Last week, Epress.am reporters together with Ani Khachatryan from the Armenian Environmental Front visited the city of Alaverdi in Armenia’s Lori province. We knew that CJSC Teghut had announced they were indefinitely suspending the operation of the copper-molybdenum deposit in the Teghut forest, laying off nearly 1,200 employees as a result. The official reason given by the company was simple enough – to get ready for growth and expansion.
The hotel employee, who had guessed the purpose of our visit, started complaining about the construction of a new hydroelectric power station, which would change the direction of the Debed river. “I never went to rallies. I did not go out for Karabakh, but I will for Debed.” On one wall hung the portrait of her son killed in the army.
Neither the residents of Teghut and Shnokh villages nor environmentalists believe the exploiters’ claims about their intention to expand; the real reason for the mine’s closure, they insist, is that the company faces serious financial problems after two Danish companies withdrew a loan of $ 62 million following the journalistic investigation exposing the environmental risks of the mining activities.
The locals had previously organized a petition, demanding from the National Assembly deputies to invalidate the mining license of the, to cancel the false transactions on land and buildings appropriation.
A resident of Shnogh: “The people who work at the mine have no land and no livestock. As soon as they are fired, they will have to emigrate. We could have collected many more signatures: a lot of people were ready to sign the petition. But we refused to accept the signatures of those who have a family member working at the mine.”
According to the locals, the mine has been closed because of the pressure coming from the community. In the course of its 3-year exploitation, they say, the mine mercilessly poisoned both the Shnogh and Debed rivers. The exasperated villagers finally organized the petition and demanded either proper operation or the closure of the mine.
A local: “They are the real cause of all our troubles. and they talk about the Turks all the time. I have no Turkish enemies at the moment. When my father was seriously ill, his Azerbaijani friend would send him $2000 worth of medicine from Moscow every month.”
The management of the mine never misses a moment to fire people; a mine employee once took environmentalists on his off-day to the forest in his car, and the next day he was fired from his job.
“They operate on concentration camp regulations. If an employee does not call the management to tell on a friend, he is fired. ‘How come you didn’t call? Did no one take a smoke break at an inappropriate moment?’”
On the river bank, we are told an old joke: “World War II, a concentration camp. The hostages are taken to gas chambers. After a while, when everyone should have already died, voices are heard from the chamber. The guards open the doors and see two Alaverdians quarreling over a cigarette.”
The local farmers have also been affected by the issues caused by the mining operations; they have suffered serious financial losses due to water pollution and are now hoping for the help of environmental volunteers. They told us that the problems became even more apparent in 2017, when the flow of water contaminated with tailings was redirected with pumps toward the Debed River – the source of Shnogh villagers’ irrigation water.
A local: “People used to come here from Yerevan and say: ‘Aren’t you men? Why would you let them cut your forests?’ Where were you when people were being thrown out of their homes with bulldozers so that the Northern Avenue could be built? The 2008 movement stemmed from the anger over Teghut.”
Shnogh resident Lyova Alikhanyan: “Their business is built on lies – ‘advanced practices,’ this and that… But these geniuses actually broke the back of the mining industry in Armenia. Nowhere in the country will the population from now on tolerate any mine exploitation; not because the exploiters are usually dishonest, but because no one knows how to make false promises like they do.”
The taxi driver acquired spine issues during his work at the foundry: “I feel sick when I come back from my job abroad. It takes time to get used to the local air and water again. I drive a taxi from morning to night; I leave the house at 7 in the morning and return at one o’clock in the night. My children think that I’m still in Russia.”
The pipe which pours the tailings water flows into the Debed is designed for emergency situations, but it takes the water into the river 25 days a month; farmer Ashot Adamyan says: “Pollution which lasts for months is not an accident, it’s intent.”
The fruit orchards of farmers Ara Babayan and Ashot Adamyan have dried up due to contamination; the latter has also caused the fish in Debed to die en masse, which Babayan has managed to capture with his phone camera. The farmer bought his garden for 60 million drams; he had no harvest this year, and he now under huge loan debts.
Adamyan: “It was an arid year, so we had to water the trees a lot. The fruits would go bad right on the trees, and the trees themselves would go yellow. I’ve cut almost all of them down. I’ve lost nearly 40 millions, but they do not even want to talk about compensation.”
He has been assured that he is included in the Teghut company’s tree-planting program, but Adamyan is convinced that the company will never fulfill the promise. The company cut down 357 hectares of forest for the exploitation of the mine and committed to plant twice as many trees, which has yet to be done.
The driver who had brought us to Alaverdi was leaving for Karabakh the following day to take part in his son’s army oath-taking ceremony: “They have given the conscripts bank cards to make it easier for us to transfer them money for socks and clothes… Military service was not so terrible in the past; now the parents go mad. A few people in our Ayrum had gone completely insane by the time they kids returned from the army.”