV interviews, and YouTube clips. The country has finally taken notice of the damage created by the ACP/Vallex group and the environmental dangers awaiting us. Irreversible environmental damage, unfortunately, has already resulted from the lack of strict mining regulations, coupled with barbaric exploitation and corruption, as government and interested parties have proved they are only concerned with making a profit.
Activists were able to energize the Armenian youth in Moscow and many have extended their support. The Save Teghut movement is proud of this achievement and is in the process of involving diasporan youth into the civic movement in Armenia. The “Shant” AYF Western U.S. region has already been active in supporting the movement, raising awareness among diasporans, and extending various skills to support the group. Save Teghut activists have contacted German environmental activists and groups and are working in unison to raise awareness in international organizations about the ecological and environmental disasters in Armenia.
The young activists ask that Armenians in the diaspora create support groups and pressure the Armenian government to obey the laws and environmental conventions it has signed, and to condemn its harmful mining policy. Soon, Save Teghut will launch its website and an online petition. Donations to the group are helpful to organize future initiatives and disseminate information. The group is also appealing to businesses in the diaspora to look into investment options in the Teghut region, so that they can help protect the eco-system of the forest and the fundamental rights of the local population to live in a healthy and safe environment.
Information for this article was provided by Save Teghut, as well as the Public Forum Armenia (PFA) Environmental Report.