Teghut III The Dangers

by Kirk Wallace, AEN Armenia Office Director

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As we made our way to the field, we 250 activists came across a meadow used to collect harvested trees from the nearby forests.  It struck me, in a country whose forests have shrunk from 20% to 7% in the previous twenty years, that this was certainly a portent of calamitous events ahead.  And, on this day, this was to prove to be the most obvious of the many portents we witnessed.  This sense of dread became crystallized moments later as we topped a ridge line and crossed a mountain slope that was completely denuded of its trees.  Tree stumps stuck out of the earth like eerie grave-markers, a reminder of once what existed.

According to the World Bank, Armenia is in danger of losing all of its forests in the next 20-30 years.  Turning over 1000+ hectares of public land to a mineral company and allowing them to create an open pit mine smack in the middle of one of the few remaining forests, begs many questions.  The one addressed in this entry is, “What specifically are the dangers posed to the environment?” I’ll leave you to add to the list of questions that need to be asked, and answered.

Let us review the land in question. As described in the abstract, Armenia: Anthropogenic Environmental Disaster in the Making:

Open pit mine in Nevada provided courtesy of the United States Geological Survey (http://pubs.usgs.gov/fs/2005/3023/)

Open pit mine in Nevada provided courtesy of the United States Geological Survey (http://pubs.usgs.gov/fs/2005/3023/)

The allocated land for the mining operation is 1,491 hectares (ha)–82% (or 1,232 ha) of which is covered with forests. The project plans clear-cutting 357 ha of the forest. As a result of resource extraction, one of the forested mountains will be replaced by a 600 meter deep pit. Dumping tails will be disposed in the gorge of Duqanadzor River. Exploitation of the mine will produce about 500 million tones (sic) of tailings and 600 million tones (sic) of various other wastes.

From this statement alone it is easy to discern grave environmental concerns in Teghut’s immediate future. The elements comprising these concerns include water and soil pollution, deforestation, species loss and other unforeseen consequences.  I will examine each.

  • The Teghut mine poses a clear threat to the area’s water supply.  Mines in Armenia are notorious for dumping their tailings (waste products left over after the extraction of valuable materials) in shoddily constructed reservoirs or directly into rivers and streams.  Protestations by Vallex to the contrary, a tailings dump in Teghut would seriously endanger plants, animals and humans.  In 2001, Vallex commissioned Strathcona Mineral Services Ltd. to conduct an environmental safety and economic feasibility review of the proposed site at Teghut.  One of their conclusions was “Given the mountainous terrain around the deposit, and the location in an area prone to severe earthquakes (emphasis added), there is a considerable technical, and therefore, financial challenge to deposit 500 million tones of tailings and 600 million tones of various waste categories in a safe and environmentally acceptable manner.”.  Tailings containing lead, arsenic, zinc, sulfurous compounds and much more would turn the Shnogh and the Debed River, into which it flows, into toxic zones, unfit for drinking, irrigation or plant and animal life.
  • The mine also poses an obvious danger to the Teghut forest.  1232 hectares, out of the forest’s 1491, were allocated by the government, to Vallex, for the mine.  Of these 1232 hectares, 357 will be clear cut to place the open pit mine.  Today in Armenia, less than 7% of the country is covered with forest, down from the 20% coverage that existed in the early 1990’s.  Armenia’s loss of forests is shocking, unprecedented and presages an incalculable environmental disaster.  In addition, the mining operations, which have permission to operate on 1232 hectares, pose a serious risk of increasing soil erosion, damaging the water table and causing habitat extinction.
  • Species loss is the inevitable result of water pollution and habitat destruction.  As one of Teghut’s last remaining ancient forests, it is the home to a wide variety of plant and animal species.  According to the abstract, there are 200 species of plants, 55 species of mammals, 86 species of birds, 10 species of vermigrades and 4 species of amphibians.  The Red Book of Armenia, a listing of all endangered plant and animal species, includes 6 endangered plant and 29 endangered animals species found in Teghut.
  • According to Eleonora Gabrielyan, president of the Armenian Botanical Society and doctor of biological sciences, Teghut is home to Armenian Red Book species such as the walnut, Trautvetter’s maple, and the Caucasian Persimmon, of the ebony family. The last has been officially considered very rare and on the verge of extinction as recently as 1989-1990. Gabrielyan also said that one can also find Atryushenko’s snowdrop (Galantus artjushenko).
  • The Teghut forest is also home to animal species listed in the Red Book. “The rock eagle and snake eagle can be found here and both are listed as endangered species in the Armenian and International Red Books. There are also certain small bird species which are listed in the Armenian Red Book,” said Martin Adamyan, doctor of biological sciences and director of the Biological Museum at the National Academy of Sciences Institute of Biology.

The Teghut region is beautiful and its forest nurtures a host of irreplaceable treasures.  These hidden treasures were not visible to us on this day, but we knew they were there.  Re-crossing the denuded hillside, I thought once again of these threatened treasures.  Anger for the disregard shown for the long term health and viability of this land is impossible to properly express in a blog such as this and to express this anger risks inviting accusations of being over emotional and sensationalistic.  Fair enough.   Let us then just stick to the facts presented above and ask for an accounting of these facts by the Ministry of Nature Protection and the Government of the Republic of Armenia.  My next entry, Teghut IV – The Gate, will do this as we begin to discuss the specific laws opponents identify that are being violated in Teghut.