Bruised over Teghut: Environmental pressure group defiant after protest breakup

Police used force on Wednesday to break up a protest in Yerevan near a commercial bank that intends to loan a controversial mining project in northern Armenia. Activists were at VTB bank to protest its financing of Armenian Copper Programme’s (ACP) development of a mine in Teghut.

The activists demanded that VTB should stop the funding of the “anti-ecological and illegal Teghut project”, publicize the Bank’s environmental criteria [for loan programs] and the names of those who have developed these criteria. The protesters further called for an end to what they call a contemptuous attitude towards society, for honoring the principles of transparency and accountability and also demanded that clear answers be given to letters of environmental and human rights organizations. The Government made the decision on developing the copper and molybdenum mine in Teghut in November 2007, giving ACP a license for 25 years. This is the first case when the government allows mining amid a forest site. The Teghut mine – in the lush province of Lori – is the second largest in Armenia, after the copper and molybdenum mine in Kajaran in southern Armenia. Experts estimate that the mine in Teghut contains more than 1.6 million tons of copper and 100,000 tons of molybdenum.

From the very outset environmentalists in Armenia carefully monitored the government’s decision to develop the mine, constantly voicing concerns about possible irreparable loss to the environment (damage to the eco system, disappearance of some of the rare species of flora and fauna, threats to public health because of tailings, etc.). ACP officials, meanwhile, argue that the mining industry will create new jobs for the local population and will considerably improve the social conditions in the province and generally will contribute to the country’s economic growth. Despite the perceived benefits, however, ACP seemed to be experiencing difficulties in finding a financial partner for the Teghut mine operation.

Russian-owned VTB has decided this year to provide ACP with a promised sum of about $300 million. So far only a small part of the loan has been provided, and the provision of the basic sum has been delayed because of the financial crisis.

At first, the activists demanded to see VTB management, but when nobody approached them, they sat on the bank steps, hindering customers and employees from entering. The demonstrators demanded that the bank customers should not use the services of a bank that promotes “the destruction of Armenia”.

Police arrived to disperse the protesters. In the ensuing scuffle, chairman of the Green Party of Armenia Armen Dovlatyan was among those who suffered minor scrapes.

The activists also turned to the Ombudsman’s office, whose representative heard them and said: “We will decide what to do” – and then left.

Ecologist Karine Danielyan, who in the end also joined the demonstrators, says that the economic profit from the operation of the mine will never be near enough to offset the environmental damages caused by it. According to her, it will take years to compensate for the forests now being destroyed.

“And forests not only in the territory of the mine operation will be destroyed, but also upper forests, because water will descend into that cavity and the upper forests will dry out,” says Danielyan, adding that the local water resources also get contaminated and the biodiversity of the forest is vanishing.