Copper Mine Menaces Armenia's Teghut Forest

YEREVAN, Armenia, July 11, 2007 (ENS) - Virgin forests surrounding the village of Teghut in northern Armenia are being destroyed to make way for a giant copper mine, warn Armenian and American conservationists who are appealing to the Armenian government to stop the mine.

But many Teghut villagers do not oppose the mine because nearly half of local residents are unemployed and have no means to feed their families. They appear unconcerned about ecologists' warning that Teghut will become a dead zone in 25 years and the rare and endangered birds, mammals, reptiles, fish, and unique fruit trees of the Teghut forest will disappear.

The damage in Teghut Forest has already begun. April 2007. (Photo courtesy Armenia Tree Project)
In June 2006, the mining enterprise Armenian Copper Program created a new company, Teghut, to exploit the copper-molybdenum deposits in the Teghut forest, taking advantage of a continuing increase in copper prices. The company plans to clearcut at least 1,500 acres to make way for the open pit strip mining operation.

Exploration work has begun and many trees have already been cut down. Roads for trucks have been paved through the forest and digging equipment has been brought in.

The Armenian Copper Program plans to put a mine tailings 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.

In order to set up the tailing structure, the company plans to change 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 Teghut forest is inhabited by animals and plants registered in Armenia's Red Book of Endangered Species, including the rock eagle, snake eagle, and gray bear and Trautvetter's maple, and Caucasian persimmon. Their habitat will be destroyed by the mine.

On June 20, the nonprofit Armenia Tree Project issued an action alert by email to thousands of its supporters and colleagues, urging them to write Armenian President Robert Kocharian asking him to protect this treasured forest.
Armenian President Robert Kocharian (Photo courtesy Office of the President)

"Rather than destroy the Teghut Forest, we propose that it be made into a Nature Reserve as part of a concerted effort to develop sustainable tourism in the valley," Armenia Tree Project Executive Director Jeff Masarjian wrote in his appeal to the President. "Tourism is a sustainable form of economic development that benefits the local population without causing permanent damage to the environment."

"Teghut could attract people from around the world who want to see the rich landscape, biodiversity, and cultural heritage that is unique to this area," writes Masarjian.

To date, President Kocharian has not responded to the appeal.

The Armenia Tree Project is a member of SOS Teghut, a consortium of 26 organizations that supports the need for sustainable economic development in the country, but opposes development that will leave the land permanently degraded and poisoned.

In September 2005, the coalition sent a letter to Valery Mejlumyan, the president of Armenian Copper, voicing their concern over the possible destruction of the Teghut forest and inviting him to meet with them. Mejlumyan did not reply.

The company's plans for eight years of mining at Teghut have been approved by the Armenian Ministry of Nature Protection, although the life of the mine is estimated at 25 years.

These NGOs say the government's decision to permit the Teghut mine is illegal.

Greens Union President Hakob Sanasaryan says the project activities have been intentionally presented only in part, which is unprecedented and illegal.

By presenting the project bit by bit the company is seeking to cover up the real amount of damage to the environment, said Sanasaryan.

"If the company gains permission for the first stage of mining and work begins," he said, "then the process will become unstoppable."

President of the Socio-Ecological Association Srbuhi Harutyunyan says 77 articles in various laws are being violated, including 14 articles of the law on environmental impact assessment.

Company Executive Director Gagik Arzumanyan told reporters in February that incomplete information on environmental damage has been presented because there are consequences that cannot be predicted at this point.

"Yes, the project does not have all the information for the period of 25 years. In the project, we have tried to show those indicators which are predictable for a period of eight years of mining," Arzumanyan said.

A snake eagle soars over Armenia. Its habitat will be destroyed by the copper mine. Summer 2005. (Photo courtesy Jan-Michael Breider

Arzumanyan called the conservationists' allegations of illegallity "negligible" and attempted to shift attention away from the company's logging of the Teghut forest by pointing out the damage done across the country by other loggers acting illegally.

Minister for Nature Protection Vardan Ayvazyan supported the company's position. "Only 60 thousand cubic meters of wood will be cleared. According to a study by the World Bank, illegal logging in Armenia comes to an annual volume of 600-700 thousand cubic meters of wood. These are more serious numbers," Ayvazyan told reporters.

Environmentalists say such comparisons are absurd. The Teghut mine will destroy rivers, soil, air, and animals as well as trees, they point out.

"As an expert, I say with conviction that cutting down even a few trees on slopes such as these would lead to soil erosion," said Harutyunyan.

"After the mining is done, we would have a pit in northern Armenia around 400-500 meters deep, and the territory would be considered one of increasing degradation," he said. "What does this have to do with illegal logging?"

Masarjian says the Armenian Copper Program is already polluting northern Armenia with its Alaverdi copper mine and smelter, which processes copper ore for a consortium of mining companies in the Lori region.

"The Alaverdi smelter, notorious for belching tens of thousands of tons of sulfur oxides annually into the atmosphere, is having disastrous effects on the health and well-being of the local population," said Masarjian. "The smelter has no emission controls, and the company claims to be unable to afford the cost of installing them."

Since the smelter re-opened in the late 1990s, the town of Alaverdi has reported an increase in cases of respiratory disease, sterility, and birth defects.

But Teghut community leader Harutyun Meliksetian says the villagers must make a living. If they cannot find work, he said, "Teghut will become an uninhabited area sooner or later."

The company has assured the villagers of Teghut, four kilometers from the mine site, and of Singh, six kilometers away, that they would not have to be relocated.

But Sanasaryan of the Greens Union says residents will be forced to leave by the environmental disaster that the mine will create.

"Twenty-five years later the place would be a desert," he said. "The tailings and wastes, containing heavy metals, would penetrate the soil, water and air, causing disease, ruining the produce and sharply reducing soil fertility. Naturally, the people there would then be forced to leave."

Copyright Environment News Service (ENS) 2007. All rights reserved.