Toronto Sun: Azerbaijani eco-activists protest mine pollution in Karabakh

    KARABAKH  30 January 2023 - 17:20

    The Canadian publication Toronto Sun published an article by Dave Gordon dedicated to a peaceful protest on the Lachin-Khankendi road, organised by Azerbaijani eco-activists and volunteers. Caliber.Az reprints the article.

    An unlikely group of youth, eco-activists and religious leaders find themselves at the centre of the latest in a long series of disputes between bitter enemies, Azerbaijanis and Armenians.

    For nearly 50 days, Azerbaijani protesters have expressed outrage at seven mining companies – including a Canadian one – railing against alleged decades-long environmental damage.

    Demonstrators in this Central Asian country insist that inspectors will finally be allowed to assess the Armenian-administered facilities on lands won back by Azerbaijan in the 2020 war. Yet they are stymied by Russian peacekeeping forces and uncooperative mining companies.

    “I want the world to know: we want to protect the environment of our country. It’s ignored by the international community. Innocent people risk future diseases due to the ecological damage,” said activist Adnan Huseyn, founder of the tourism organization, About Azerbaijan.

    “From the first day we’ve been saying that our primary demand is to have access to our mines, to conduct the needed monitoring to see the damage done to our ecology. Their silence tells us there’s no standards, no protocols, no procedures — no modern equipment or wastewater treatment.”

    Protesters, many who belong to any of 10 local environmental NGOs, are mostly university-aged.

    Tensions came to a head after years of no movement on the issue. A 2019 report by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Azerbaijan claims that tailings and overburden (toxic materials) from mines have been discovered in rivers and streams.

    The government released satellite imagery dating back more than 30 years, which it says shows indifference or negligence on the part of mining operators.

    Among the complaints are the Gizilbulag gold mine, run by Base Metals, and Damirli (called Kashen by Armenians) copper-molybdenum mine. Damirli operated from 2014-20.

    Activists since Dec. 12 have gathered on the sole road that connects the city of Lachin in Azerbaijan to Khankandi, the Armenian-populated city.

    Khankandi is located in the wider region of Karabakh – also known by its Russian name, Nogorno-Karabakh – that was occupied militarily by Armenia since 1991, but reclaimed by Azerbaijan in 2020.

    Activists assert that since the land is internationally recognized as owned by their country, mining operators are unlawfully extracting Azerbaijani resources. Foreign Minister Jeyhun Bayramov said at a news conference that his government had been demanding for more than a year the monitoring, and assessing, of mining sites in Karabakh, Reuters reported.

    But that has proven impossible up until now, as crossings between the territories remain under the control of Russian peacekeepers, in accordance with the 2020 cease-fire agreement between Armenia, Russia and Azerbaijan.

    Further complicating matters, Huseyn believes, is a precarious situation with peacekeeping forces. “The world wants Russia to fail in Ukraine. But if Russia fails there, the world is watching. To save face, Russia could bring more resistance here. I think this is a concern.”

    On Jan. 17, Ali Aliyev, head of the National Geological Exploration Agency of the Ecology and Natural Resources Ministry, publicly named what he believed were the mining companies alleged to have not operated in good faith: Canadian-based Sterlite Gold and First Dynasty Mines, Swiss Base Metals, Russian Geopro Mining Gold Co., Armenian Copper Programme, U.S. Global Gold and Indian Vedanta Resources.

    Mining companies and their representatives could not be reached for comment.

    “We want to stop the destruction of nature, stop the pollution from our mines. Our protest is civil,” said Flora Valisli, a mining ecologist specialist with the Azerbaijani Ministry of Ecology and Natural Resources.

    “Thirty years of eco-terror against our nature, and we want to stop it, finally. We have to monitor and examine what they did to our mines, enter it to see what’s going on.”

    Strip mining without environmental standards causes permanent ecological damage, she insisted.

    Armenian media reported that Armenian representatives in Khankandi insist their mining “is carried out in accordance with the highest international standards.” They said on December 28, 2022, that in response to the “unhealthy atmosphere” of the protests, Base Metals’ copper mine temporarily ceased operations, and an “international environmental review” was initiated. Valisli said she’s heard no follow-up in the weeks since.

    According to an Associated Press report on December 28, Armenian leaders alleged the protests were “orchestrated by the Azerbaijani government,” although activists insist it was a grassroots effort.

    Rabbi Zamir Isayev, chairman of the Georgian Jewish community, drove five hours from Baku, Azerbaijan’s capital, to join the demonstrations.

    “I’m here to support our eco-activists here. We are against the destruction of nature, which the Armenians have done for 30 years. We want to enter the liberated territory, to examine the sites of the mines, what’s going on, and how much they have destroyed nature.” He noted the protest is peaceful, and none of the activists have blocked the road.

    “It’s very important for people to know: they have been moving aside for civilian and humanitarian convoys to drive through,” he said, emphatically. The Toronto Sun can confirm that on January 18-19, Red Cross, humanitarian trucks and supply vehicles, were given uninterrupted free passage.

    Meanwhile, Hikmat Hajiyev, assistant to the president of the Republic of Azerbaijan, cautioned that Armenia should be prevented from using the road to transport weapons, mines, and illegally extracted materials.

    Baku-based media Report said that representatives from the Ministry of Ecology and Natural Resources and the AzerGold CJSC company had engaged in talks with General Andrei Volkov, deputy commander of Russian peacekeeping. The discussions culminated in an agreement to allow in environmental monitors, on December 10, 2022. But when met with strong Armenian objections, Russian peacekeepers prohibited entry.

    Activists say that when those talks broke down, it spurred them to rally two days later.


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