Amulsar Gold Mine Decision: Blessing or Blunder?

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In most countries, an environmental dispute would have local dimensions, but not in Armenia.

Because of the country’s size, the dispute regarding the continuation of the mining operation has been amplified to become a part of the national discourse. At issue are 31 million tons of ore and 40 tons of pure gold to be extracted by the Lydian Armenia mining company, based in Toronto, Canada.

The company released a report on August 9, 2019, on the environmental audit conducted by Earth Link and Advanced Resources Development (ELARD) on the progress of Amulsar.

Lydian announced that “the investigative body had analyzed the information and findings provided by the international audit report and found there were no grounds for criminal proceedings against the company.”

There is an uproar in Armenia; environmentalists are up in arms protesting the potential hazards that the Amulsar mining operation poses to Jermuk waters, thermal springs located 10 kilometers from the mines. It will also contaminate the Sevan Lake basin, the environmentalists claim, drawing a picture of doom-and-gloom for the entire country.

However, the ELARD report has concluded that “there is no direct connection between the underground waters located on the territory of the Amulsar project and the thermal hot springs of Jermuk. There is also no connection between the waters of Sevan basin.”

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The previous government of Armenia had signed a contract with Lydian Armenia in 2014 based on the environment impact report of 2005.

The issue has been amplified to generate not only a scientific debate on the findings of the report but has caused political ramifications which are threatening to split the ruling My Step party and to provide ammunition to the opposition outside the parliament.

Some people believe that a defining moment is in the offing for Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan’s political future.

“The government does not obviously share a unanimous position on Amulsar. The scenario is threatening a deepening crisis in the country’s political circles,” Narine Dilbaryan, deputy leader of the Heritage Party said, commenting on the ongoing debate over the controversial mine exploitation prospect.

Pashinyan was facing an excruciatingly difficult choice; he had to weigh on the one hand the prospect of the $17 billion of income to be pumped into Armenia’s economy, along with the $700 million compensation the country would have to make to Lydian, in case the mining operation was halted, as well as consider the potential environmental hazards to the underground water supplies and to Jermuk and Sevan. Pashinyan finally decided to allow Lydian the permit to resume operations, which had been halted since 2018.

The decision angered many and it looks like it will trigger a backlash.

Topics: Amulsar, Ecology

“Pashinyan just placed a landmine under his feet, which may explode at any time,” wrote Garbis Pashayan, a political pundit.

In addition, one of his fellow My Step party allies in parliament, Sophia Hovsepyan, aired her public discontent. Others may follow her soon. This rift in the party has become a topic of lively discussions in the media. Pashinyan’s partisans interpret the public disagreements as democracy in action, while others believe the move may accelerate the founding of a Green party in a European style.

Many parties and political commentators have been expressing their views.

There is a trend veering towards solving the issue through a referendum. Indeed, the Armenian Revolutionary Federation (ARF, Dashnaktsutyun), taking Pashinyan at his word, has come up with the proposal to have a referendum. Pashinyan had indicated that any problem or crisis of national dimensions would be resolved by the people, right on Republic Square. That, of course, was a statement beyond populism, bordering on demagoguery.

The Prosperous Armenia Party has offered yet another alternative, recommending a plebiscite which will not have the force of law.

While Pashinyan’s supporters maintain that the people have given a full mandate to the prime minister through their landslide support (80 percent of the vote) to allow him to take  responsibility for crucial decisions, to hold a referendum on an issue with such serious consequences is to gamble with Armenia’s future.

In this case, the people are not armed with the scientific data to cast intelligent votes. We just need to remember that the last referendum held on the constitution was almost a farce.

To misdirect the public opinion against the people’s interest is not new. The danger has existed since the days of playwright Henrik Ibsen (1828-1906), who wrote “An Enemy of the People.” In the play, a moral man wants to expose the water pollution in his city while many slick hucksters want to rebrand the city as a spa. When he appeals to public opinion, it is he who is branded the enemy.

Technology and social media are challenges to democracy as we know it. Today, the technology of mass media is so advanced that it can shape public opinion. The results of a referendum may end up anywhere. A pot of gold is hanging over Armenia. People have been wondering whether the gold deposits in Amulsar will prove to be an economic blessing or ecological blunder.

Armenia has faced this dilemma before. During the demonstrations leading to Armenia’s independence, at the breakup of the Soviet Union. The fate of Metsamor Nuclear Power Plant was politicized and by public demand its operation was halted, adding more misery to the plight of the citizens who were already freezing in the dark. Later on, the power plant was certified as operational and continued to supply much-needed energy to the country. Although Metsamor is one of the oldest nuclear power plant models, it continues to operate because the resumption of its operation was supported with scientific data.

Granted, scientific fact-finding in the Amulsar case is not comparable to the case of the atomic power plant, but it remains the only plausible solution to the problem.

Political debates, patriotic speeches, referenda and plebiscites cannot guarantee the right answer.

Only the proper use of scientific data can help citizens reach the correct conclusion.

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