Residents in Armenia’s Debed Canyon Face Stark Choice between Poison and Destitution

IndraStra Global

Residents in Armenia’s Debed Canyon Face Stark Choice between Poison and Destitution

Story by Stephen M. Bland; images by Klaus Richter

Image Attribute: The Alaverdi Copper Smelting Plant / Photo: Klaus Richter

Image Attribute: The Alaverdi Copper Smelting Plant / Photo: Klaus Richter

In February 2018, with its Danish state-sponsored backers having pulled out citing health and safety violations, the Vallex Group open-pit mine at Teghut in Armenia’s Debed Canyon laid-off over a thousand workers. Families have been ripped apart as husbands and sons emigrate to look for work, whilst local farmer’s lands have been rendered infertile by the tailing dam from this and other mines pouring straight into the Debed River. Combined with the Vallex-operated copper smelting factory in the region’s main town of Alaverdi, the project at Teghut had accounted for 80% of employment opportunities in the region, leaving residents facing a stark choice between poison and destitution.

Replete with UNESCO sites, the Debed Canyon in Northern Armenia is a region rich in history. Copper smelting in the region dates back to the eighteenth century. By 1903, output accounted for 13% of the total produced in the Russian Empire. Massive construction works during the Soviet-era saw Alaverdi become a key hub of metallurgy and the chemical industry. With the influence of Moscow declining, when the smelter closed in 1988, parts were sold off, including filters which had mitigated the effects of caustic emissions. When the plant reopened in 1997, nothing was done to replace the missing filters.

Image Attribute: Oleg Dulgaryan at the Center for Community Mobilization and Support in Alaverdi / Photo: Klaus Richter

Image Attribute: Oleg Dulgaryan at the Center for Community Mobilization and Support in Alaverdi / Photo: Klaus Richter

Oleg Dulgaryan is the Executive Director at the Center for Community Mobilization and Support in Alaverdi. Operating since 2009, his NGO is engaged in project implementation, advocacy and protecting the environment.

"In our region, many people complain about health problems such as headaches, difficulties with breathing and blurred vision," he told IndraStra Global. "An inordinate number of serious diseases plague our town. According to a report from 2016 by the World Health Organization, Armenia is second only to Zimbabwe in terms of tuberculosis, and our province is the epicenter". 

"At the moment, the Debed River is at risk from tailing dams. We shot a video three days ago at Akhtala," he said, reaching for his phone and pointing out the luminous yellow run-off. "People in the villages use this water. In our region, experts have found that the heavy metal levels in fruits and agricultural products are ten times the safe limit. In 2014, the American University in Armenia conducted an examination on the blood of children and found that the content of heavy metals was ten to twelve times the standard amount. There are many cases where gardens watered by tributaries of the Debed are now barren… There have been incidents where all the fish were floating dead on the surface".

Image Attribute: Polluted water in a tributary of the Debed River / Photo: Klaus Richter

Image Attribute: Polluted water in a tributary of the Debed River / Photo: Klaus Richter

From the peak of a dirt track near the village of Shnogh, the sprawling gray landfill site and the destruction reaped on the environment by the copper and molybdenum mine at Teghut is immediately visible. Due to the closure of the mine, the residents of Shnogh are overwhelmingly female; just a few listless men loitering on the streets.

"There are around 3,200 people in Shnogh, of which around 500 worked at Teghut," a shopkeeper who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of jeopardizing her family’s chances of future employment told IndraStra Global. "Only about 30 still have their jobs. It’s been very bad for the community. Many people took loans from the banks based on their jobs for health treatments, buying a car and so on. Their lands are not fruitful because the project bought their fertile lands extremely cheaply. Many people have had to leave Armenia because they couldn’t afford food, not even bread. So the men left and their families stayed behind. The husbands feel depressed about the situation, so they leave for Russia. In some cases, it’s led to divorces".

"I hope the mine will reopen; most people here do. Even now, in my shop, people can’t settle their bills, so it’s not possible for us to take care of our needs. For us, the environment isn’t an issue. It’s better to work and have environmental problems than to be unemployed."

Below the village, at an orchard on the banks of the Debed River, Ara Babayan surveyed his decimated peach grove.


Image Attribute:  Ara Babayan at his decimated orchard  / Photo: Klaus Richter

"The run-off from Teghut has affected the land horribly," he told IndraStra Global. "There’ll be a harvest this year, but very small. With the mining, the trees are dehydrated, and year by year it’s getting worse. The poison also comes down from the smokestack into the river. I took a $60,000 loan to buy this land; how can I pay it back? If the product is poisoned, no one will buy it. The Germans used to be big customers, but they won’t buy fruit from this region anymore".

"Almost every day the water here is silver. That’s from the tailing dam at Akhtala, whilst the one from Teghut has a terrible smell like rotting flesh. Despite promises they’d only be used in case of emergency, Teghut had two pipes flowing directly into the river. We had the water analyzed; the metal content is very high, but the mines and the factory say it’s got nothing to do with them".

Image Attribute: A mile away from the smelter smokestack, fumes obscure the view of Alaverdi / Photo: Klaus Richter

Image Attribute: A mile away from the smelter smokestack, fumes obscure the view of Alaverdi / Photo: Klaus Richter

On the streets of Alaverdi, where the population has halved since 1989, the part-derelict front of the smelter stretches for over half a mile. Beyond its broken windows and barbed wire, atop a mountain at the back of the plant, a soaring smokestack belches a haze of sulfur dioxide into the atmosphere, which becomes trapped in the gorge, poisoning the town’s residents. In 2003 alone, 1,389 children under the age of fourteen were diagnosed with respiratory illnesses.

"My father used to work at the copper smelter, but he lost his job," a twenty-year-old girl called Arminka told IndraStra Global. "When the last big layoff happened, the company gave a small amount of money, 20,000 Dram ($40 U.S.) per person to the regional administration, but no one who was made redundant received it. Before the factory, my father used to go to Russia to look for work. We were so happy when he got a job at the smelter, but now it’s the same situation where he needs to go to Russia. We keep putting off his departure hoping he’ll get his job back."

Image Attribute: Arminka at the tailing dam near Akhtala / Photo: Klaus Richter

Image Attribute: Arminka at the tailing dam near Akhtala / Photo: Klaus Richter

When operations at Teghut were suspended in February 2018, the Vallex Group claimed it would reopen the mine shortly on a larger scale, but in October 2018 the Russian commercial bank, VTB gained control after Vallex failed to repay hundreds of millions of dollars in outstanding debts. Visiting Alaverdi as part of his election campaign on November 27th, 2018, acting Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan said that Teghut would be ‘exploited’ again once the tailing dam had been renovated at a cost of US$ 14 million. "Now our compatriot, Russian-Armenian Norik Petrosyan has set to work… after which the mine will again operate," he told the crowd. Environmental groups strongly oppose the reopening of the site. Elections in Armenia are scheduled for the 9th of December.

About the Author:

Stephen M. Bland is a freelance journalist and award-winning author specializing in Central Asia, the Caucasus and South-East Asia. His articles have appeared in numerous publications including The Diplomat, Vice, EurasiaNet, and Motherboard. You can view a selection at www.stephenmbland.com Twitter: @stephenmbland

About the Photographer:

Klaus Richter is a freelance photographer currently living in and working from Lithuania. For more photographs, visit www.klausrichter.at

Cite this Article:

Bland, S.M, Richter, K., "Residents in Armenia’s Debed Canyon Face Stark Choice between Poison and Destitution", IndraStra Global Vol. 4, Issue No: 12 (2018), 0010, https://www.indrastra.com/2018/12/Debed-Canyon-Armenia-004-12-2018-0010.html, ISSN 2381-3652.

Bland, S.M, Richter, K., "Residents in Armenia’s Debed Canyon Face Stark Choice between Poison and Destitution", IndraStra Global Vol. 4, Issue No: 12 (2018), 0010, https://www.indrastra.com/2018/12/Debed-Canyon-Armenia-004-12-2018-0010.html, ISSN 2381-3652.