How to prevent mining expansion in Armenia?
The Republic of Armenia is a small country occupying 29000 square kilometers with currently operating and closed mines. It does not have a comprehensive strategy on managing the consequences of these mines. This is the reason why the minerals of the country are plundered by local and foreign, specifically Russian companies which are not held to any accountability under the current regulations, as they are adopted specifically in such a way that is favorable for the mining industry. All the companies operating mines are based offshore, the extracted raw material is predominantly exported without being processed, leaving behind barren and polluted lands, tailing ponds, communities with high level of heavy metal pollution, demographic issues and a population with health issues.
23 companies own licenses to operate metal mines in Armenia, of which only 7 actually exploit the mines. Three metal mines are exploited in Syunik region of the country (by Zangezur Copper Molybdenum Combine (ZCMC), Geopromining (copper) and Charrat-Kapan (copper and gold)), two in Lori (Akhtala Mining company (copper) and Teghut copper mine owned by VTB bank) and one in Gegharkunik (Sotq Gold mine operated by Geopromining). To get a glimpse into the dismal situation caused by mining see documentaries Tailing Dams - a gift, Dangerous Zone. These films cover the situation with tailing dams, while In the grip of Russian Capital, is an investigation into the two large mines owned by a Russian company. Additionally, see the scientific report published by Arnika, a Czech organization studying the mining areas of the Lori region, and an additional article in Czech.
One of the exploitation licenses is commissioned for the area covering the Amulsar mountain and its adjacent territories in Vayots Dzor region, however the development of the mine was halted by the local population resisting this project that was brought to life with many legal violations. The local population blocked all the roads leading to the mining site and facilities for 2.5 years, which resulted in the bankruptcy of the company followed by the company's restructuring.
How to stop the mining catastrophe?
Tavush region – petitions as a means of resistance
The government of Armenia and specifically the Ministry of Environment does not have a National environmental policy which would set out the maximum number of mines in operation, norms of operation, a tax policy benefitting the state and a ban on further expansion of mining sites based on that strategy.
Given the lack of a guiding policy document, the Ministry is not in any way restricted to accept claims for operating new ones often with only one environmental impact assessment expert reviewing and issuing conclusions based on which permits are given. This means that in practice any entity that applies for a mine operation permit, receives it.
In 2021, "AT Group" company applied for the third time to conduct exploratory activities in Vazashen of Tavush region. Noyemberyan community of the same region was the first of the self-organized communities which compiled a petition in 2018 by which it declared itself an ecological economic territory. This entails a ban on mining and a search for alternative economic development. The petition was approved by the local self-governing body.
Vayots Dzor, a cradle of tourism or extractivism?
In 2018 and 2019, five communities of Vayots Dzor region (Jermuk, Yeghegnadzor, Gladzor, Vayq, Areni) followed the practice of Noyemberyan and with a total 13.000 signatures declared their communities areas of only ecological development. The local authorities approved the respective petitions. The actions of these communities were sparked by the 10-year-long struggle of Jermuk community against a gold mine in its vicinity on Amulsar mountain. Jermuk was the first community in Vayots Dzor that collected 3000 signatures banning metal mining in its territory and declaring itself an area of ecological economic development. This initiative spread to Gladzor, a community threatened by extractivist moves, then to Yeghegnadzor, Vayq, Areni and Malishka. All these communities are defending their right to live in a healthy environment.
The regional and central authorities responded to this popular democratic move with legal actions aimed at cancelling the approvals of the local self-governing bodies. The ruling party – Civic Contract, apparently started to ignore values of democracy and revolution it used to be promoting and applied administrative pressures on local authorities in defense of the extractive industry.
In Jermuk, the resistance to the Amulsar gold mine project took a new turn right after the "Velvet" revolution of 2020. Various actions of civil disobedience, peaceful protests and blockade of the mining site continued until September 27 of 2020, when the second Karabakh war broke out and lasted for 44 days. The war forced many of the local residents to mobilize around the needs caused by the war.
This resistance is prominent because it was against a project politically and financially supported by the EBRD and IFC. The story of this courageous resistance spread out to the world and continues to be spoken about. Just recently, on June 28 of 2022, CEE Bankwatch Network, International Federation of Human Rights (FIDH) and Civil Society Institute, a local human rights organization in Armenia, launched their report titled "Amulsar, Human Rights violations and Environmental Negligence in the Search for Gold".
The Armenian courts are not a favorite place for bringing in environmental disputes, and for a good reason. There are only two loud legal suits in the history of newly independent Armenia. The first one is the legal action against several ministries in charge of permits commissioning mining in Teghut, a forested area in the north of the country. The administrative court refused to give the NGOs brining in the claim a legal standing in a prolonged and ineffective lawsuit. The residents of the affected communities tried to sue the government for expropriating their lands, but to no avail. They only received some remedy after the violation of their rights was recognized by the European Court of Human Rights. These legal actions did not stop the disastrous exploitation of the Teghut mine.
The second precedent is the lawsuit lodged by the residents of the enlarged Jermuk community which include Gndevaz and Ketchut villages. While this legal process that encompasses two administrative lawsuits initiated back in 2015, the court is still in the process of deliberations. The residents of the impacted communities are disputing the legality of the permits given for the operation of Amulsar mine with defendants being the Ministry of Environment, Ministry of Territorial Administration and Infrastructure, the EIA Expertise state organization, with Lydian Armenia, the company holding the permits, being a third party.
Lori region, boycotting public hearings as a means of resistance
Lori region is a scenic mountainous area with many historical and cultural monuments, IT centers and active civic resistance spots. The existence of two concentrated mining sites in the northern part of the region has created a dismal situation for the communities of Mets Ayrum, Akhtala, Alaverdi, Teghut and Shnogh. Akhtala Mining company is using the Nahatak tailing dam, which it periodically expands by raising the dam walls. For a long time, the local population has been fighting against the consequences of the tailings, and is currently trying to prevent the construction of a second tailing dam in their territory. As for Teghut, the information on the technical issues of the Teghut tailing dam has been kept secret from the public since 2017.
Despite this dismal situation in Lori region, the government of Armenia and the authorized bodies, which are the Ministry of Environment and Ministry of Territorial Administration and Infrastructure, continue to lavishly issue mining permits to mushrooming companies with big appetites for quick wealth accumulation.
In the past 6-7 years, the local communities and civil society of Lori have been taking advantage of a tiny opportunity in the EIA law of Armenia to stop the extractivist rush in the region. The EIA law obliges companies to hold public consultations in the impacted communities․ While the law does not clearly state that the consultations have any power, they state them to be simply a consultative process without empowering communities with any legal power to say "no" to any given project, the very first phase of this process is called "initial consent" phase. This initial consent can also be a written document issued by the local authorities, only after which the public consultations are held. Some communities have used this opportunity of not issuing an "initial consent" or have boycotted the consultations altogether, which resulted in companies seeking new attempts to organize hearings, otherwise they cannot get an environmental permit neither for exploration nor for exploitation of mines.
This is Urut community of Lori region, where the locals are trying to stop the project that will eventually turn their community into a desert. The company has brought its own proxies to act as participants of a public hearing, however the majority of the locals are resisting even the idea of public hearings and are blocking the entrance to the planned venue in the municipal building. This mechanism of boycott is the only mechanism in the current EIA legislation by which the further advancement of mining expansion can be stopped. What follows is that the mayor is forced to make a proceeding that the public hearings failed to be held due to the fact that the majority of the community are opposed to the proposed mining project and are boycotting the hearings. This is a practice also used in Hankadzor community.
The method of boycotting public hearings for mining projects resulted in positive gains for the people of Ardvi community yet in 2017, when the locals blocked the entrance to the village for the convoy of the mining company and forced them to go back. The company had a license for exploration of gold mineral sites, however was seeking an environmental permit for which it needed public consultations. It is important to note that the method of boycotting public hearings is effective, however the law does not restrict the companies to apply for organizing public hearings limitless times, and to divide the community over possible gains from mining.
5 years ago the enlarged community of Gladzor in Vayots Dzor region expressed its resistance to a proposed mining project by rejecting it. Based on the clear position of the local population, including the municipal council, the head of the community refused to give land use rights to the company. The company started a prolonged legal battle against the mayor of Gladzor. The example of Gladzor is a clear evidence that the law does not limit the number of times a company can turn for public consultations even if it has been rejected by the local population several times. In September 2021, conversations that the mine near Gladzor will be operated were brought to the surface again. The company succeeded in dividing the community and instigating hostilities in an otherwise tight community.
The government of Armenia does not back off from giving a green light to new mining sites in Lori region. The current EIA legislation allows for one method of resistance, that being the boycott of public hearings and bringing that process to a failure. If a company is not able to hold the public consultations, it is not able to proceed with getting the full package of permits. Such hotspots of resistance have been created in Urut, Vahagnadzor, Vahagni, Margahovit, Qaraberd, Katnaghbyur communities of Lori region and they were a success as they were able to prevent execution of new mining projects in their territories.
The Ministry of Environment has embarked on changing the EIA legislation since July 2021. For almost a year, the environmental NGOs are battling with the Ministry in order to use the process of amendments for improving the legislation and not for making it more favorable for business interests. In various debates with the Ministry, it was clear for the NGO representatives that the head of the ministry's legal department was doing their best to make the proposed amendments as vague as possible, especially when it came to the procedure of public hearings. The battle to change members of the expert group working on the legislative amendments and to make sure that they incorporate provisions favorable for conservation of nature continues.
Mining Code in Favor of the Extractive Business
Recently the Ministry of Territorial Administration and Infrastructure has proposed amendments to the Mining Code by which the terms of mining licenses can be extended in accordance with an expanded list of factors considered "force majeure." While previously these factors included explosions, war, terrorism, civil war, the amendments have now incorporated "mass civil disobedience", which in effect means that public protests against a mining project will be used as a reason for keeping the mining licenses from expiring.
The amendments will be applied to events that have occurred in the past four years and are now considered civil disobedience due to which the company was not able to operate the mine.
It is obvious that the amendments were drafted and then were fully adopted by the Parliament and ratified by the President of Armenia specifically for Lydian Armenia over its license for Amulsar gold mine. Around 60 NGOs petitioned to the Parliament and then to the President that the amendments were anti-constitutional, however, to no avail.
While there still remains the avenue to dispute the constitutionality of these legal provisions in the Constitutional Court of Armenia, this avenue can be used in the short term only by an MP willing to submit a claim to the Constitutional Court or by citizens, only after they have gone through all the instances of the judicial system, which may take years and even a decade.