Protests and Tensions Escalate Around Amulsar Gold Project in Armenia

Over the past few months, tensions have flared around the controversial Amulsar mountain gold mining project in the Vayots Dzor region of Armenia. 

Protests at the site, which is located roughly three hours drive from the capital, Yerevan, are not an entirely new development.

Many locals have long been opposed to construction of the mine, fearing it will damage water resources as well as their health, and have faced off against the private security guards of Lydian Armenia, the company behind the project, in recent months. 

Residents also fear the impact on the nearby town of Jermuk, which is a popular tourist destination known for its hot springs and mineral water.

While tempers frayed in early July, incidents around the mine and linked protests in central Yerevan escalated further at the start of August, with numerous activists detained by police. 

Clashes with security at the mine also saw a standoff that was only resolved after the intervention of the mayor of Jermuk.

Background 

Lydian began exploratory works for the Amulsar Gold Project in 2006, and after submitting several environment and social impact assessments (ESIA) to Armenia’s previous government, which were approved, the company began construction works in 2015, planning to begin full operation in 2018.

However, independent experts and an international consultancy group who have examined the project assessed it could carry health and environmental risks if implemented as well as potentially having a hazardous impact on downstream water quality, agriculture, fauna and flora.

Read more on this in our previous report on the project.

After coming to power in 2018, Armenia’s now Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan promised that his government would look into the Amulsar Gold Project and Lydian’s ESIA to establish whether the project was in compliance with Armenian law and environmental protection norms. Despite the conclusions of the Lebanese audit firm ELARD, that the ESIA was data deficient and lacked proper assessment of impact on, among other things, the water resources in the area, Pashinyan still gave the go-ahead to the project. 

Frustrated by the entire process, some local residents set up camp on roads leading to the mine site in an effort to prevent construction in the summer of 2018. 

These demonstrators called themselves the Amulsar defenders, stating they were concerned with the environmental, health, and societal impact of the project on both local communities and the wider region. The blockade, and a consequent standoff with Lydian employees and security guards, has been ongoing ever since

Latest Protests

The latest protests began in the early hours of August 4 when Lydian’s security guards moved two mobile homes belonging to the Amulsar defenders and replaced them with their own trailers. They also installed a fence around the newly-installed structures with the incident captured on film by local media. 

Lydian Armenia also published its own video, which it said explained how they had removed the activists’ trailers from their territory.

«Լիդիանը» սեփական տարածքից հեռացրել է ապօրինի գույքը

«Լիդիանը» սեփական տարածքից հեռացրել է ապօրինի գույքը_____________________________Այսօր առավոտյան «Լիդիան Արմենիան» նախաձեռնել է «Լիդիանի» օրինական տարածքում արդեն մոտ երկու տարի ապօրինի գտնվող վագոն-տնակների հեռացումը ընկերության տարածքից։ «Լիդիան Արմենիան» ունի Ամուլսարի տարածքում աշխատանքներ իրականացնելու բոլոր թույլտվությունները, որոնք որևէ կերպ չեն չեղարկվել կամ նույնիսկ ժամանակավոր չեն դադարեցվել։ Ամուլսարում աշխատանքերի իրականացման միակ խոչընդոտը եղել է արդեն երկու տարի ապօրինի կերպով «Լիդիանի» տարածք ներխուժած անձանց խումբը։ «Լիդիանը» երկու տարի փորձել է խուսափել բախումներից, ապավինելով օրենքի կիրառմանը, որն այդպես էլ երկու տարվա ընթացքում տվյալ հարցում չկիրարկվեց։ Հիշեցնենք, որ 2019 թ. ապրիլին ՀՀ վարչական դատարանը պարտավորեցրել է ոստիկանությանը վերացնել ներխուժումը և հեռացնել անձանց ու նրանց գույքը ընկերությանը պատկանող տարածքից։ Այս տարվա հուլիսին «Լիդիանը» ստացավ ևս մեկ փորձագիտական եզրակացություն, որ վագոն-տնակները գտնվում են «Լիդիանի» տարածքում։ Քանի որ ոստիկանությունը ընկերության դիմումին հերթական անգամ չարձագանքեց, «Լիդիանը» սեփական տարածքից ապօրինի գույքը հեռացրել է ինքնուրույն։ Ամուլսարում ապօրինություն իրականացնող խումբը, տեսնելով, որ չունեն համայնքի բնակիչների աջակցությունը, փորձում է բախումներ հրահրել` Երևանից հավաքվող սադրիչների խմբով արհեստական աղմուկ բարձրացնելով։ Կոչ ենք անում համայնքների բնակիչներին չտրվել սադրանքի և զերծ մնալ խուլիգանություն իրականացնող խմբի հետ բախումներից։ Կոչ ենք անում իրավապահ մարմիներին հետամուտ լինել այս տարածքում օրինականության վերականգնմանը և ապահովել քաղաքացիների անվտանգությունը։ Կից տեսանյութում պահնորդական ծառայության ղեկավար Արթուր Դանիելյանը ներկայացնում է տնակների հեռացման հիմքերը, կցված են նաև համապատասխան փաստաթղթերը, ինչպես նաև ներկայացվում է Ամուլսարի հարակից համայնքերի բնակիչների արձագանքը։#Ամուլսար #Amulsar #Հայաստան #Armenia #Լիդիան #Lydian #ԼիդիանԱրմենիա #LydianArmenia #ներդրումներ #investments #հանքարդյունաբերություն #mining

Geplaatst door Lydian Armenia op Dinsdag 4 augustus 2020

Later that morning, local environmentalists and activists opposing the mine announced a “mass environmental mobilization” and urged all supporters and allies to travel to the site to help defend Amulsar. They used the hashtag #SaveAmulsar across Facebook, Instagram, TikTok, and Twitter, leading it to trend on some platforms in Armenia.

Over the course of the day, hundreds gathered at the second of four protest posts set up by the defenders leading up to the mine, demanding that the Armenian government annul the 2016 Environmental Impact Assessment and that the Lydian security guards remove their wagons and leave the area. This resulted in clashes between protesters and the guards, the deployment of police forces to the area, and detentions on both sides. The protest continued until midnight, with no resolution

The standoff resumed the next day, with more people joining those at Amulsar and blocking roads to nearby Jermuk. Clashes continued between protesters and police throughout the day as the former refused to leave the roadway, resulting in police trying to forcibly remove them and the consequent detention of multiple activists. 

Environmental activist Ani Seize Khachatryan, who was among those detained, posted the following image on Facebook the next day showing the bruises she had sustained when being apprehended by police.

Ոստիկանության հատուկ զորքերի բռնության հետևանքները։ Մարմնիս վրա էլի տարբեր տեղեր վնասվածքներ ու սալջարդեր ունեմ։

Geplaatst door Ani Seize Khachatryan op Donderdag 6 augustus 2020

According to environmentalists at the site, police officers used a disproportionate amount of force against the protesters when trying to clear them from the roadway, leading to at least one protester sustaining serious leg injuries. 

Capital Protests

While the protests continued in Amulsar, a small group of people gathered in support of the Amulsar defenders outside the Government building, where the Armenian cabinet sits, in central Yerevan on August 6.

Police were quick to warn the group that they would have to resort to forcibly dispersing them if they did not leave the area. Further, the police announced that there was a ban on gatherings under the state of emergency due to COVID-19.

The protesters insisted that they were not holding a gathering, that they were socially distancing and wearing masks. Police then proceeded to forcibly detain people, including the head of the Armenian Helsinki Association for Human Rights, Nina Karapetyants, and lawyer Ara Karagyozyan. According to posts on Facebook by those in contact with detained protesters, police were aggressive towards those who had been apprehended and tried to threaten and intimidate them when they were in transit to police stations. Calls for lawyers and human rights defenders to intervene, however, were quick to spread and soon most of the detained demonstrators received access to lawyers.

Another event in support of the Amulsar defenders, a bike rally, was scheduled for the same evening in Yerevan. Protesters on bicycles aimed to start the protest in downtown Yerevan, ride through various parts of the capital and end up back in the center. However, police were quick to react here as well, detaining several people and confiscating bikes. 

In the video above, police interrupt a cyclist’s interview with a journalist, in which she tries to explain the purpose and the route of the rally. The video then captures most of the activists being detained, with no real explanation offered, and the bikes being confiscated. When the reporter and the activists ask an officer to explain why they were being detained, the officer replies: “I don’t know, you tell her guys” while looking at his colleagues.

Later in the video, another officer says to the reporter that the cyclists were detained for organizing an unlawful demonstration and for not complying with police orders to end the rally. 

Reports distributed in the official Facebook event also confirmed that some of the cyclists were detained.

#Ամուլսար Ինձ բերման էին ենթարկել Ազատության հրապարակից՝ ոստիկանների կողմից հեծանիվները բեռնատարների մեջ դնելու պրոցեսը…

Geplaatst door Լևոն Գալստյան op Donderdag 6 augustus 2020

The below video from the Armenian Environmental Front civic initiative member Levon Galstyan also shows officers confiscating the bikes. Towards the end of the video, police can be seen detaining Galstyan himself with no explanation provided. The video’s caption says: “Having detained the cyclists, [police] are now taking away the bikes. I was also detained, with no reasoning provided.” Galstyan can also be seen filming and being detained in another video from local online broadcaster, Factor TV, at around the 20:30 mark.

Հեծանվորդներին տարել են, հիմա էլ հեծանիվներն են տանում։Ինձ էլ տարան առանց պահանջ ներկայացնելու։

Geplaatst door Լևոն Գալստյան op Donderdag 6 augustus 2020

The Mayor Intervenes

Back in Amulsar, the locals and their allies continued blocking roads and insisted they would not disperse unless their demands were met. Towards the evening, the mayor of the nearby town of Jermuk, Vardan Hovhannisyan, addressed the protesters and urged them to unblock the road, claiming that he was in touch with relevant Lydian representatives and that the wagons installed by their private guards would be removed on the morning of August 7.

“Their wagons were placed [in the place of the Amulsar defenders ones] by mistake,” he said in a video broadcast by RFE/RL’s Armenian service. “Tomorrow morning relevant specialists will arrive here and remove the wagons to the correct location.”

Shortly after, however, Lydian Armenia released a statement on their Facebook page, claiming that they “had not reached such an agreement with anyone.” They added: “The wagons are on a territory legally controlled by the company […] Lydian has all the rights and permits to implement any activities in this area, including installing wagon-trailers.”

Վագոն-տնակները գտնվում են «Լիդիան Արմենիայի» օրինական տարածքում________________________ Քիչ առաջ մամուլից տեղեկացանք,…

Geplaatst door Lydian Armenia op Donderdag 6 augustus 2020

As of the afternoon of August 7, no actions were taken by Lydian that would suggest the wagons would be removed. Locals and environmentalists were remained in the area and waited for updates. The caption to the photo (below) published by journalist Tehmine Yenoqyan reads: “Jermuk mayor Vardan Hovhannisyan and Vayots Dzor police chief Gevorg Azizyan left the second Amulsar post for 5 minutes about an hour ago and never returned. Recall, a crane should have arrived here in the morning and removed the wagons.” 

Ջերմուկ համայնքի ղեկավար Վարդան Հովհաննիսյանը և Վայոց ձորի ոստիկանապետ Գևորգ Ազիզյանի հետ մի ժամ առաջ 5 րոպեով գնացին…

Geplaatst door Tehmine Yenoqyan op Vrijdag 7 augustus 2020

Shortly thereafter, however, the mayor returned, and it was announced that Lydian’s wagons would be moved to the area that is under the company’s control, a short distance away. According to officials, the area on which Lydian installed its wagons was neutral community territory which the company had no authority over.

In the following live broadcast by RFE/RL’s Armenian service, we can see a crane arriving and removing the wagons. Meanwhile, police officers create a barrier and push Lydian’s security guards away from the area, to prevent them from intervening in the process. The latter is met with applause from Amulsar defenders.

What has been the reaction?

Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan and the Government by and large have been silent about the events of the recent weeks. Pashinyan has not commented on the violent police actions against the protesters either. The only comment thus far was given by the PM’s spokesperson Mane Gevorgyan, who insisted that “we are all following the developments.” Gevorgyan added that she could not comment at the time whether Pashinyan intended to meet with the opponents of the mine construction in Amulsar.

As noted at the beginning of this article, the large scale protests of early August were the culmination of more than a month-long steady escalation of the situation at the Amulsar protest posts. In late June, Lydian Armenia said it had ramped up the security around the mine and deployed a group of armed guards to “protect their territory and millions dollars’ worth of equipment” from the Amulsar defenders camping in the area. In the early hours of July 1, these guards drove into the defenders’ camp unannounced, ran over their checkpoint and three puppies, as reported by local investigative outlet Hetq.am. The same day, the head of the new security service was reported to have come to meet with the locals and promised he would withdraw the guards from their area.

According to the Amulsar defenders, however, this promise was not kept and Lydian guards and contractors have resorted to provocations to incite clashes and fights with the activists in the time since. Several clashes with detentions of protesters were also reported by the EcoLur agency throughout July. 

What’s happening now?

Lydian Armenia was a subsidiary of Jersey-based parent company, Lydian International, which was recently restructured and relocated to Canada after lengthy bankruptcy proceedings with its creditors. 

Shortly after the August protests, Open Democracy reported that the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD), which had carried out exploration and feasibility studies at the mine, would withdraw its investment from the project. Open Democracy pointed to an EBRD internal assessment that stated the withdrawal was due to Lydian’s corporate restructuring process.

Yet environmentalists were quick to point to recent confrontations as being damaging to those involved in the project.

Fidanka McGrath, policy officer at environmental and human rights group CEE Bankwatch Network, was reported by Open Democracy as stating that “the recent despicable provocation by Lydian’s security company [at Amulsar] is only a sign of the reputational damage that this investment will continue to inflict on the EBRD, even after its shareholdings in Lydian International are wound up,”

However, Lydian Armenia wrote on Facebook that the EBRD and other shareholders “ceased to be part of the Amulsar project solely due to domestic lawlessness in Armenia” and that they could not comprehend the excitement over the news of those opposing the mine operation. “The Amulsar project will be implemented regardless of this circumstance, but this stain will haunt Armenia’s investment reputation for years to come. Rejoicing over this is, to put it mildly, anti-state behaviour.”