Local, diasporan, and even non-Armenian environmental activists have been hard at work in Armenia these past two months. Harnessing the organizing powers of social media platforms such as Facebook and YouTube, these activists are mobilizing people – especially the youth – to protest, demonstrate and occupy Teghut, the site of a controversial open-pit mining project in Northern Armenia, and Yerevan’s Mashtots Park, where the construction of a fashion boutique threatens one of the few remaining green areas in the city.
“OCCUPY TEGHUT” and “Դէպի Թեղուտ” graffiti tags have sprung up all around the city of Yerevan, along with videos on YouTube of activists tagging buildings. A Facebook group called “Save Teghut” has garnered thousands of members who post pictures, videos, news articles, and express their frustrations with the current state of Armenia’s long neglected environment. Activists are capitalizing on this frustration and turning it into action, aided by the ability to quickly and efficiently mobilize demonstrators through the internet.
On January 15, the culminated into a march from Yerevan to Teghut, led by over 200 activists , carrying banners reading “We are Teghut” to protest the Armenian Copper Program’s (ACP) plan to turn thousands of acres of lush green forests into an open-pit mining operation. Teghut is estimated to have 1.6 million tons of copper and 100,000 tons of molybdenum underground.
The majority of the protesters, many of whom were in their 20’s, carried digital cameras and smartphones to document the deforestation already taking place. It is estimated one fifth of the forest has already been deforested by the ACP in preparation for the open-pit mine. The protesters were joined by countless local and state media outlets who are just now realizing the gravity of the situation. Police stopped them from marching any further into the mining project.
Environmentalists argue the project will cause damage to the diverse ecosystem, destruction of over 128,000 trees, and the dumping of millions of tons of toxic chemicals and waste into nearby regions, rivers, and water sources. They demand an immediate stop to all mining activities, and propose turning Teghut into a tourist attraction that makes use of the natural beauty of the region rather than destroying it.
Teghut, located in the Armenia’s northern region of Lori, is one of the only remaining forests in the country with a diverse ecosystem made up of hundreds of exotic animal and plant species, many of which are internationally considered endangered.
In 2008 Armenia’s government granted the Armenian Copper Program (ACP) mining rights to 357 hectares (almost 900 acres) of the forest for 25 years, which activists in Armenia and the international community claim this decision violates countless local and international laws. Adding to charges of corruption, Armenia’s government allowed the ACP to perform its own environmental assessment report rather than requiring a review from an impartial third part group. Their findings were, unsurprisingly, that no harm would come to the region as a result of the open-pit mining.
A bike tour organized last summer by the protesters attracted the support of Armenian rock star Serj Tankian who wrote in a statement, “The destruction of wildlife and environmental havens can no longer be excused for the sake of progress or the attainment of natural resources. Mining is against our combined interest as a people and nation.”
That same summer, a petition addressed to Armenia’s President, Prime Minister, and Parliament collected signatures of over 5,000 citizens, including those of First Lady Rita Sarkisian and former First Lady Bella Kocharian.
Now, the environmentalist spirit is resonating overseas close to home. The ARF “Shant” Student Association is spearheading a “Save Teghut” T-shirt campaign, of which all proceeds will go towards helping the activists. In early February a panel discussion titled , “Armenia’s Environmental Challenges in the 21st Century” was organized in Pasadena by the Armenia Tree Project and Armenian Engineers & Scientists of America in association with AGBU Young in order to foster dialogue about Teghut and the larger scope of environmental problems facing Armenia.
All this momentum is spilling over into the latest set of demonstrations taking place at Yerevan’s Mashtots Park, where activists are protesting the construction of expensive high-end fashion boutiques in one of the few remaining green areas in Yerevan. The activists, the very same who are protesting the developments in Teghut, claim that the construction is illegal as it is in the middle of a public park, and should be stopped immediately.
In the past two weeks hundreds have flocked to Mashtots Park, filling in and around the steel frame structure where the boutique is meant to be built. Many have roped themselves together, and some even lied down in front of cement trucks in an effort to prevent any more construction from taking place.
The construction crew tried to get around the protesters by waiting until the middle of the night to resume welding and hammering. In response, protesters are now occupying Mashtots Park day and night. Protesters also picketed Yerevan’s city hall chanting, “Parks without boutiques,” and “Taron [Yerevan’s mayor] come down”.
However, no official representative from the city has yet to step forward. The city and police claim these boutiques are merely temporary structures which will be eventually removed, which runs contrary to the obvious fact that the boutiques are being built with lasting materials such as concrete, bricks, and steel.
The activists are using the “Save Teghut” Facebook group to organize people and spread information. Their latest event page calls on people near Yerevan to bring tea, blankets, and warm food to support the protesters who are occupying Mashtots Park in the cruel cold of Yerevan nights.
In a surprising turn of events, President Serj Sarkisian personally visited the park in early May. He announced that Yerevan’s Mayor had been instructed to grant the demands of the activists and dismantle the boutiques. By May 10, all of the boutiques were torn down. This marks yet another victory for Armenia’s green movement. Still, nobody knows where exactly this growing movement is headed. What will become of the mining operation in Teghut in light of the victory in Mashtots Park has yet to be determined.
Nobody knows where exactly this growing movement is headed. What will become of the mining operation in Teghut or the boutique construction in Mashtots park has yet to be determined. What is clear however, is that people are finally fed up. Fed up with the government’s backdoor-dealing, oligarch-favoring, corrupt- to-the-core methods of advancing its own interests at the expense and total disregard of its people, its environment, and its nation’s future. People are finally refusing the status quo, finally silencing the cynics indifferent to injustice, finally realizing the power in unity, and finally writing what are only the opening chapters of a movement tenacious in its demand for change in Armenia.