Residents and eco-activists protest against mine development in north Armenia
Protests have broken out in the Lori region of north Armenia against the development of a new mine which may damage the development of eco-tourism in the area where several other mining enterprises are already operating. Local residents, eco-activists, and eco-tourism investors are protesting against the building of mines on the territory of several villages and along the 38-kilometer road connecting the city of Vanadzor and the Tumanyan community.
The Czech company Lusajur Ventures Invest planned to meet with residents of five villages – Margaovita, Vahagnadzor, Vahagni, Debeda, and Yeghegnut to obtain permission for geological exploration of new deposits of gold and copper, however, public discussions attended by eco-activists, villagers and the company representatives have failed.
The territory of the new mine is planned to cover an area of 13 sq. m, and head of the village of Vahagnadzor, Edik Egoyan, belongs to their community states that the majority of this land belongs to their community:
“If the mine is built, its entrance will be located in Vahagnadzor. The villagers are against it. The entire territory is covered with forests, we have a lot of springs here, are recreation areas are located in the territories adjustment to the mines, including the Lori holiday house and a summer camp”.
Those who have invested in the region are also worried about the situation. Many of the locals believe that the region should be developed through tourism, light, and food industries, rather than mining.
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Arguments against the mines
The Debed Life creative house was opened in the village of Debed last year and here, guests can enjoy an inspirational environment for creative work.
“Considering the factors of the coronavirus and the war, and the post-war period, I think we had a very productive year. The opening of the mine will be a disaster for business. I am not engaged in tourism, my work does not depend on the tourist season, I always have guests.
The foundation of my business is a healthy lifestyle. People consciously choose this very beautiful nature as a more effective and favorable environment for their work. We have guests from different countries, some of them intend to invest in projects in Armenia”, says the founder and director of the project, Tatevik Aghababyan.
Tatevik adds that beekeeping, agriculture, cattle breeding, even the sphere of information technologies are developing in the region, and the decision to open a mine in the region has come as a surprise for everyone:
“I myself have invested quite a lot of money, right now at the stage of approval of two additional business plans, and I am talking about six-digit figures. Mining is an illusory investment with short-term returns. We are talking about changes in business culture, we are talking about a revolution in the rural environment.
Debed Life is a new benchmark of rural life in this region. We have a large scope of influence; business-minded and creative people meet here. But even a hint of a mine, not to mention the operating one, and the entire investment potential of the region will be called into question”.
Tatevik Aghababyan believes that the mining industry has a colonial, slave-owning character, while ideas like her project are aimed at the future.
Vahagn Vardumyan, an independent expert in the development of ecotourism, turned his grandfather’s house in the village of Vahagni into a guest house and named it “Vaagnitun” (Vahagn’s house). He plans to create glamorous camping and places for outdoor recreation with comfort:
“Our village is not far from the SMART-center operating in Debed, which was built by the Children of Armenia Foundation. IT specialists have a real opportunity to move here with children and the whole family. Vahagni is located at an equal distance from Yerevan and Tbilisi, which is important from the point of view of tourism: both residents of Yerevan and Tbilisi can come here. We organize hikes, people admire nature and these places. But all of a sudden they want to build the mines.
In Vahagni, everyone is against them. The idea of ecotourism has already begun to work and develop in the villages. With this intent, my friend bought a house in the village. An investment environment is being created, and the villagers are seeing these changes. They themselves open guest houses of their own, and an integral system is being created. But now some people from the outside are interfering”.
Gevorg Vardanyan, coordinator of the Lori Tourism Center and director of Rafting in Armenia said that over the past two years, unprecedented development of tourism has been observed in the Lori region, and while the country’s borders were closed, domestic tourism has intensified:
“There were investments of $ 11.5 million. The Ministry of Territorial Administration does not consider this a serious investment, for them serious investments are mines. Even if we leave tourism aside, the light industry in these places is also developing. These five villages are located on the same mountain range. If you develop a mine, they will start to collapse – one by one”.
Gevorg Vardanyan says that he met with representatives of the Ministry of Territorial Administration and the Ministry of the Environment and, as a result, realized that they were not interested in tourism:
“But serious development has been observed in the region, and this is already a problem for investors. Now we are trying to protect their interests and maintain a balance with them.
It is a shame that the current government is not ready to maintain the balance, they consider the mining industry a priority since the economy is in a difficult situation. All the mines operating in Lori combined are only bringing a penny to the budget, but the harm they do is enormous”.
Are mines a priority?
Narine Hakobyan, an expert on the subsoil management of the Ministry of the Environment, says that it is impossible to simply stop the development of mines in Armenia in one fell swoop, based solely on the harm they bring to nature:
“Now the ministry is pursuing a policy of stable development and providing new technologies for new mines. It is necessary to develop some mechanisms in order to mitigate and neutralize, if possible, both the consequences of the tailing dumps inherited from the past, embankments around the mines, and the impact of new mines”.
During a meeting with ecologists, Minister of the Environment Romanos Petrosyan explained that if companies receive permission for geological exploration of the territory and find deposits of expensive metals, this does not mean that they will receive permission to develop the mine, and no such permission will be issued if the local residents are opposed to it.
“We will not allow violation of public interests for the illegal or even legal enrichment of one person or clan. But the following circumstance must be taken into account: until our economy is diversified enough so that we can replace part of the GDP that is provided by the operation of mines with intellectual property, information technology, and industrial sectors, we will have to continue to develop the economy at the expense of at least the mines that are operating already”, – said Romanos Petrosyan.
Former deputy governor of the region Gayane Markosyan believes that the work of the mines is a necessity for the state, but the interests of citizens cannot be ignored.
Gayane Markosyan notes that the residents of Lori are wary of the opening of mines, as there has been a negative precedent already:
“The catastrophes we witnessed in our region allow us to approach the issue strictly. On the territory of Alaverdi, the most negative consequences of the activities of the mines are observed. Here we have the highest rates of cancer, abnormal childbirth, and other diseases. Until the operating mines have implemented mechanisms for safe operation, it is problematic to talk about opening the new ones”.
Protection of nature and human rights
Oleg Durgaryan, head of the Center for Unification and Support of Communities, believes that Lori is already a disaster zone, faced with deep-seated economic and healthcare problems.
“Research conducted in 2020 in the Akhtala community showed critically high levels of arsenic in children. This is a major problem. But who protects the residents of the community, how are their problems solved, do we have such mechanisms at all? When we go to the ministry of health, we are told that they have no mechanisms to measure all of this.
When we appeal to the Ministry of the Environment, we are told that this is not within their mandate. Until we create mechanisms for measuring the impact of mines on the environment and on human health, there are no compensation or insurance mechanisms yet, we should forget about the development of new deposits completely”, says Oleg Durgaryan.
He recalls that two years ago the authorities stated that Armenia should switch from a raw-material model of the economy to a high-tech one:
“Why is there now a desire to increase the number of mines? This speaks of the prospects, concepts of political and economic development of the state. Mine development is the easiest solution if you can’t do anything else”.