By Nieri Avanessian
The Trchkan waterfall is located on the Trchkan tributary of the Chichkhan River, on the border of Lori and Shirak Marzes, near the villages of Shirakamut and Mets Parni. This picturesque waterfall has a unique beauty and power. Nevertheless, to the surprise of many, and contrary to the responsibilities and declarations of the Armenian Ministry of Environmental Protection, the government has decided to extend a license to build a hydroelectric plant to Robshin Ltd., instead of maintaining a nature preserve and park.
In early September, Armenian activists and environmentalists began fighting to save Trchkan from that fate. On Nov. 3, the activists emerged victorious, when Prime Minister Tigran Sargsyan called upon fellow Ministers to put an end to the construction of the plant, as well as the protests, and to officially grant full “preserve” status to the waterfall.
This can be viewed as a landmark victory in Armenia—proof that civic activism and initiative can converge in a widespread movement to advance citizen demands in favor of the environment. Similar movements have begun over other environmental issues as well, such as the Teghut forest and the Hrazdan mining projects, which are still ongoing.
A committed core of civic activists are always seen at these demonstrations, calling on the government to make the right decisions. The activists have also been able to count on local assistance from villagers living near the contested areas. The inhabitants of Shirakamut and Mets Parni, for example, played a key role in the camp-out, bringing food and fuel for warmth to the activists. The “Protect Trchkan Waterfall” civic initiative was truly a show of camaraderie and solidarity, and brought a definitive end to the construction of the plant.
On April 7, 2010, Decision Number 179A of the Public Services Regulatory Commission of Armenia gave Robshin Ltd. a license to build a small hydroelectric plant at Chichkhan River. The decision was made on the basis of Armenian Law “On the Energy Sector” Articles 17, 23, and 24, and Decision Number 4 “On the procedure for approval of licensing in the Energy Sector.”
The fact that Trchkan waterfall was included among the water landmarks of the Republic of Armenia by Decision Number 967 of the government in 2008 was overlooked. Moreover, Article 20 “On specially preserved natural areas” states that “economic activity which may deplete natural resources and destabilize the ecosystem, endanger plant and animal life, or damage scientific or cultural artifacts that should be protected is prohibited in nature preserve zones.” Therefore, it was not only unethical to build a hydroelectric plant at Trchkan, but also illegal.
To add to the illicit nature of the process, the construction plans and licenses were never made publicly available—neither on the website of the Ministry of Nature Protection nor at the construction site, as is required by Armenian law.
By early October, about 100 meters of land around the waterfall were dug up, most likely to change the direction of the river. In addition, at least half of the flow of the river leading to the top of the waterfall was blocked with rocks and dirt.
The “Protect Trchkan Waterfall” initiative was the chief voice advocating for the protection of the waterfall. The group consisted of over 100 activists, journalists, and locals. It was through their organization, coupled with cooperation by civil society representatives, that the events—demonstrations and camp-out—took place. Using Facebook, “Protect Trchkan Waterfall” successfully mobilized the community and ultimately saved the waterfall.
In the beginning, hikers and nature-lovers sounded the alarm on the threats facing Trchkan, and environmentalists mobilized. On Sept. 8, the protest started. Initially, only seven activists staged a protest in front of the government building where the Ministry of Nature Protection is housed. Soon, through grassroots and online activism, their numbers multiplied, drawing activists from Yerevan, Gyumri, Vanadzor, Etchmiadzin, and Armavir. The movement enlisted 5,000 supporters on Facebook. Hundreds donated money, food, and other resources for the cause. Television ad campaigns reached thousands of households. Dozens of volunteers actively engaged in organizing protests, participating at the camp-out by the waterfall, and exploring legal avenues.
On Oct. 20, the Minister of Nature Protection attempted to advance a compromise, saying the average measured flow of the waterfall was 400-500 liters per second, and that Robshin Ltd. would only be able to use the “extra” water—that is, whatever flow there was above 500 liters per second. Robshin Ltd. was also prohibited from running the plant during the summer months when the flow is naturally weaker. This “compromise” led to outrage from activists and a cry of “Not a single drop of Trchkan’s water is extra!” The activists began a petition to present to the government, which amassed over 10,000 signatures.
The camp-out at the foot of the falls was the single most effective method of activism that the group performed. From Oct. 25 to Nov. 7, activists camped out in the construction zone, effectively stopping the plant from being built. Eventually, the financial loss became too costly and the president of Robshin Ltd. announced on Oct. 31 that he was halting the construction plan. The activists, though pleased, were not satisfied with this outcome. They said they had already stopped the construction, and now wanted a clear, legal solution to be reached, and demanded permanent “nature preserve” status for Trchkan. They continued their camp-protest, and on Nov. 1 organized a “Mighty Demonstration” in front of the government building. With chants and posters, the demonstrators made their demands known: “Protect Trchkan Waterfall!” and “We want a fair and legal solution!”
On Nov. 3 they were greeted with the decision they had fought hard for. Three days later, they organized a celebration in the village of Shirakamout—located close to the waterfall— with Armenian folk dances and a rock concert, the “Haghtagan Hamerg” (“Victory Concert”).
The group hopes to continue fighting for environmental protection in Armenia. The Hrazdan iron mining project could be next on their list. There is not a shortage of issues. Mining projects threaten Armenia’s nature in places such as Hrazdan, Teghut forest, Kapan, Svarants (near Tatev), and Sotk (near Sevan).
One of the great challenges of a developing economy is to find a balance between the environment and business interests. This balance can only be achieved through vigorous and open debate generated by an activist community that can work as the conscious of the nation. We seeing evidence of this activism in our ROA and the seeds of success which will inspire further activism. This is a healthy process which we should all encourage and be proud of. The commitment is impressive.