John Harker

Armenia Then and Now: Reexamining Mining in Amulsar


By John Harker, LL.D.

John Harker is a world-renowned conflict resolution, social engagement and international development expert. He was Nelson Mandela’s special advisor and helped him set up South Africa’s National Development Agency. He has served as Executive Director of the Professional Association of Foreign Service Officers, representing Canada’s diplomats and trade commissioners as well as Advisor to the Chair of the International Labour Organization’s (ILO’s) Governing Body. More recently he has served as president of Cape Breton University, where, among other things, he created the Centre on Sustainability in Energy and the Environment, a campus in Cairo and an office in Beijing, in partnership with China’s National Development Research Council (NDRC). He agreed a few years ago to head an Independent Advisory Panel for Amulsar, receiving a per diem payment. Here is a fuller biography:

As I write, from the comfort and safety of my home on Canada’s Atlantic coast, I can’t help thinking of a far-away land-locked country, Armenia, once a Soviet Republic, always an ancient home-land, and now a country harmed by the stress of war. A war with its neighbor, Azerbaijan.

The supposed reason for war between these two South Caucasus countries was stated more than once by the President of Azerbaijan, Ilham Aliyev. He said that “Armenia and its military forces need to leave our territory.” The territory in question, referred to variously as Nagorno-Karabakh or Artsakh, has been a bone of contention between Azerbaijan and Armenia for a very long time.

And for at least some of that time, recent years anyway, the Aliyev family which “rules” Azerbaijan has looked for ways to avoid the people of the country finding the means to alter the status quo, unbridled Aliyev rule. Perhaps the Nagorno-Karabakh issue was fueled by their fear of democratization, as much as by a sense of commitment to “territorial integrity”?

But territorial integrity is a fundamental aspect of our “international system,” and cannot be treated lightly, though nor can another fundamental, the right of people, and peoples, to enjoy universally recognized rights, one being “self-determination.”

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These are two sometime competing principles, and because they might be in contention, every effort must be made to find resolutions, and this is certainly true of the South Caucasus today.

I will restrict myself to a focus on Armenia, because, in recent years, I have been privileged to enjoy a small involvement in its affairs, and begun to know something about its people. And it is primarily to them that I address these remarks.

It was only in 2017 that I gave any thought to Armenia, and it began when I was invited to serve as chair of an Independent Advisory Panel, created to keep under close scrutiny, and offer public advice about, the extent to which an international extractive company, Lydian, was developing a gold mining project at Amulsar, Armenia.

My first trip to Armenia included a change of flights at London’s Heathrow airport. Arriving overnight from Canada, I made my way to the Air Canada lounge. The host asked where I was flying to. I said Yerevan, and his grin was as broad as his London accent when he exclaimed “I’m an Armenian!”

He had never been there, but it was HIS homeland, for sure. And it is the same for millions of people around the globe. There are proud Armenians in small villages, like the Gndevaz I came to know, or vast cities, like London, or Boston, or…….

The focus of our panel was on impacts such as those now encapsulated as ESG, environmental, social, and governance impacts, and our report was presented, in Yerevan, in May of 2018. Overall, the panel gave Lydian credit for its work to ensure no, or minimal, negative impacts from the mining operation, and its commitment to maximizing the benefits to Armenia of this development.

However, to the company’s regret, very soon after, government support for the project was influenced by protest, and the project was harassed by “blockades,” which were declared illegal but not cleared away, and the drive towards production, and the benefits it could bring, was halted.

In our panel, we appreciated the benefits but never minimized the need to explore fully what negatives there might be, and catalogued steps the company should take to avoid them. In this spirit, for example, we urged the company to work with government and environmental opponents to fashion a modern system of “participatory monitoring” to look hard at the impact of mining on bodies of water. We took the possibilities of environmental degradation very seriously.

That is to say, we never avoided, or tried to minimize, the importance of, critical viewpoints, and, indeed, we tried to ensure that the operating company took all of these assertions into account, and adjusted where necessary.

As the blockades continued, and the company focused on minimal work necessary to avoid degradation of facilities, the panel was disbanded, and its members turned to other pre-occupations.

And the company and government continued to talk and interact. I assume that is still going on, and if it is, I hope that, on both sides of any dialogue, there is absolute awareness that the state of relations between Armenia and Azerbaijan is a driver of decision.

That is not at all to say that environmental or other concerns should be set aside; in fact, they can, in my view, play a positive part in helping bring Amulsar into production quickly. And with production comes something absolutely imperative for Armenia: financial reward, now seen as essential as it responds to Azeri attacks. Azerbaijan is an oil-producer. Armenia is not, and it should know very well that Amulsar would bring into its coffers serious revenues when these are absolutely needed. And it seems to me that only Amulsar is a pending source of new wealth for Armenia, and Armenians.

On the matter of “wealth,” I remember that we panelists met with Lydian’s Board, in January 2018, and one of the Lydian Directors surprised his colleagues by suggesting that they should start thinking of how to share the wealth with Armenia when the price of gold reaches $1,700 per ounce.

Well, not much later, the signs began to appear that Amulsar might not soon be going into production, whatever the price of gold. And that price has climbed well past the $1,700 viewed by some Lydian directors as beyond reach.

With the onset of warfare between Armenians and Azeris, I found myself wondering if Armenians understood that warfare is a very expensive business, as well as a dangerous one.

And these are people who live, have always lived, in a dangerous neighborhood, one made more volatile not just by Azerbaijan, but by regional powers quite possibly looking to re-draw not boundaries and borders but bounds, the bounds of what is possible or achievable in expressing and furthering interests.

I will admit that when the project was first “stalled” I felt that Armenians were the losers, denied well-rewarded full and freely chosen employment, which would not threaten the environment of surrounding communities as real, high-tech, water monitoring would be in place; Amulsar had the potential to strengthen the state’s capacity to meet the emerging needs of Armenians across the country.

Needs, for example, such as the education, training, and re-skilling, of young people so they can help Armenia thrive in the digitized global economy.

And necessary state capacity certainly includes the capacity for defense.

So as the reality of war sank in, I hoped that Armenia would act decisively and do what it needed to get the Amulsar project into production, and into necessary wealth-generation for Armenia and Armenians. Without resources, it was hard to see how the needs of Armenians, whether in Armenia proper or Artsakh itself, can possibly be met.

But the gates of Amulsar remained blockaded, and this during a time of “martial law,” and terror being unleashed on Artsakh.  The blockades were not limited to Amulsar, of course, and Prime Minister Pashinyan, in explaining to the nation why he had signed the “peace agreement,” said there were cases when a regiment had to be transported for combat purposes but the residents of the given settlement had blocked the gates of the military base and did not allow the vehicles to exit. He said there were “dozens of cases like this”!

Meanwhile, families in Artsakh were under attack. Including the children.

Yes, it has been both humbling and encouraging to witness the inflow of donations to the Hayastan All Armenian Fund to cover the immediate needs of children; donations have come from all over, but the state needs to be able to react also, and wealth from the Amulsar project would have been very useful.

And still will be IF production does get rolling, energized by the state of emergency which Armenia now finds itself in. And here it is worth keeping in mind that, as it contends with the consequences of war, Armenia is also trying to deal with the global pandemic, Covid-19. Mid-October saw the greatest daily number of new cases identified in Armenia since the virus arrived. Not long after that starting point, I was privileged to participate in a webinar on Covid-19, and how to survive, revive and thrive through and after it, and it was hosted by an Armenian living in Moscow, and his partner, an Armenian living in Boston. A classic picture of the Armenian reality.

At this point I should mention another dimension of my engagement with Armenia.

While I was still active on the advisory panel, a “Canadian-Armenian” friend drew my attention to an undertaking which she thought had great promise for the country. She was referring to the work being done by Ruben Vardanyan, host of the webinar I just mentioned, and Nune Alekyan, Armenians both, one living in Moscow, the other in London. They had embarked on producing a major think-piece about the Future, or Futures, of Armenia, and their undertaking carried the title “Cross-roads.” Armenia is at a crossroads in every sense of the term.

I agreed to help, and was pleased to review their work, and offer my own perceptions, which of course came not from my limited knowledge of Armenia, but my life-long engagement with conflict and peace-building, including the roles of diasporas in both. And the roles of extractive companies in many situations.

Over many years, I had seen the good and the bad, and felt that I could tell the difference!

And in Armenia, I remain convinced that the Amulsar project was of the “good,” and would remain so, under careful scrutiny, if driven by local people who wanted to make a difference, rather than just wanting to make a profit.

Nowadays, all of this is referred to as “responsible mining,” and thanks to the World Economic Forum, more and more it is seen as a pioneer in “stakeholder capitalism,” where the interests of stakeholders as diverse as plant workers, village elders, and investment fund managers, are advocated, discussed, and, where possible, balanced and met.

Two years ago, it looked likely that the Amulsar project could become a “flagship” for this kind of responsible mining, and would go on to produce the wealth that Armenia so clearly needs.

And it could do this without putting in danger the people, the plants, and the animals which make up the biosphere of this land-locked country, one with its people everywhere, from Glendale, California to Moscow, from London to Tehran.

And the strength this gives would play in ensuring that its people have their rights respected.

One final observation relates to those rights. Among them is the right to freedom of religion, which many people, in peaceable regions, tend to take for granted. In the South Caucasus, two conflicting states have populations which strongly identify with one religion; Armenia is Christian, Azerbaijan is Moslem.

Earlier in life, I played a small role in the middle of the Sudanese civil war. At one point, I was held hostage for a short time, and my captor, or host, said he was inclined to shoot me there and then. “I don’t think you are a good Christian”, he said, “I think you are a Moslem and I should shoot you.”

I responded by saying that I certainly was not a very good Christian, more of a lapsed one, and I was certainly not a Moslem, but, I said, as firmly as I could, if I was a Moslem, that would not give you a right to kill me. We can’t kill each other just because we have different faiths.

That seemed to make a difference, and before long, the ordeal was over. I was free to go.

  • The  Armenia/Azerbaijan ordeal will perhaps never really be over, but whatever is decided, Armenia will need wealth to meet its needs, the needs of its people, and getting Amulsar on stream, a fully monitored stream, is very much what is needed today. And today, government and society should prioritize Amulsar. There’s a war still lurking in the neighborhood; perhaps it can be avoided, as well as afforded.

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