Jobs Trump Environment As Armenia Opens Giant Copper Mine

by Mariam Harutunian

Agence France Presse — English
June 24, 2007 Sunday 3:14 AM GMT

Decried by activists as devastating for the environment, plans for an
enormous copper mine near this mountain village in northern Armenia
are nonetheless welcomed by local residents eager for jobs and escape
from poverty.

The Teghut copper-molybdenum deposit, located in the Lori region near
this ex-Soviet country’s border with Georgia, was banned from being
developed in the 1970s out of fear for the local environment.

But with copper prices soaring on international markets, Armenia’s
government recently approved plans to begin mining the deposit within
the next three years.

The move sparked an outcry among environmentalists, who say open-pit
operations at the mine will wreak havoc on the environment, wiping out
swathes of virgin forest and decimating the local animal population.

But for those who live nearby, the prospect of saving their community
from slow decline is pushing environmental concerns aside.

"My heart aches for our nature, but it aches more when I look at
the conditions people live in. If new jobs aren’t created here then
within five years our villages will be devastated, there will be only
old men," Teghut resident Gagik Gasparian said.

As in the rest of Armenia, thousands of local residents have left
this region in recent years to look for jobs elsewhere, some in the
capital Yerevan, others in Russia.

Armenia’s economy is suffering under an economic embargo imposed by
neighbouring Azerbaijan and Turkey over the country’s support for
ethnic Armenian separatists in the Azerbaijani region of Nagorny

Unemployment is high and more than 30 percent of Armenia’s three
million people live on less than two dollars (1.50 euros) a day.

The company opening the mine, Armenian Copper Program (ACP), headed
by Russian-Armenian businessman Valery Medzhlumian, is promising
1,400 much-needed new jobs in the region. ACP also hopes the mine
will contribute an extra three percent a year to the national economy.

The Teghut mine is estimated to contain 1.6 million tonnes of copper,
which is widely used in plumbing and electrical wiring, and 99,000
tonnes of molybdenum, a silvery white element used in alloys to
strengthen steel.

ACP was granted a 25-year license to exploit the mine in 2001 and
Armenia’s Ministry of Environmental Protection approved its development
plans earlier this year.

Approval was given despite the company’s intention to operate the
mine as an open pit, which involves removing the entire upper layer
of earth instead of the far more expensive method of digging tunnels
to reach ore.

Machinery will be used to smash through swathes of forests and
environmentalists claim that 357 hectares of rich forest will be lost,
including 128,000 trees.

"The ecological balance of the district will be broken," said Srbuhi
Harutunian, the director of the Social-Environmental Association,
a non-governmental organization.

According to environmental groups, dozens of plant and animal species
will be under threat from the mine’s operations, including 21 mammal,
11 fish and nine plant species that have been declared endangered.

"There will also be huge damage to the health of local residents.

They can suffer from allergies and pulmonary diseases because of the
enormous quantities of dust produced," Harutunian said.

Activists also worry that architectural monuments in the region dating
as far back as the Bronze Age, and also including early stone crosses
and churches, could be damaged or destroyed.

The government insists everything will be done to minimize the mine’s
impact on the environment.

"All the questions of ecologists have been answered in the company’s
project through a series of actions that will reduce the damage to
the environment, including large-scale works to restore tracts of
forest," said Ashot Santrosian, the head of the environment ministry
department that approved the project.

ACP director Gagik Azrumanian admitted the mine would cause serious
damage to the environment, but described that as "a price that is
necessary to pay for the economic development of the country."

"We understand that an unprecedented number of trees will be cut
down," he said. "But this is necessary and people have to understand
that there is no economic development, no such economic programme,
that would not have a negative influence on the environment."

Environmentalists argue the price is too high and say the government
should look instead at promoting the region as a tourist destination.

The Lori region is already home to large chemical plants and an
enormous smelter doing significant damage to local forests and water
sources, said Mger Sharoian, a spokesman for the Armenian Forests NGO.

"The development of the Teghut deposit will only aggravate the
situation," he said. "We suggest developing eco-tourism in Lori,
which has all the natural conditions — virgin woods, pure springs,
rivers, clean air and architectural monuments," he said.

Armenia has recently stepped up efforts to promote tourism, but the
prospect of tourists flocking to its mountain landscapes is still a
far off dream. For the people of Teghut, the copper mine is offering
jobs and economic development now.

"We hope that when the mine starts operating, when the jobs arrive,
our people will finally return to our village," Teghut Mayor Arutiun
Meliksetian said.

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