Teghut The Field

by Kirk Wallace, AEN Armenia Office Director

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There were 250 of us at Teghut.  It was Sunday, January 15 and we were there to protest the illegal mining operation underway and to hike into the forested area.  What we found were road blocks and people organized to protest against us.   We, 250 activists from Yerevan and Vanadzor, found ourselves arrayed on a hillside peering down at 150 mine workers and citizens from the nearby villages of Teghut and Shnogh, as well as the city of Alaverdi.  It brought to mind the scene in Braveheart where the Scots and English were staring each other down prior to the bloody battle.   In the case of Teghut, however, the lines between good and evil were not as clear, primarily because the mine workers and citizens are finding themselves in a very tough spot, forced to choose between protecting their ancestral homeland from irreparable harm, or employment.  Like many actions of this nature, “should-be” allies find themselves pitted against each other.  In fact, Teghut can be seen as a microcosm of much of Armenia’s problems today which will be the focus of my upcoming entries.

This topic is too large for a single entry so I decided to split it into six parts.  This entry will describe the history of the mine at Teghut so that the reader can understand what has the activists so up-in-arms.  The second entry will describe the main players involved in the conflict. The third entry will detail the specific environmental threats facing Teghut.  The fourth entry will cover, specifically, those laws that the activists believe are being violated.  The fifth entry will detail the process that should be followed, according to the constitution of the Republic of Armenia and the Aarhus Convention. The sixth entry will cover the sticky issues of the goals of the activists and the economic challenges facing the affected villages of Teghut and Shnogh.   The issue of employment presents, perhaps, the greatest challenge to the environmental movement and to the country as a whole.  How can Armenia modernize and prosper in a fashion that is environmentally sound and socially constructive?  This is the challenge.

Teghut is located in Lori marz, about 30 miles northwest of Alaverdi, in northern Armenia.  Teghut is the name of the local village, after which the mine is named, and is located up-river from its neighboring village, Shnogh.    Shnogh is also the name of the river that meanders up the gorge toward the town of Teghut.  A tributary, the Duqanadzor enters the Shnogh from another gorge in the location of the mine itself.  The Shnogh provides the residents with drinking and irrigation water.  Together the population of the villages is approximately 3600 people and traditionally the villagers have been farmers and cultivators of forest products.  The Teghut forest is adjacent to these villages and represents one of Armenia’s few remaining preserved forest areas.  It is in this forest that the Vallex Group’s subsidiary, the Armenian Copper Program, has begun the process of establishing a mine to extract copper and molybdenum.  The story, however, begins in 2001.

In the interest of full disclosure, much of the information for these entries is distilled from the Teghut Defense Group’s abstract Armenia: Anthropogenic Environmental Disaster in the Making, authored by Arpine Galfyan of the Institute for Defense of Human RightsPolicy Forum Armenia’s 2nd Annual Report on the State of Armenia’s Environment, compiled articles from Armenia Tree Project, and an interview with Sona Avazyan of Transparency International.

Licensing for the mine was granted in 2001 to the Armenian Copper Program, a subsidiary of the mining corporation, Vallex Group (I will have more on Vallex in the next blog entry).   According to Armenian law, any company wishing to erect structures or alter the natural landscape must first conduct an environmental impact assessment, or EIA.  I will delve into the particulars of EIAs in the fifth blog of the series. An EIA essentially requires the developer to determine the possible environmental impacts of construction and to provide solutions and cost analyses for mitigating these impacts.  The developer is also required to forecast long term damages to flora, fauna, water sources and so on.   Vallex had an EIA conducted in 2004 and the findings were deemed “positive” in 2006.

The positive conclusion of 2006 is disputed by a wide variety of NGOs, scientists and other activists and is the primary focus of this six-part blog.  Wide ranging opposition sprung up as a result of the government findings.   For its part, Vallex followed the rules outlined in the laws, holding public hearings and conducting its environmental studies.  The issue here is with how the studies were conducted and the conclusions reached.  Opponents are quick to point out the numerous erroneous conclusions and shoddy scientific methods employed in conducting the EIA.  Most telling, to this writer, is that the EIA was conducted by Lernametalurgiai Institute cjsc (LMI).  LMI is a subsidiary of Vallex Group and essentially holds a de facto monopoly on conducting EIA’s for the mining industry in Armenia.

Opposition began in earnest shortly after the 2006 EIA was made public.  Protestations went unheeded and unanswered, thus the opposition pursued justice through the courts.  To date, the court proceedings have yielded unsatisfactory results for the opposition.  The opposition itself has undergone changes.  Many of the original opponents have since “moved on” to other issues and have been replaced by the next generation of young activists.  It is this group that I found myself with, on the Field, and it is this group that is currently attempting to organize itself, find its voice, focus and leaders.

Back on the Field, nothing serious occurred this day.  The two sides stared at each other for a time and then each went about their business.  The protest was simple, non-violent and meant to show the developers that Teghut was not going to be mined without a fight.  In Braveheart, the hopelessly outmanned, out-trained, out-armed Scots were going up against a seemingly invincible opponent.  Through guile and guts, the Scots emerged victorious.  Would it were it that simple in the case of Teghut.  The underdog activists and villagers of Teghut and Shnogh are in need of help, particularly from the Diaspora, in order to stand a chance on this uneven field of battle.

I invite you to research this further on your own.  I have, as yet, not provided much in the way of research that shows the full extent of Vallex’s and government officials’ attempts to subvert the laws of the Republic of Armenia in their attempt to mine in Teghut.  My next blog will examine the main players in this drama more closely.