Teghut Part VI – What Now?

by Kirk Wallace, AEN Armenia Office Director

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Every time I start to scribble out this last blog entry, something meaningful seems to happen here.  Since I started this series, we have seen the Mashtots Park saga end, discovered the existence of an additional environmental impact assessment for Teghut completed by a firm called Environmental Resources Management (ERM), witnessed another parliamentary “election”, saw the firebombing of a local establishment frequented by LGBT patrons two weeks ago, and just a few days ago a culminating event in which a mob of angry young Armenians concerned with protecting the “national character” harassed and threatened a group of marchers commemorating Diversity and Tolerance Week here in Yerevan.  So what do we make of all this and how does it relate to Teghut?  I’m not sure I have the answer to those questions, but let me try and make some connections and sum up this Teghut series.

Teghut, for me, encompasses many of the most important issues that Armenia faces today.  Further, these need to be addressed if there is to be a future where the rule-of-law prevails and the needs of the many are put before the needs of the few.  These may seem like obvious sentiments to some, but they are not to the majority of the Armenian people.  Armenians living in Armenia, in general, seem to be dispirited and pessimistic about their future.   This bears repeating.  In many ways the people here are beaten down and lack any belief that their future includes a semblance of a working democracy, legitimately elected leaders, a judicial system free of bribes and corruption and any hope that peace with Turkey and Azerbaijan might be on the horizon.

This hopelessness exhibited itself on May 22, 2012 during the Tolerance and Diversity march.  I was at that march, and what I witnessed raised the hackles on my neck.  I saw an angry mob of 100+ Armenians screaming and threatening what was for the most part a group of about 20 women and 5 men.   I saw Armenians saluting, Hitler style, as the marchers walked by.  As a former history teacher, it is not a stretch to make uncomfortable parallels to past events.   What would bring out such venom in these young men?  Why the hatred?    I believe that when socio-economic conditions hit rock bottom, and “elections” of looming leaders often turn to the time tested, best practice method of distraction and obfuscation; scapegoating and pitting “groups”, one against the other.   I think that is happening here.  There is a Presidential election early next year, and perhaps the “leadership” wants to keep opposition movements at each other’s throats.  I don’t really believe, or want to believe, that the Armenian fascists are anything more than a very small fringe group of disaffected young men.

Why would the “leadership” feel the need to distract the public’s attention by allowing these fringe elements to run rampant?  Perhaps the answer lies in the events surrounding the Trchkan Waterfall and Mashtots Park demonstrations.  These were clearly victories for the opponents of the illegal construction activities.  Though small, unfunded and often unorganized, these activists still managed to galvanize support and draw attention to, and ultimately convince the government to reverse, the decisions to grant licenses for construction.   These two events convince me that something the activists are doing is working.  The attention they brought to Trchkan and Mashtots Park made the leadership uncomfortable enough to reverse course.   Had the licensing procedure followed Armenian law it would have been easy enough to ignore the protestors, but in both instances laws and procedures were skirted.  I believe they knew this and it made their public positions both precarious and uncomfortable.

Which brings us back to Teghut.  Teghut presents far greater challenges.  The Vallex Group has, to this point, probably done a better job of “following” law than any other mining company.  They have conducted public hearings and even had environmental impact assessments conducted.   They are courteous on the phone and will return emails.  Their vice president, Gagik Arzumanyan, is a charming guy and very sharp.  Vallex reminds me of one of those really smooth, well-run American operations that convince people to buy something they don’t need, is not good for them and will end up shortening and/or reducing their quality of life, like tobacco or a six-pack of arsenic.

What is at play are three issues, all conspiring to wreak permanent damage on the political landscape and the natural ecosystems in Armenia.  These three issues are the lack of:

  • Strict adherence to the law in the granting of licenses for mines and other industries.
  • Transparency in all of the procedures, including public involvement and access to resources in order to make informed decisions.
  • Accurate ecosystem valuation during the environmental impact assessment.

I have essentially covered the first two issues in earlier blogs, but the third one requires further detail.  I recently attended a conference whose subject was The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity (TEEB).  TEEB is a methodology for arriving at an accurate valuation of an entire ecosystem, including its economic, social, environmental and policy aspects.   TEEB does the in-depth work that is missing from the first environmental impact assessment, and possibly the second.  One way of looking at the TEEB methodology is to liken it to having a diamond’s value appraised at a pawn shop or a jeweler.  LMI has produced a pawn shop value for the Teghut ecosystem, with the complicity of the licensing agencies and the backing of the RA courts.

What AEN, and others, are asking for is that a new environmental impact assessment (EIA) be conducted, so as to arrive at a correct and fair valuation of the Teghut ecosystem.    In fact, it has recently been suggested, by an individual far more intelligent on these issues than I, that it is time to discuss whether or not there should even be a mining industry in Armenia at the present time.  The crux of the argument is that:

  • Armenia’s primary source of wealth is minerals.
  • The mining companies operating in Armenia are almost entirely foreign-owned, in partnership with a very few wealthy and powerful Armenians.
  • Armenians receive virtually none of the profits or benefits of their country’s mineral wealth (80% + of the profits flow to Russia, Canada, China and so on, as a general amount).
  • Mining is almost entirely open-pit, resulting in the annihilation of the location’s existing ecosystem.
  • Ecosystems in Armenia have been severely and fraudulently undervalued.
  • Mitigations are virtually never carried out and/or enforced.
  • Tailings dams (property of the state) are woefully neglected and frequently leak toxic materials into the environment.

Melding these points into a cogent argument renders the following result.  Armenia should re-examine, immediately, its commitment to the mining industry as the focal point of its economic policy and focus on strengthening sustainable development, especially the agricultural sector,while concurrently creating the means by which to establish a tourist industry, centered on both agri- and eco-tourism.  How radical is this thought?  Consider that Armenian lands and the wealth they contain do not, and should not, belong to foreigners.  Thus, profits generated by these minerals should primarily remain in Armenia for the benefit of Armenians.  This is exactly what is not occurring.  With an estimated 40% of Armenians living below the poverty line it is apparent that the current economic model benefits foreign mine owners and a few high placed Armenian plutocrats.

Further, once these mineral assets are depleted, Armenia will no longer have that wealth “banked” for a future in which prices for ores will undoubtedly increase.   This rampant depletion will leave Armenia’s future generations with no mineral wealth and less leverage in the world than it already has.  Rubbing salt in this wound is the fact that the damage left behind will be tremendously costly to the environment, human health, the abandoned towns and the national psyche.  The drastic undervaluing of the ecosystems where mines exist is further robbery of Armenia’s truest assets, its natural beauty and stunning diversity of ecosystems.   The saddest part is that these actions are aided and abetted by Armenians who exhibit no apparent concern for their progeny, or the progeny of their fellow citizens.

I think the Armenian people should benefit from the mineral and natural resource wealth beneath their feet in a sustainable manner, not in the current fashion.  Where mines exist, there should be accurate economic and environmental valuations.   Serious science is required, and pawn shop methodologies should not be tolerated.

Will the destruction of Teghut Forest be stopped?  Justice demands a clear answer to this question.  What price can you put on Teghut Forest?  How much is it worth?  If the mine proceeds, certain things are clear:  1. The productive and unique forest ecosystem will be gone; 2. The mineral wealth will be gone; 3. The toxic tailings will remain; 4. Human health will be compromised; 5. The profits will overwhelmingly flow north; 5. The average Armenian citizen will not benefit one iota from the mineral wealth mined from its lands.

Teghut is a symptom of much of what ails Armenia.  If we succeed in “healing” Teghut, then we succeed in strengthening the rule of law and the administration of justice, protecting Armenia’s wealth for future generations, adhering to scientific norms and precepts, and to establishing Armenia as a country that has hope for a sustainable future.  We simply cannot afford to fail in this endeavor.  First step?  Let’s get a new EIA conducted for Teghut and take it from there.