In a recent op-ed titled “Are We Overdoing Civil Disobedience?” Armenian Weekly columnist Raffi Elliott makes several questionable statements. The article, which was shared to social media by Lydian Armenia, was interpreted as a vote of confidence for the mining project, so it is important that its discrepancies are publicly refuted.
The first point I’d like to raise is Elliott’s misattribution of the company. Lydian International is not a “Canadian energy company” like he states in the article.* It is registered in Jersey, UK, widely considered an offshore financial center. In fact, the lack of knowledge about the ownership of Lydian has been one of the key points of criticism throughout the past several years.
Elliott also claims that Lydian has cited a “number of independently-conducted environmental impact studies.” The link he provides is one to the 2016 sustainability report by Lydian itself. It is in no way an independent study, and as such, it is questionable the extent to which it should be trusted, for its funding is reliant on demonstrating the safety of the mine.
At another point in the article, Elliott describes Vayots Dzor as a “chronically impoverished” region of Armenia. This phrasing is problematic. Doesn’t “chronic poverty” apply to all of Armenia’s regions? If so, then why attach the label to Vayots Dzor alone? Was it to make an emotional appeal to garner support for mining in this “impoverished” province?
I, as a tour guide, who visits Vayots Dzor on a regular basis, argue that it is far from being destitute. Landmarks such as Areni, with its Eneolithic and Bronze Age cave; the picturesque monastery of Noravank, a favorite spot of tourists; and the spa town of Jermuk and the mineral water produced there, ensure that there is at least more visible economic activity in the region than in provinces like Shirak or Lori. In fact, Vayots Dzor has the second lowest poverty rate among Armenian provinces, at 17 percent, well below the national rate of 29 percent.
Also unconvincing is the author’s description of the mining opposition. In his article, he claims that the “majority of protesters and their sympathizers come from NGO backgrounds, are based in Yerevan, and do not seem to possess an intimate knowledge of the engineering or environmental challenges at hand, other than a rather dogmatic notion that mining is harmful.”
This, however, is simply untrue. When I visited Amulsar on July 1 of this year, most of the people blocking the roads to the construction site were locals (from the village of Gndevaz and the town of Jermuk). Yerevan-based activists also regularly visit the site, but they are in no way the only driving force behind this act of civil disobedience. I visited Vayots Dzor with a group of environmental activists and conducted interviews (some off the record) with them for a piece for EVN Report.
I can assure readers that the leading activists are very knowledgeable about the issue. The Armenian Ecological Front, one of the leading NGOs opposed to mining at Amulsar, has presented their concerns in a very detailed manner, for instance.
Elliott also critiques the opposition’s “lack of a viable alternative for sustainable development in the region.” But the mining in Amulsar is itself unsustainable in the long-term and the well-paying jobs are not worth the irreversible damage to the environment of Vayots Dzor and all of Armenia. There have never been any opinion polls or any solid public forums held in Gndevaz or Jermuk on the issue, so it is hard to say what percentage of the locals do, in fact, oppose these acts of civil disobedience.
From my meetings with locals and from the lack of any vocal opposition (besides the few dozen Lydian employees), we can assume that locals—at least implicitly—support shutting down the mine, at least until the environmental concerns relating to acid drainage and cyanide usage for extraction of gold from ore are not firmly ruled out by the task force set up by Pashinyan’s government recently.
Elliott also seeks to convey those protesting at Amulsar as oppositional to Pashinyan’s government, when in fact, they are largely very trusting of the new government. Their primary concern now is that if Lydian is allowed to proceed with construction at Amulsar, they may cross the point of no return, which even Pashinyan will not be able to stop. It largely concerns the drilling and blasting at Amulsar, which may unleash chemical processes (namely acid drainage) possibly harmful for the Arpa and Vorotan Rivers and Lake Sevan. What Elliott has omitted, however, is the apparent business interests of Armenia’s current president Armen Sarkissian, who was appointed to the board of directors of Lydian International in 2013. As noted by political scientist Mikael Zolyan, Sarkissian has ties with the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, which is a major shareholder at Lydian. (It should also be noted that it was the government of Serge Sarkisian—the same group Elliott deems to be authoritarian—were the ones who gave the permit to Lydian in a process which was highly questionable.)
But perhaps the most fundamental complaint I have with Raffi Elliott’s article is his criticism of civil disobedience tactics by protesters at the mine. Explaining that because their “target is not an authoritarian government, but a publicly traded corporation, which has legally purchased the mining rights to the mountain,” Elliott posits that their claims are less valid than those demonstrating against Sarkisian in April 2018.
Civil disobedience is a right, which belongs to the people. It is the people who are concerned with the potential dangers to their drinking water, health, land, and overall quality of life. It is their right to disobey as they see fit.
Editor’s Note: We dug deeper into the claims that Elliott’s piece erroniously stated that Lydian International is a Canadian company. Although Nazaretyan correctly notes that the company is officially registered in the British Channel Island of Jersey, this is mostly for tax avoidance purposes. The Company was originally incorporated in the Canadian province of Alberta, is listed on the Toronto Stock Exchange and holds its shareholder meetings in Toronto, Canada. Furthermore, the majority of its shareholders are Canadian. The company also maintains an office in Colorado.
Editor’s Note: A link in the article “Are we overdoing civil disobedience?”, which Mr. Nazaretyan alludes to mistakenly redirected readers to Lydian’s website. This has been corrected in the original piece with the link now pointing to the studies in question.