Hundreds of farmers blocked a major highway in Armenia on Thursday as they protested against the construction of a hydroelectric plant which they believe would destroy their livelihoods.
The angry protesters are residents of seven villages in the central Aragatsotn province that mainly live off apple groves highly dependent on irrigation water coming from a reservoir. A private company owned by unknown individuals has been allowed by the Armenian government to use that water for power generation.
The villagers fear that the hydroelectric plant would severely restrict water supplies to their orchards. They blocked a section of the main highway running from Yerevan to the Armenian-Georgian border to demand an immediate halt to the construction.
The road remained closed for three hours, until the Aragatsotn governor, Sargis Sahakian, arrived at the scene and talked to the farmers joined by a group of environment protection activists from Yerevan. Sahakian convinced them to unblock it after promising to have excavators and other construction equipment removed from the site of the would-be plant.
Sahakian stopped short of promising, however, that the plant will not be built. He insisted that the facility would not affect the local irrigation system in any way. “People have been misled,” he told RFE/RL’s Armenian service (Azatutyun.am).
The governor claimed at the same time that construction workers and equipment were deployed near the reservoir only to repair irrigation canals. The villagers were unconvinced. “It’s a lie,” said Levon Khachatrian, a parliament deputy living in the area who also joined the protest.
The highway section was again blocked moments later after the environmentalists scuffled with a group of men, who did not look like protesters. The Yerevan-based activists said they believe they were attacked by plainclothes police officers. “You will be held accountable,” shouted one of them.
The protesters again reopened the road to traffic after hearing fresh assurances from the governor. They warned that they will repeat their actions if the controversial construction goes ahead.
Dozens of small hydroelectric plants have been built or are under construction on fast-flowing mountainous rivers across Armenia over the past decade. The process is increasingly meeting with strong resistance from farmers living nearby as well as environmentalists. The latter claim that many of the plants cause serious damage to the country’s ecosystem.