The crowd rallied in Hrazdan’s central square before heading to a nearby hill rich in iron ore in a convoy of buses and cars.
Bounty Resources Armenia Limited (BRAL), a company partly owned by a Chinese firm, plans to launch open-pit operations there and in two other, larger iron deposits elsewhere in the country in the coming years. A team of geologists hired by BRAL is currently working there to ascertain iron reserves hidden underground through test drilling.
Environment protection groups are strongly opposed to iron mining in the area, saying that it would pollute air, agricultural land and the Hrazdan river, the main supplier of irrigation water to the fertile Ararat Valley in the country’s south.
Many Hrazdan residents share these concerns. Some of them already demonstrated against the project late last month.
“There is a ghost town in China near a similarly exploited mine,” said one woman taking part in the protest. “We would have the same situation here.”
Miasnik Malkhasian, a geologist coordinating test drilling at the site, dismissed such concerns as he and his workers were confronted by the angry crowd. “There is no danger whatsoever,” he said.
The protesters remained unconvinced. Some of them smashed wooden boxes containing drilling samples. Police officers monitoring the demonstration did not intervene.
“Such criminal decisions are not made in Hrazdan,” Karine Hakobian, a leader of the opposition Zharangutyun (Heritage) party, told the protesters before the march. “They are made in Yerevan, at the presidential palace and the government building. They have turned us into slaves in our own country.”
Sasun Mikaelian, a Hrazdan-based former parliamentarian affiliated with the opposition Armenian National Congress (HAK), singled out former Environment Minister Vartan Ayvazian for blame.
The Hetq.am news service reported last January that by Ayvazian and his family at least partly control BRAL. The ex-minister, who now chairs one of the standing committees of the Armenian parliament, did not deny that.
The Hetq report followed the announcement by the Chinese company Fortune Oil that is has paid $24 million to acquire a 35 percent share in BRAL. Fortune Oil has the option of raising the stake to 50 percent for an additional $16 million.
Ayvazian had considerable regulatory authority over the mining industry when he served as environment minister from 2001-2007.