A mountain in the southeast of Armenia has been the site of a long-standing protest between local activists and a subsidiary of international mining company Lydian International. For over three weeks now, environmentalists and locals have been blocking the roads to the Amulsar mountain site in an attempt to put a halt to the construction of a mine that they say would pollute 30% of the country’s water resources. Our Observer told us that locals and activists are fighting to make sure that the mine is stopped, and their waters stay clean.

Environmental activists have taken to social media to raise awareness of the environmental hazards of mines. They’ve been filming and publishing videos of the damaged land around discontinued copper mines in other parts of the country, to bring public sentiment against the construction of a mine in the Amulsar mountain.

 

The abandoned Kavart mine poses an ecological danger to the land and water around it. Video: Amercofront

One video published on their YouTube channel and Facebook page shows the site of the now-discontinued Kavart mine near the town of Kapan in southeast Armenia, just 100 kilometres south of Amulsar. The video shows water and mud that have turned coppery brown and scum sitting like oil on stagnant water. Copper-coloured pools of water sit on dry, cracked earth in this mountain valley. Some rivulets of rusty-looking water flow through the rocks. A pH strip dipped in the groundwater proves its high levels of acidity.

What does acid drainage look like? This is a video filmed by Armeco activists that shows the damaged landscape around the Kavart mine in the south of the country.
 

A video filmed by Armeco activists in Kapan town, traditionally a mining town, near the Kavart mine. Our Observer told us that the area pictured is the town's water collection place, and the rusted metal clearly shows the effect of acid drainage in the water.

Lydian International, a mining company based in the UK offshore tax haven of Jersey, is in the process of building a large-scale gold mining project in the Amulsar mountain. The company was established in 2005 and started carrying out exploration activities in the area in 2006. But activists say that people living in the area only became aware of Lydian’s presence when the company started drilling in 2012, prompting local protests.

FRANCE 24 contacted Lydian International to request a response to the issues that arise in this article. The company has not yet responded.

“The regime change encouraged locals to protest”

Ani Khachatryan is a member of Armenian Environmental Front.

People were never consulted about it. The local community was against it at the start, but you know how mining companies operate – they started helping with local problems like giving money to local communities for services, and buying up community land.

Then a few trigger events happened that changed the situation.

The mining company was building construction sites and they damaged the irrigation systems and drinking water pipes of Gndevaz, a nearby village. They were doing things that irritated the local communities.


A video showing the dirty water spewing out of pipes in a local village.

The citizens of Jermuk, a spa town, realised that the company’s promises that nothing would affect the town were lies because dust from the construction was reaching the town. But they wouldn’t protest before because they felt like the company was protected by the corrupt government. So when Armenia’s regime change came about two months ago, the locals realised they had a chance to stop the project.

A protest group made up of activists and locals blockade the mine project. Photo: Tehmine Yenoqyan

"Blocking all entrances to the site"

About 18 days ago, they started blocking the four roads that lead into the construction sites on the mountain. The mine company’s construction contractors now cannot access the site because of the blockade. The mining company is asking the government if they can use violence to expel protesters. It’s a sensitive situation.

There’s huge pressure on the new government to find a solution and agree to our demands that this mining project cannot be operating in this area.

Our Observer Ani Khachatryan, a member of Armenian Environmental Front, on the blockade.

The Amulsar mine would use heap-leaching, a process that separates gold from the ore by using a cyanide solution. Lydian International asserts that it would dispose of the cyanide safely and that there’s no risk of the toxic chemical leaching into the environment, but activists respond that the waste produced and the spent ore has the potential to contaminate groundwater, which would flow into rivers and springs, and affect water used for drinking and irrigation.


This video by Armecofront was filmed on the site of an abandoned mine in Tandvut, in the north of Armenia. It shows the lingering acidity in the ground, even when a mine has been abandoned for many years.
 

“Damage to the reservoirs means damage to Armenia’s largest lake”

The mine would pollute about 30% of all of Armenia’s water resources. This is a rough calculation based on the cubic metres of water in the Arpa and Vorotan rivers [contaminated water from the mine would follow flow paths that eventually join these two rivers, according to the company’s own environmental assessments].


A protest in the centre of town. The sign reads, "Our gold is our water". Photo credit: Tehmine Yenokyan

This is a place where we have two big and important reservoirs, Spandaryan reservoir and Ketchut reservoir. Spandaryan is situated in one of the largest freshwater lakes in the country, so not only is it important as an ecosystem, but as a water resource, it has a huge regional impact. Armenia’s largest lake, Sevan Lake, is fed from Ketchut reservoir through the Arpa-Sevan tunnel. Any damage to this water system is damage to Armenia’s largest lake.

The company doesn’t have a proper treatment centre. There will be huge pollution, predominantly from acid drainage. It’s like a landmine just sitting under the mountain in this natural area… If you expose it, it will simply explode. We could have cyanide and bleach in our water systems. The mountain has a small valley, like a crater near the top where there’s a natural pond. The water in this pond has already become acidic.


A local activist filmed the trucks belonging to Lydian's contractors being forced to leave the mountain on 11th July 2018 because they can't access the construction site. Video credit: Gagik Jamalyan

Harming local tourism

Locals are determined to revive the once-thriving tourism industry of nearby spa town Jermuk, which is known for its hot water springs and healing mineral water. Several resorts and hotels have signed a statement in opposition to the mining project. Hotels and sanatoriums in the town say that the mine’s building works only 12 kilometres away and its potential to pollute water resources has already hurt business. In this video filmed by activists from the Armenian Environmental Front, locals from Jermuk agreed that tourism is in decline because of the mining project.


Activists sleep in tents to guard the blockade all night. Photo credit: Tehmine Yenoqyan

Cyanide in the soil

Three independent environmental consultancies from Australia, the United States and Canada were called in to draft a report on the risks of the Amulsar Gold Project. Their report found that there is a “very high risk” that cyanide, acidity and other harmful chemicals would pollute water sources, and in turn the surrounding agricultural land, and that Lydian’s proposed measures were “inadequate to prevent their release into the environment”.

So what now? Khachatryan said that the next step was the launch of a fact-finding mission with a working group appointed by the government, with the aim of revoking the environmental permit that the previous government granted the mining company.

Story by Catherine Bennett, journalist at FRANCE 24.
Article written with
Catherine Bennett

Catherine Bennett , Anglophone Journalist