Teghut IV The Gate

by Kirk Wallace, AEN Armenia Office Director

After being denied access to the forest by the barriers, we 250 walked back down the hillside, denuded of all trees, toward the main gate of the mine.  There, behind the gates were approximately 50 workers, staring silently out at us as the organizers led chants and cheers and held signs.  We were informed by the organizers that a Vallex representative would be willing to come outside of the gates and receive the specific laws being violated by the presence of the mine.  He wanted to see “proof” that the mine was, in fact, violating laws.  The representative appeared and was met by the indomitable Mariam Sudukhyan and a small child who presented the representative with the specific laws in question.  Below, I outline some of these laws.

According to Arpine Galfyan of the Institute for the Defense of Human Rights (IDHR), the following laws have been violated.

  • RA Land Code
  • RA Water Code
  • RA Mineral Code
  • RA Law on Environmental Impact Expertise
  • RA Law on Allocation of Mineral Resources for Exploration and Exploitation (RA Law on Concession)
  • RA Law on Flora
  • RA Law on Fauna

Examining just two, the RA Law’s on Flora and Fauna clearly illuminates the bases of outrage on the part of advocates for Teghut Forest.  Article 17 of the RA Law on Flora states, “Any activity that results in decrease of the quantity and harm to the growing areas of the plant species registered in the Red Book of the Republic of Armenia is prohibited.”  Article 18 of the RA Law on Fauna states, “Any activity that will result in decrease of the quantity of animal species registered in the Red Book of the Republic of Armenia or will spoil their habitat is prohibited.”  Specific provisions of these laws are outlined by the group Policy Forum Armenia  (pages 39 – 46).  As stated in the previous blog entry, 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.

The Republic of Armenia is also in violation of a number of international environmental conventions which include:

  • UN Framework Convention on Climate Change
  • UN Convention on Biodiversity
  • UN Convention on Combating Desertification
  • UNESCO World Heritage Convention
  • European Landscape Convention
  • UNECE Convention on Environmental Impact Assessment in a Transboundary Context (Espoo Convention)
  • UNECE Convention on Access to Information, Public Participation in Decision-making and Access to Justice in Environmental Matters (Aarhus Convention)

The Republic of Armenia has signed each and every one of these conventions and, as such, has agreed to abide by their guidelines and precepts.

I am not a lawyer and so will not pretend to have read all of these and dissected the specific violated statutes of each.  I do want, however, to look very closely at two related laws, the RA Law on Environmental Impact Expertise and the UNECE Convention on Access to Information, Public Participation in Decision-making and Access to Justice in Environmental Matters, known simply as (thankfully) the Aarhus Convention, or even better Aarhus.

Aarhus was signed by Armenia in 1998 and ratified in 2001.  It is a simple convention that is built on three “pillars”.  These pillars are:

1. Access to Information

Any environmental information must be made available, to any member of the public, when so requested. Public officials must also provide and disseminate, in a transparent manner any new information to the public in a timely fashion.  There are very few instances where a government can refuse to give out information, and Teghut does not fall under this category.

2. Public Participation

Citizens must be informed, in a timely manner, regarding relevant projects having the potential to alter the environment and have the right to participate in the decision making and legislative process.

3. Access to Justice

Citizens have the right to justice in the form of judicial recourse should a company or government entity violate environmental laws and the principles of Aarhus.

Which actions, then, has the government of the Republic of Armenia and Vallex Group taken that constitute violations of the Aarhus Convention?  For this answer I turned to Sona Avazyan of Transparency International.  She informed me that the violations are:

  1. Vallex was given the license to operate Teghut in 2001 but this decision was not made public until 2006.
  2. After the original conclusions of the EIA in 2006, substantial changes have been made to the original exploitation plans.  These new plans have not undergone an additional environmental assessment or been open to public input and participation.
  3. The environmental impact assessment report prepared by the mining company covered only the first 8 years of the project – without consideration of consequences within 50 years of project lifetime and beyond, account of emergency situations and risks in a transboundary context;
  4. The decision-making processes related to Teghut mining did not fully satisfy the requirement of effective and timely public notification and participation in accordance with Armenia’s obligations under UNECE Aarhus Convention on Access to Information, Public Participation in Decision-Making and Access to Justice in Environmental Matters;
  5. The environmental assessment that was done is fraught with inaccurate data and specious conclusions.  TI contracted with an independent economist, Etita Vardgesyan, a lecturer at the Armenian State University of Economics to “crunch” the numbers of the EIA conducted by the Lernametalurgiai Institute cjsc (LMI).  In spite of not having access to all of the original baseline data, the economist easily found numerous errors in the report, ranging from small to egregious.  Even more troubling is the fact that several of the errors result from simple and basic mathematical miscalculations.   An example is:

Coefficient reflecting the amount of air polluting dust, indicated to be 0.1 in the text, is actually used as 0.001 in the formula, which practically makes the total amount of dust and consequently the economic damage 100 times lower.

A complete reading of the report reveals error upon error in the assessment and thus its conclusions must also be called into question.

Most recently a new EIA was commissioned by Vallex and was conducted by Environmental Resources Management.   This EIA was, as we were told, designed to “fill the gaps” in the LMI assessment but has not been released to the public and its findings and recommendations remain unknown.  Its existence begs several questions.  Why was the public not involved in the conduct of this assessment?  Why have the findings not been released to the public?  Did the ERM assessment use the baseline data from LMI’s assessment?

Finally, let us then examine the recent proclamation made by the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE).  In a January 25, 2012 declaration (#503), PACE declared that:

The Armenian Government, violating its international obligations, such as Article 1 of the Protocol to the European Convention on Human Rights, the Aarhus Convention, as well as Armenian legislation, by considering the agricultural lands of community and private ownership as being under the public supreme interest, against the will of their owners and the general public, forcefully takes those lands from their owners, changes their purpose and turns thousands of hectares over to mining, including the Teghut mine.

According to a decision of the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe (ACCC/C/2009/43), the decisions of the Government of Armenia regarding the exploitation of the mine in Teghut and its adjacent territory does not comply with the Aarhus Convention.

We strongly condemn the continuing violations of the international obligations of the Armenian government and we demand that all decisions regarding the Teghut mining exploitation be considered invalid.

This declaration was signed by 44 member nations of the assembly, including Zaruhi Postanjyan, the Armenian representative and member of the Armenian Parliament.

Clearly, there is cause for concern for anyone concerned with the rule of law and due process.

I never got the name of the mine representative who received the list of violations from Mariam.  He accepted them, had an animated discussion with some of the activists and then retreated behind the gates of the mine.  The Gate, steel and imposing, seemed a perfect representation of the mighty Vallex Group.  The Gate physically closed off all access to Teghut forest.  This forest that had belonged to all Armenians for decades was suddenly, and on the basis of specious scientific claims, literally given to a mining company for private profit.  Figuratively, the Gate represents for me all that is wrong with Armenian politics and, as a result, Teghut, which has been in existence for centuries, is in danger of being wiped off the face of the Earth within the space of a few years.

My next entry, Teghut V – The Grey Area will examine the process of gaining environmental “expertise” approval in Armenia.