Environmental activists were joined by citizens on Wednesday in a protest rally and march during which they called on the government to not move forward with a proposed operation of a gold mine in Amulsar in the Vayots Dzor province of Armenia.
The protest began in front of the parliament building days after Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan urged an end to the blockade of roads leading to the Amulsar mine, where operators have been prevented to complete the necessary construction to begin excavating the mine.
From the onset of the project and the Lydian takeover of the mine, local residents opposed its excavation citing concerns for environmental hazards. During the popular movement in 2018, Pashinyan pledged that he would focus on the Lydian project and other mines, prompting residents to block the road to Amulsar beginning in June 2018.
The issue gained national attention last month when Pashinyan green lighted the project after an independent audit found that the environmental hazards would be minimal. Pashinyan’s decision elevated the opposition and called into question the validity of the audit, which was entrusted to the Lebanese-based ELRAD company, whose officials last week began pointing fingers at Lydian officials for not providing the necessary information for the audit, essentially backtracking from the initial report.
Parliament Speaker Ararat Mirzoyan met with protesters on Wednesday. He told them that he was there to not engage in a discussion, but to listen to concerns and answer technical questions.
‘Last time [there was a protest] brawl erupted and there were some tensions. Now I have come to defuse such developments,” Mirzoyan told protesters, adding that while he shared some of the concerns voiced by the protesters, he also found others to be groundless.
The protesters then began marching to Republic Square where during a rally they collectively declared September 20 as Environmental Mobilization and Justice Day. This is also the date that that residents of Jermuk, a town to Amulsar, have set as a deadline for the government to take a decision on excavating the mine.
Pashinyan told Parliament on Wednesday that he will not break laws to prevent a Lydian International from mining gold at the Amulsar.
The prime minister also complained that activists were paying little attention to environmental risks posed by other, functioning mines, and are excessively focused on the Amulsar project, which is deemed as the largest U.S. investment in Armenia at a reported price tag of $400 million.
“If we are talking about an [environmental] disaster, then that disaster happened a long time ago. We just don’t know or are not told about that so that our spirits remain high,” Pashinyan sarcastically told parliament.
On Monday Pashinyan called on protesters to end their more than yearlong blockage of all roads leading to Amulsar, saying that his government has no “legal grounds” to pull the plug on Lydian’s project. He said the project’s continued disruption would have severe consequences for Armenia’s economy and even national security. He also argued that Lydian has given the Armenian government more guarantees that mining operations at Amulsar would not contaminate water, soil and air.
According to Azatutyun.am, during the government’s question-and-answer session in the National Assembly an independent parliamentarian strongly opposed to the project, Arman Babajanyan, challenged Pashinyan to explain why his government is not unilaterally revoking Lydian’s mining license issued by Armenia’s “former criminal regime” in 2016.
“My position on Amulsar and any other issues is that everything must be according to the law,” Pashinyan replied. “This is very important because we are talking about [building] a rule-of-law state, and if in some cases there are environmental, emotional and economic approaches to an issue I believe that the right solution to those approaches must be a legal approach.”
“If we illegally shut down the [Amulsar] mine now, we will illegally shut down a media outlet tomorrow, illegally shut down a factory the day after and so on,” said Pashinyan according to Azatutyun.am.