More 200 environmental activists and their sympathizers marched to a rich forest in northern Armenia on Sunday in protest against its ongoing transformation into an open-pit mine which they believe would severely damage the local ecosystem.
The country's leading environment protection groups have for years been campaigning against plans by the Armenian Copper Program (ACP) mining company to develop a massive copper and molybdenum deposit lying beneath the Teghut forest. It is estimated to contain 1.6 million tons of copper and about 100,000 tons of molybdenum.
The project, if implemented, will lead to the destruction of 128,000 trees. Critics say that would wreak further havoc on Armenia's green areas that have already shrunk since the 1990s. The ACP has pledged to offset the damage by planting new trees in the area and creating more than 1,000 new jobs.
Despite the uproar, the Armenian government gave the green light to the controversial project in 2008. Ecologists say that about one-fifth of the 357-hectare forest given to the Liechtenstein-registered company has already been cut down in preparation for the start of mining operations.
Chanting “Shame!” the protesters, most of them young people from Yerevan, walked several kilometers to reach the mountainous forest located in the northern Lori province. Scores of police as well as ACP security guards were deployed there to bar them from advancing deeper into the future mining site.
The protesters were also confronted by a large group of local residents working for the company. The latter angrily dismissed environmentalists’ warnings that open-pit mining would pollute air, water and agriculture land.
“You guys don’t know the plight of the people here,” one man told the protesters. “They were desperate for a living and now live like human beings. What do you want from those people [at the ACP?]”
“When you enjoyed life in Yerevan, we were hungry here,” said another miner.
Still, some residents of two villages adjacent to Teghut did join the environmental protest. “They have appropriated people’s wealth and are now doing what they want,” one man said of the ACP owners. “They make people work for only 60,000 ($160) drams a month. People work because they have no other choice.”
The ACP’s holding company, the Vallex Group, meanwhile, accused the protesters of illegally trespassing on its property and disrupting ACP operations. “The company has suffered substantial damage,” Vallex claimed in a statement, threatening legal action against organizers of the protest.
Vallex also owns Armenia’s largest copper smelter located in the Lori town of Alaverdi. The town is notorious for its polluted air and high incidence of grave diseases.