Remember, if you will (or read if you’ve recently joined us) back to October 2007; a memorable month for all the wrong reasons. The loss of two bank cards and the disintegration of Andy’s rear wheel led to our bicycle voyage being becalmed in Istanbul for one whole month as we waited for replacements to arrive. As we finally departed that great metropolis in mid-November, I found myself wondering if I’d visit the city in the future in a more positive manner, or whether I would eventually find some place to make my home for more than just a few days or weeks.
It happened a little sooner than I expected, but I’ve now been living in Yerevan for almost 4 months – an unexpected part of my journey, but nevertheless a monumentally fulfilling one. I’m experiencing daily life in an environment that I would previously have considered quite alien. I know it’s not exactly Outer Mongolia, but what has really gripped me and here is the way in which social and economic development under the Soviet Union, together with the years of difficulty following its collapse, and modern technological and social influences from the West, have resulted in the kind of hybrid environment that we in the West might remember aspects of – if we’re old enough – from many decades ago.
On top of this is the unfathomable way in which the super-rich seem to be catered for out of all proportion to their tiny share of the population. I remember staring in disbelief at a sad, solitary punnet of out-of-season strawberries perched on the shelf of a high-street supermarket a few months ago. The price? 15,000 Armenian Drams. That’s 50 US Dollars. Pineapple in winter? $20. A box of chocolates, placed high-up in a grand location overlooking the checkouts? Six Hundred Freaking Dollars. (A magnum of Moet-Chandon champagne? Don’t ask.) Then there are the fashion boutiques in the redeveloped city centre (Versace, D&G, Lacoste, et al). My parents, who recently visited for a week, sat down for a coffee at an outdoor cafe. When the bill arrived, they queried a vague item for $10 marked ‘V.I.P.’. That $10 was the charge for sitting on the sofas, rather than at a table.
In the street outside my flat I can find a row of little old ladies selling vegetables. They buy these vegetables from a larger market outside central Yerevan, then sell them in the suburbs for a tiny mark-up. Further up the road is a little booth in which I see a man sitting at a workbench. Every day he is fixing a different household appliance – one day a music system, the next a hairdryer, the next the cooling unit from a fridge. The booth is overflowing with every imaginable kind of tool and spare part. Across the street from him is a second-hand shop, where you can buy a kilogram of clothes for $10. I don’t know how much these workers earn, but I’m sure they don’t spend it on pineapples and silk ties, or blacked-out Hummers.
So who buys these ridiculously-overpriced luxury goods? Would it make any difference whether the Swiss chocolates cost $600, $60, or $6000? Probably not – money is no object to the people who buy these goods. Most of the big business in Armenia is owned and run either by foreign investors or by closed, elite groups of ‘business people’ and politicians (the boundary is distinctly blurred) who by most accounts seem to be above the law. Large-scale corruption is a problem in many post-communist countries, but some have taken control of the problem. Armenia, supposedly a country with a relatively rapid overall rate of economic growth, doesn’t seem to be one of them. The gaping void between the ultra-rich and those who can barely afford to support themselves is visible in every aspect of life here, and the competitive attitude of those who do have money suggests that things are unlikely to change.
In February, I heard numerous accounts of corruption during the presidential elections that were shocking to me. I’m used to living in a society where a citizen’s fundamental rights are for the most part respected. Then there were the tragic events of March 1st. The state-censored media officially reported 8 deaths of citizens who were protesting at the elections’ conduct, who were shot at in self-defence by the military. This official story was then reported in the worldwide media. At the risk of speaking the unspeakable, numerous reliable sources told me that the number of funerals in the following weeks was many times higher.
In a country where you can buy anything – even the right to violate basic laws and human rights – what chance do local environmental activists have at making their voices heard and understood? When a mining conglomerate announces governmental approval of plans to clear over 1,500 acres of virgin forest in the north of Armenia in order to begin an open pit strip mining operation, it’s natural to assume that money spoke significantly louder than the collective voice of the conservationists. That assumption becomes all the more viable when we consider the fact that the Armenian Ministry of Nature Protection (just take a moment to let that title sink in) approved the plans of this company, the Armenian Copper Programme (ACP), to destroy the natural habitat of 21 species of fish, 86 birds, 55 mammals, 10 reptiles, and 3 amphibians.
Almost half of these mammals and fish, and nine plants, are listed in the IUCn Red Book of endangered species. When the Armenian Ministry of Nature Protection decided that ACP’s proposal to reduce these species’ ecosystem to a 500-metre-deep hole in the landscape was an acceptable one, what other factors could have influenced them, other than the environmental considerations that they were charged to protect?
There is an extensive list of reasons to doubt the integrity of the process by which ACP obtained the government go-ahead for the mine. I could write at length on previous unkept promises made by ACP regarding their ecological impact, or the amount of capital spent on the detailed surveying of the site without concern that it would be lost if the application was rejected. Consider ACP’s existing copper-smelting operation in the nearby town of Alaverdi. In 2006 and 2007, the operation produced atmospheric emissions of twenty times the permitted amount of sulphur anhydride under state regulations. A government-ordered 10% reduction by January of this year was not met, as admitted by the ACP’s director himself. The plant, which re-opened in 1996, also emitted (in 2006) 12 tons of arsenic, nearly 105 tons of dust, 41 tons of zinc, nearly 3 tons of lead, and 3 tons of copper into the atmosphere.
It’s no surprise, then, to hear that the health ministry recorded 121 cases of respiratory diseases among Alaverdi adults in 2005 and 295 in 2007. More sickeningly, the maternity hospital in the town, which before the reopening of the plant had experienced not one birth defect, reported 28 in 2001, and 107 in 2004. For a small town, that’s a lot of babies with birth deviations, development defects, deformations and chromosomal disorders. The hospital also reported numerous quite revolting occurrences of human foetuses with wholly- or partially-missing brains, others with two heads.
This sounds like science fiction. Of course, the ACP says that these defects could have been due to genetic reasons, and the government is unable to afford an investigation to explicitly prove otherwise. I wanted to find out exactly what was happening. So, I got on my bicycle, joined a group of Armenians who share similar and quite understandable concerns about what is happening in their country, and went there to see for myself.
The ride was organised by a group of young environmental activists from Yerevan. We rode north out of the city towards Vanadzor, where we spent the night, before continuing the following day to Alaverdi. The Armenian protestors marched to the factory gates with their banners and made themselves heard. Watching from a distance, I wondered if this approach was effective. Confrontationalism has gone down in my estimation as a way to provoke positive change. My experiences over the last few months made me realise that education is usually a more effective tool, as it creates understanding, establishes relationships, provokes individual thought, and enables future dialogue.
By education, I don’t mean children in a school – I mean any way in which teaching and learning can occur. In Vanadzor that morning, the group had spent several hours circling the town centre by bicycle, before distributing literature and discussing the issues with local people. Some, noticeably the younger generation of youths, appeared to consider the episode a source of great entertainment. The attitude that ignorance is somehow fashionable is one that I am somewhat familiar with from my own youth in England – I still don’t completely understand it’s occurrence. But others were surprised to see these young people making their opinions heard and targeting the public consciousness in this very direct way. In a post-Soviet society where people still feel that they have accept that things are the way they are, and feel powerless and voiceless to change them, perhaps this ignited a little spark of optimism, reminding them that they could still have a voice, if they only looked for the means to make it heard. For me, as an observer, this was at least as poignant as the specific issue that was being targeted on that day.
Leaving Alaverdi, we rode to the village of Teghut itself. Our unexpected arrival in the middle of this small community prompted most of the villgers to empty out into the street to see exactly what was happening. Although there were some raised voices, the meeting in general between those leading the action and the heads of the village was evidently more of a civilized dialogue than that in Alaverdi. I scanned the faces of those in conversation amidst the throngs of people, those watching from the sidelines, and the non-participants who stood at windows and in doorways. They variously wore expressions of concern, of nonchalence, of understanding, and of smug self-satisfaction. Although I could not understand much of the dialogue, there was far more happening here than simple verbal communication. I thought back to the articles I had read about Teghut and it’s plight, and the rumours that certain influential villagers had already been financially bribed by ACP to support the project. It was clear that there was a division of opinion in that small community, bought or otherwise.
This problem (and you can) goes deeper than the simple decision of environmental protection versus destruction. Aside from the startlingly uneven distribution of wealth, Armenia as a whole is still in an impoverished economic condition. In 2004, nearly 40% of the population was unemployed. Even those who hold trained, professional positions often struggle to make ends meet. Tenny tells me that the relatively extortionate rates of living in Yerevan mean that almost everybody she knows is subsidising their salary with family contributions from overseas.
Today, over 1.5 million Armenians live in Los Angeles. Armenia’s entire local population is little more than 3 million. Elsewhere, sizeable Armenian communities exist in Boston, London, Manchester, Moscow, Aleppo, Tbilisi, Beirut, Athens, Tehran (including Tenny’s immediate family), Jerusalem, and other far-flung locations, with a total population of 8 million. Based on what I’ve learnt, it would not be inaccurate to postulate that the diaspora keeps Armenians in Armenia alive today. Every Armenian or part-Armenian I know has family abroad, or was born into a different nationality before coming to their homeland later in life. As I cycled into the country back in January, I stayed one night in the village home of a middle-aged beekeeper, and his mother, who said that she had lived in Los Angeles for 7 years. At the time, this had seemed somewhat bizarre, but it is clear now that this had not been an unusual thing to hear.
(The primary cause of this phenomenon was the Armenian genocide committed by Ottoman Turkey during the First World War; much less a part of the public consciousness than the Nazi’s extermination of the Jews, but certainly not forgotten by either the Armenians or the Turks. That’s a story for another blog post.)
What this means is that the natural priority of most individuals living in the country is to find employment to feed themselves and their families. There is little wonder that the salaries offered to the local population by the ACP were welcomed with open arms and closed minds. The Armenian government also puts economic development at the forefront of its local agenda. Although there are various government ministries charged with the responsibility to ensure that industrial and agricultural development is sustainable and does not wreak long-term environmental destruction for short-term economic gain, this is simply not happening. ACP’s exploitation of the Teghut area is not a precedent; it’s the latest in a series of short-sighted mistakes made by the country’s administrators and civilians, blinded by the need or desire for money now at the cost of a stable future, and there are more in the pipeline.
The Armenia Copper Programme, based in Liechtenstein and part owned by a Russian citizen, stands to provide short-term employment for a small community of poverty-stricken people, leaving the following generation with a polluted settlement surrounded by an environmental dead zone and no long-term employment prospects, while avoiding taxation and ensuring that whatever profit there is to be made from the mineral deposits is brought out of Armenia and into the pockets of its anonymous shareholders.
The difficulty is not with the logic of the problem – it’s how to combat the tactics of a company whose sole aim is profit and whose misleading PR campaign, previously unfulfilled environmental promises and weighty financial influence on governmental officials spell environmental, economic and social injustice at a time where these same considerations have finally been raised to the pinnacle of the developed world’s consciousness.
I admire these Armenians who are willing to give up their time and energy to petition these issues at all levels of their involvement – at the grass-roots level in the village of Teghut, in the sorry little town of Alaverdi which has already fallen victim to a similar fate, and in Yerevan outside the government policy-makers’ weekly sessions in Republic Square. However, I don’t think that their efforts alone are going to solve the problem. While deeply-ingrained social problems are something that will hopefully diminish over time, it requires pressure today, from numerous angles, to make those in power understand the hypocrisy of looking ambitiously westwards in the field of socio-economics while moving backwards in the field of sustainable development.
While some are calling for the ACP to conduct a closed mining operation, which would leave the forest intact, the director of the relatively new branch of the World Wildlife Fund, WWF Armenia, proposed a far better solution. Eco-tourism, although it has become somewhat of a buzz-word in recent years, is a prime economic opportunity for the sustainable exploitation of Teghut’s natural wealth, if carried out with due consideration. A growing industry in Armenia, eco-tourism enables simultaneous economic development and environmental protection, instead of gaining one at the expense of the other. It is part of the global paradigm shift we’re seeing over the last few decades, in which nature, to the human race, is moving from being considered an exploitable commodity to the respected underpinning of our civilization.
While this shift is by no means complete, we in the West are incresingly aware of our power not only to understand this idea, but to do something about it. Who amongst us has never felt the need to take a trip into the countryside, to walk or cycle amongst trees and mountains and experience the calm of a world free of ugly human developments? It is routine for us to escape the world we have built around ourselves in search of this peace, even if we continually return to our concrete boxes, never thinking about what part of our psyche this desire comes from. It’s one of the many factors that inspired me to take this journey in the first place.
The least you can do, sitting at your computer in your comfortable home or office, is nothing. Do nothing, look out the window at the pretty scenery, and continue to relegate Teghut and the rest of the world’s problems to someone else’s responsibility.
The second least you can do is help that ‘someone else’ make their work more effective. Teghut’s plight is not the only environmental issue of which I’ve had first-hand experience on my journey – unusual summer weather conditions across Europe, illegal logging in alpine Romania, disgusting waste management shortcomings throughout Turkey, anecdotal evidence of gradual climate change throughout the journey – the list goes on.
I value the opportunity that working with the WWF has given me to see for myself and understand the problems created by complex socio-economic, political and institutional causes. Their work is only made possible by the continuing donations of you, the people. Whether £5 or £50, don’t forget that your individual contribution, no matter how large or small, is part of a bigger fundraising effort that makes it possible for the WWF to do its work. If you have the means to do so, make a one-off donation to the WWF. Take energy-saving measures in your home, and use the savings to donate monthly. Maybe this article has inspired you to send your help to the country of Armenia, in which case you can donate to the Armenia Tree Project, whose most recent work you can read about here, or one of numerous other NGOs that you can find out about for yourself with a little more effort.
Your help doesn’t have to stop there. Get involved as much or as little as you want, as locally or globally as you feel. If there’s something that disturbs you about the world, be part of the change you wish to see. Although petitions to the government remain unanswered, there is still hope here in Armenia – conservationists recently celebrated the successful lobbying of the government to redirect the building of a new highway to the Iranian border, thus avoiding the destruction of an important protected area of woodland that harbours one of the last remaining habitats of the symbolic Caucasian leopard, amongst numerous other species. This shows that such activism can work, even under these unfavourable social and political circumstances.
Life in Armenia has been thought-provoking, and most of all it has highlighted how much help the world’s developed nations are able to provide to those in more difficult situations. If you can do something positive, why not do it now? That’s what my American-Armenian friend Ani did when she brought Andy’s long-since-jettisoned spare front wheel 2,500km from Istanbul via Tbilisi to Yerevan. Tenny now has a fine hand-built front wheel to add to her growing collection of bike parts. Ani, I extend my utmost thanks to you, and I’m happy that your journey was enlivened by carrying a bike wheel through three countries during your return!
I used to think that it wasn’t my job to worry about what was happening anywhere else in the world than on my own doorstep. I once was ignorant of my own membership of the apathetic sector of society. I would never consider donating money to a charity. What difference would it make?
It is difficult for me to imagine now my previous way of thinking, and I write now in order to help you, the reader, understand what it took me most of my life to realise – that by doing nothing, you simply create a void that another living person will take the responsibility of filling. Instead, you could fill that void yourself, and encourage others to do the same.
With Tenny’s final university assessments less than two weeks away, it won’t be long before we’re set to begin travelling again. Again I will be a stranger, drifting through somebody else’s world with all its joys and disappointments. I doubt I will see as deeply into a society as I have done by spending several months immersed in life in Armenia, living amongst Armenians, but doubtless it will happen again that I stumble upon a place and for one reason or another settle there for more than just a few days. I wonder where it will be!