Community voices: the struggle against the toxic Amulsar mine in Armenia

Par Lorena Cotza Oct 30, 2020

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In Armenia, the international mining company Lydian is developing the controversial Amulsar gold mine. Local residents and activists have been tirelessly protesting against the mine, that would pose a threat to their environment and economic livelihoods as it’s being built near the touristic spa town of Jermuk. Already during the construction phase, the project has caused significant pollution and problems for the local communities.

The International Financial Corporation (IFC) was one of the main shareholders, but eventually withdrew financing in 2017. In August 2020 also the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development terminated its funding, but the project is still going ahead.

As reported by Bankwatch, in August 2020 local activists who had been blocking access to the mine continuously for the past two years were forcibly removed by the mine’s newly-hired security detail. The mining company Lydian international has also repeatedly used Strategic lawsuits against public participation as a tactic against journalists and human rights defenders opposing the mine.

Below, an interview with Armenian activist Tehmine Yenoqyan.

Local people should be the ones deciding what’s happening in their territory, but this is not always the case. Can you tell us what happened with the Amulsar mine? 

The Amulsar project kicked off in 2006. At that time, the largest resort town, Jermuk, was left out of the list of affected communities because of an agreement between Lydian and the government. This meant the mine could be developed here without taking into account the opinion of this community. All of this led the community to stand up when we actually saw the environmental and social problems that arose during the construction phase.

In the spring of 2018, during the construction phase, when the company damaged Gndevaz drinking water pipelines, the Arpa River was polluted  and the dust became uncontrollable, the residents reached a drastic decision: they tried to stop the company operations. They blocked the road and collected 3,000 signatures to turn the metal-mining area into an environmental-economic area in the enlarged community of Jermuk. It should be noted that residents from the village of Gndevaz, which is affected by the Amulsar project, were ambivalent about the project.

All the hearings that were supposedly held in Jermuk and Gndevaz were of a fictitious nature and eventually turned into a fight. In the hearing in Jermuk in 2011, which did not have the status of a public hearing in accordance with the law, representatives of the administration bodies of Lydian Armenia CJSC (former Geoteam CJSC) were trying to put pressure on Jermuk residents.

Residents from Gorhayk took part in the public hearings held in Gndevaz in 2014, but there was not even a place for them to sit during the hearings. This is how the hearings in our communities took place, which caused controversy. The public hearings show the interest of Gndevaz Community Head in the project implementation, who later turned out to have vested interests – he corruptly alienated 10 hectares of land areas to his son for $810, and one year later resold these land areas to the company for $ 310,000. The development of such events led to the communities coming out against each other. On May 23, 2018, Gorayk residents blocked the road leading to Jermuk and demanded that the people of Jermuk clear the roads leading to Amulsar.

In another video you will see that Lydian’s workers resort to provocations, try to enter the Amulsar area by force, after which clashes start between them and the locals on  27.08.2018. This project, financed by the banks, and their implementers did not take into account the residents of the enlarged community of Jermuk, which led to many social conflicts. International development banks have their own standards, one of which is the standard of democracy. The EBRD’s IPAM is currently investigating what standards have been violated in the Amulsar project.

It is obvious that almost all the standards declared by the bank have been violated, but neither the bank nor the company acknowledges these facts. Their interests are only financial; only the 2.5-year-long local roadblock still in effect that forced Lydian to go bankrupt and reorganize, after which the EBRD dropped out of the program. It is a very difficult struggle against international capital, which may become a role model in other countries, people will be able to fight and win.

Can you tell us something about the mobilization of local people and civil society? How did you organize yourself to try to stop the project? And how did security guards and local authorities react – what are the risks local people faced for having opposed the project?

The community has been blocking the roads leading to Amulsar for 2.5 years. We got united because we have a specific goal to live in a healthy environment, to save Jermuk resort town, and to stop the desertification of Amulsar, which could have happened if the gold mine had been developed. Over the years, all the people who have spoken out against the program have been pressurized by the company, both in court and physically.

In recent months, provocations against civilians, penetrations into the community with guns, and the use of electric shocks and violence against Amulsar guards have been carried out following the involvement of new security teams hired to protect the company’s property. The latest provocation was the relocation of the Amulsar guards’ caravans by the company’s guards and the installation of Lydian caravans right on the roadside. It took about a week for the local population, and residents from other regions of Armenia, to be able to force the authorities to move the company’s property off the roadside.

It is noteworthy that in addition to various provocations by the guards, RA police officers were also abused. As a result, the Licensing Commission of Police Guard suspended the license of this security company.

During these years we have mobilized a very serious expert potential in Armenia and all over the world, translated the received documents into Armenian and submitted them to various relevant bodies. The Armenian judiciary is trying two cases against the Armenian government, whereas the permits issued to the company are being appealed. One of these cases has been going on for almost 6 years, the other – 2 years, in RA Administrative Court and Appeal Court, but they have not been resolved yet.

Every day we are pressurized by the company, which demands to clear the roads so that the company can work and poison our lives. The most vulgar materials about us are posted on social sites: having financial capital, they disseminate fake materials about us that defame our good reputation through fake pages as advertisements, which is oppressive and unpleasant.

Personally, I had a case when my neighbor secretly took photos of the visitors at my house, publicized who visited our house, the photo was disseminated on Facebook with indecent posts by a fake user. I filed a report on crime: a criminal case was instigated under the articles of collecting and disclosing personal information, but the criminal case was terminated. The criminal case reveals who carried out this whole operation. My neighbor passed the photo to Lydian’s security guard, who posted it via a fake page. My request to make him liable in a civil lawsuit was partially awarded by the court.

Those who oppose such development projects are often accused of being « anti-development », even though they are simply struggling to defend their rights and to decide their own priorities for the future. What are the needs for you/your community? What is your own idea/model of « development »?

There is a distortion of universal values ​​all over the world – people in different corners are struggling to have a peaceful corner to live their lives.

This is our way of living: a 70-year-old business, a spa business for Jermuk residents, and agriculture for Gndevaz, with which they have their own model of development, fully providing the resort town with agricultural products, where each family earns its own living. Yes, it sounds absurd, but the development banks have come to us and told us to leave our 70-year-old spa business and become a miner. They say we have not developed well, and to let them develop us, that is, poison us, so that later we can go and raise money, take out a loan to be cured of various diseases that may appear in the implementation of this project.

Our future is our resort, hotel business, agriculture, pure mineral water production, tourism. Water is considered more expensive than oil all over the world. There is no life without water. This is our wealth, our gold, our way of living; 25% of Armenia’s freshwater is accumulated in our territory.

Amulsar is also in Lake Sevan’s catchment basin, which provides water supply and is a powerful strategic resource for all of Armenia. The development of the mine will not contribute to our development, but destroy it. The project envisages having a heap leach facility – when there are uranium reserves in the area, when there will be acid drainage,  biodiversity will be severely damaged.

The IFC withdrew and the EBRD has now finished funding the project, but the « damage » is already done. Have the banks ever publicly recognised they shouldn’t have invested there? What is your message to IFC and EBRD regarding their legacy and their responsibilities?

Yes, the banks withdrew from this program, not willfully, but due to the consistent and demanding work of the residents of the affected communities, NGOs and environmental activists. IFC, taking into account all the risks, came to its own conclusion, although it stated that the company no longer needed their financing, as if the company had stabilized. Nevertheless, Lydian attempted to raise money to complete the construction after IFC left in 2017, but could not.

The EBRD also dropped out of the Amulsar project, but not on its own initiative or at will. Were it not for the locals’ long blockade of the roads leading to Amulsar, this bank would continue to finance Lydian to this day.

Even provoking such a serious social conflict in our region, which has led to bloodshed, the bank bears no responsibility. The bank thinks that it did everything right and constantly monitored, controlled the risks, kept the standards, but for some reason the locals have been keeping the roads leading to Amulsar blocked for 2.5 months.

The biggest gap is that we, as residents of the affected community, are not able to sue the banks in court because they are immune: we are not able to claim damages, to restore the landscapes that have been destroyed.

I asked this question to the IFC CAO team, who told me that the only format I could complain about was Ombudsman Offices. The reports of these structures may be public, but they do not have a binding toolkit. The development banks pursue the following strategy, they study the public complaint, improve their program, apply for new permits again, but they do not have a mechanism to leave the program.

Even now the EBRD does not want to admit its guilt, it continues to claim that it has always provided advice and monitored the situation in Amulsar. However, it is an obvious fact that standards of democracy, ecological and social responsibility, historical and cultural heritage and much more have been violated by the Amulsar project.

The EBRD continued to fund a project for more than 10 years, when the largest city, with a population of 4,000, was not an affected-community and was deprived of the right to participate in decision-making, and still suffered the greatest loss. The Gndevaz apricot was not suitable for sale because of the current dust, whilst yellow rain was falling in Jermuk meaning that the flow of tourists decreased until 2018. But when people stopped working in Amulsar, the air slowly cleared.

The greatest damage would have been done to the mineral waters in Jermuk if explosion works had started in Amulsar. For the EBRD, even the fact that a criminal case was initiated at the Investigative Committee of Armenia, where the company it financed is involved, did not matter. The company also used the money of this bank to buy all the land areas that were alienated from the community at terribly low prices and then resold to Lydian at high prices. The EBRD is also involved in these corruption schemes, and must be held accountable for them.

Additional resources and useful links

BankWatch page on the Amulsar project and the local community struggle to oppose the project

https://bankwatch.org/project/amulsar-gold-mine-armenia

A video by BankWatch

A video by the Transnational Institute

 

The complaint to the CAO Ombudsman:

http://www.cao-ombudsman.org/cases/document-links/documents/LydianComplianceInvestigationReport-06192017_Armenian.pdf

An example of pressurising the community:

Investigators of Investigative Committee Came to Enter Area in Lydian’s Cars 

dated on 13.07.2019 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3BGnpgIHXZI&t=160s 

Another example of physical pressure – applying electric Shock to Amulsar Guards:

https://www.1in.am/2800833.html:

An article about the project by Human Rights House Yerevan NGO:

https://iravaban.net/289023.html

On the disinformation spread on social media:

http://www.armecofront.net/en/news/criminal-case-reveals-that-lydian-armenia-mining-company-employees-were-spying-and-running-fake-profiles-in-social-media/

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Lorena Cotza
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