The embattled mayor of a remote Armenian village joined on Thursday more than 100 environmental activists in demonstrating in Yerevan against a German-owned company’s plans to expand open-pit mining in the southeastern Syunik region.
The mostly young crowd gathered outside the prime minister’s office and then marched to President Serzh Sarkisian’s official residence to demand that the Armenian government withdraw support for the project.
The government last April decided to give the Zangezur Copper-Molybdenum Combine (ZCMC) 181 hectares of land currently belonging to six Syunik villages. Residents of at least one of those villages, Kajaran, are strongly opposed to the land transfer, saying that mining activities near their community would prove disastrous for the local ecosystem.
The Kajaran mayor, Rafik Atayan, resigned and terminated his membership in Sarkisian’s Republican Party of Armenia (HHK) in protest earlier this month.
“We are asking our government to invalidate that infamous decision,” Atayan said through a megaphone as the protesters reached the presidential palace, holding up anti-mining slogans and chanting “Kajaran!”
“With a great deal of hope, we expect our president to scrap that decision,” he told RFE/RL’s Armenian service (Azatutyun.am) in separate comments. “We have big hopes.”
Organizers of the protest, among them parliamentarians from the opposition Zharangutyun (Heritage) party, demanded a meeting with Sarkisian. “We were told that he can’t receive us because the president of Armenia and the chairman of the Republican Party of Armenia is busy,” Zharangutyun’s Zaruhi Postanjian told the crowd moments later.
Environment Minister Aram Harutiunian said on Tuesday that the government will try to address Kajaran residents’ concerns but declined to specify possible solutions. Harutiunian also made clear that the ZCMC cannot go ahead with the project before an environmental impact assessment by his ministry.
The ZCMC, which is based in a Syunik town also called Kajaran, has said that it is taking villagers’ concerns seriously and is ready to offer them “beneficial and acceptable solutions.” But it has yet to respond to ecologists’ claims that mining operations would contaminate local water sources and agricultural lands.
“I won’t give up my house, I won’t give up my mother’s grave,” said Atayan. “I’m speaking on behalf of all villagers.”
Zharangutyun parliamentarians demanded on Wednesday that the Armenian parliament set up an ad hoc commission that would look into the Kajaran controversy and scrutinize the country’s mining industry. Armenian environment protection groups have long accused mining firms of flouting ecological standards.