Armenian First Ladies Oppose Mining Project Endangering Ancient Forest

YEREVAN (RFE/RL)–Armenia’s current and former first ladies have signed a petition against a controversial mining project approved by their husbands, ecologists strongly opposed to its implementation said on Wednesday.

The country’s leading environment protection groups and other non-governmental organizations have for years been campaigning against plans by the Armenian Copper Program (ACP) company to develop a massive copper and molybdenum deposit in the northern Lori region at the Teghut forest. The Teghut deposit is estimated to contain 1.6 million tons of copper and about 100,000 tons of molybdenum.

The project, if implemented, will lead to the destruction of 357 hectares of rich forest, including 128,000 trees. This would wreak further havoc on Armenia’s green areas that have already shrunk dramatically since the 1990s.

According to a United Nations study, Armenia is fast on its way to becoming a desert with 82 percent of its terrain subject to desertification and 26 percent to extreme desertification.

Teghut, with its thousands of acres of virgin forest and rich ecosystem in Northern Armenia, is one of the last forested areas of Armenia and home to hundreds of species of birds, mammals, reptiles, fish and plants, including many that are registered in the International Red Book of Endangered Species.

ACP admits the heavy environmental cost of its plans but says it will be more than offset by 1,400 new jobs which it has pledged to create in the economically depressed area. The Liechtenstein-registered company has also pledged to build new schools and make other investments in the local infrastructure. The project was formally approved in 2007 by then President Robert Kocharian and his government headed by Prime Minister Serzh Sarkisian.

The non-governmental Committee to Protect Teghut launched last month a fresh campaign against the mining project, collecting signatures in support of its stance. It said on Wednesday that a relevant petition addressed to Armenia’s president, prime minister and parliament speaker has already been signed by about 5,000 citizens, among them First Lady Rita Sarkisian and Kocharian’s wife Bella.

According to Mariam Sukhudian, a member of the committee, the two women agreed to sign the petition as they visited a public park in Yerevan on Tuesday. “We noticed Kocharian’s wife and the current first lady, Rita Sarkisian, there” she told RFE/RL’s Armenian service. “One of our girls, Arpine, approached Bella Kocharian. As soon as she learned what the matter is, she took the paper and signed it. Rita said, ‘Is it about that copper-molybdenum thing?’ and signed it too.”

“We can say that, in a sense, they have joined our movement,” said Sukhudian. “We will scan their signatures and disseminate them through the Internet.”

Hrayr Savzian, chairman of the Ekodar environment protection group and another committee member, also welcomed the signatures put by the first ladies. “I hope that this will be a subject of conversations at their homes, which is not bad in itself,” he said.

The Committee to Protect Teghut now plans to showcase that fact during a demonstration in Yerevan scheduled for Friday. “During the June 5 demonstration we will definitely attach their signatures to a separate sheet and carry it with us,” Savzian told RFE/RL’s Armenian service.

The current Armenian Prime Minister, Tigran Sargsyan, appears to be taking the environmentalists’ concerns more seriously, having set up last year a working group tasked with studying the environmental impact of the Teghut project in greater detail. Still, his government has refused to suspend the project pending that study. The Committee to Protect Teghut now intends to take the matter to court.

The copper field’s exploitation requires at least $260 million worth of investments. The Russian bank VTB agreed last year to lend a corresponding sum to ACP. The global economic crisis appears to have delayed the release of the loan, however. A top ACP executive said earlier this year that the company now expects to launch large-scale open-pit operations at Teghut in 2011.

But exploration work that began in 2007 has already resulted in the cutting down of many trees in the ancient forest, which now has roads paved through to supply equipment for the mining project.

ACP has also installed a mine tailing dump in the nearby gorge of the Kharatanots River, where conservationists warn that heavy metals and other toxic mine waste will leach into the soil and groundwater, polluting the area’s drinking water.

To set up the tailing structure, the company changed the course of the Kharatanots River. Environmentalists worry that the new course will only be maintained for 25 years–the life of the mine–after which there is no guarantee that the company will continue to remediate the artificial flow.

The Armenian Tree Project (ATP) has urged the Armenian government to convert Teghut into a Nature Reserve as part of a concerted effort to develop sustainable tourism in the valley. The ancient forest, according to the ATP, could attract people from around the world who want to see the rich landscape, biodiversity, and cultural heritage that is unique to the area.

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