In many Government of Armenia strategy papers the social and economic development of rural high mountainous, remote and borderline communities is prioritized. Prevention of rural migration is emphasized as a national priority in the RA Government’s Program. Much attention is also given to the development of agriculture in the RA Sustainable Rural Development Strategy for 2010-2020.
Nevertheless, the recent developments in Kajaran village of Syunik Marz (region) demonstrate a gap between the policy papers and actual priorities. The village is located 3-4 km from Nakhichevan (Azerbaijan) and according to the village’s mayor Rafik Atayan has 270 inhabitants. The main source of the income in the village is small-scale farming. According to the Government decision 627 (April 28, 2011) the village’s 181.7 ha of community land is to be reclassified as industrial and mining land, and is to be transferred to the mining company, which in turn has to pay compensation to the village. In other words, the village’s pastures as well as the local cemetery will become the property of the mining company “Zangezour Copper Molybdenum Combine” subsidiary of Cronimet Mining AG (Germany). The company is planning to widen its tailings area and expand open-pit mining of copper. National public good benefiting the whole State has been cited as the grounds for this case of eminent domain. Except for a couple of general statements on the economic benefit for the development of Armenia in Decision 627 itself, there are no other publicly available documents explaining why the interests of this private company to expand its activities while compromising the well-being of a local community, should be considered a “national public good.” There is no clarification why the mining company which has operated in this area since 1951 (privatized in 2004) needs to widen the tailings area and expand further environmentally unsustainable open pit mining. There are no available studies proving the absence of other acceptable alternatives for expanding the mining without compromising the well-being of the Kajaran community. As for the increased tax revenues for the State budget, there is no clarification on the difference between the amount of taxes paid by the company with and without widening of the tailings and expanding the mine. Finally, this decision was made without any consultation of the local population and according to the village mayor, without his consent. Additionally, according to the Minister of Nature Protection, no environmental impact assessment has been completed.
What remains clear that with the widening of the tailing and open pit mining the villagers will not have many options, except abandoning their community. Besides losing their pasture lands and water resources, the livelihoods of local people will most likely be significantly affected by the proximity of the proposed mining operations. The local population of Kajaran refuses to accept any kind of compensations for their land and claim that they have nowhere else to go. The members of the community headed by the village mayor and backed up by the civil society groups are calling for annulling the Decision and returning the right of the villagers to live on their own land.
The RA Government’s Decision violates the human rights of local people to adequate food, environment and land. The situation in Kajaran village has many parallels with a classic case of land grabbing in a negative sense. Although the phenomenon is common in Africa and less in Latin America and involves the large scale acquisitions of large lands by foreign states or transnational companies, the following patterns are surprisingly in-line with the case in Armenia. Michael Windfuhr, the Deputy Director of the German Institute for Human Rights, summarizes the following patterns of land grabbing:
- long term leases or transfers of the communal lands, in particular pastures often together with water sources are often the case;
- it happens in the countries with weak governance structures, and can involve cases of the high ranking officials’ corruption;
- there is an absence of the governance structures supporting the needs and interests of vulnerable groups, in particular small-scale farmers;
- the communities affected are excluded from the decision making process;
- the decision is made without grounded long-term environmental, economic and social assessments;
- the result is abandonment and/or eviction of the local population.
Whether the story in Kajaran is a case of a land grab adjusted to the reality of Armenia or just another example of business greed and unsound policy-making Armenian style remains open. If the decision is implemented, however, it will have contributed to more rural migration in a situation where the demographics is already considered by some as Armenia’s No. 1 national security threat. If the past is of any guidance, the government will almost certainly do nothing to mitigate the outflow this Decision will result in.
On an optimistic note, the people of Kajaran and its mayor demonstrated an unprecedented case of the disagreement with the current situation and determination to fight for their rights, despite pressure and threats. This is certainly worth a lot and could be a sign of more civil society awakening to come.
Anna Jenderedjian, PFA Fellow