In a fierce dispute between mine owners and local people in Armenia, the UK has weighed in – on the side of the international mining company.
By Thomas Rowley,
- In 2018, Armenia underwent its “Velvet Revolution”, which saw a mass protest movement force a kleptocratic regime out of power
- Armenia’s revolution has had other effects, such as blockades over a flagship $400 million gold mining project run by mining company Lydian International
- New documents released under Freedom of Information laws show the UK Foreign Office’s private engagement in support of Lydian International
The UK Foreign Office has been criticised by a British MP and international campaigners for its support of a controversial mining company in Armenia, openDemocracy reports today.
New information released under the Freedom of Information Act shows frequent contacts between the UK Foreign Office and Lydian International, the company behind the flagship Amulsar gold mining project in the South Caucasus state. These releases shine a light on campaigners’ concerns about the ties between the mining company and the British embassy in Armenia.
The records, obtained by openDemocracy, reveal how British embassy staff in the Armenian capital Yerevan, including ambassadors, were in regular contact with Lydian International about its Amulsar gold mine from 2013 to 2018. They arranged presentations, seminars, meetings, working groups and project updates. For example, the records list 55 contacts between January and July 2018 between Lydian International and the embassy.
An index of internal communications for 2018, also obtained by openDemocracy, shows how the embassy has followed Amulsar since Armenia’s ‘Velvet Revolution’ put the $400 million mine at the forefront of the country’s politics.
The list details document titles such as “Lydian updates draft”, “Questions for the Ambassador”, “Meeting with Acting PM Pashinyan key points” and “Readout of meeting with Lydian”, recording, for example, seven internal embassy documents relating to Lydian produced in September 2018. That month, the Armenian government ordered an assessment of the effect the gold mining operation would have on the country’s water resources, as well as an independent review of Lydian’s environmental impact assessment.
Armenian environmental campaigners have raised concerns about this relationship, writing open letters about ambassadors’ conduct to the UK Foreign Office in 2013 and 2019.
It is concerning that British government representatives in Armenia have been supporting the construction of this remarkably controversial mine, one which could have a deleterious effect on the environment, as well as the associated health and wellbeing of rural communities,” says Labour MP Lloyd Russell-Moyle. “These documents raise questions about why the UK government would take such a political risk.”
A Foreign Office spokesperson said: “British embassies play a positive role in helping to grow business around the world for UK companies. As such, the British embassy in Yerevan engages with British businesses active in the Armenian market.”
Lydian International did not respond to requests for comment.
“We can make Lydian go away”
Located in the southern Armenian province of Vayots Dzor, the Amulsar gold mine, owned by Jersey-incorporated Lydian International, has been in development for over a decade. In 2013, UK ambassador Katherine Leach called it “potentially the largest British investment in Armenia”. Lydian states it will provide $488 million to the Armenian state budget in tax and royalty contributions through the ten-year operation of the mine, as well as provide 770 jobs.
But after a mass protest movement pushed Armenia’s Republican Party out of power in April and May last year, the mine has become the site of a major stand-off between the Armenian government, protesters and the mining company.
In June 2018, local residents and activists started blockading roads to the mine, preventing the company from finishing construction and starting the full-scale extraction of gold. As a leader of a protest outside Lydian’s office put it last year: “If we managed to make Serzh Sargsyan [Armenian leader forced to resign in 2018] go away, we can make Lydian go away too.”
With the blockades remaining at Amulsar, in March 2019 Lydian notified Armenia of a potential dispute under bilateral investment treaties with the UK and Canada. The Armenian press has reported potential compensation figures up to $2 billion.
“Lydian is a company whose threat of international ‘corporate courts’ arbitration appears to have bullied the Armenian government into submission over the dangerous Amulsar mine, forcing the Armenian government to betray its own people,” comments James Angel, policy and campaign manager at Global Justice Now, which is leading a UK campaign against the mine.
“Why is the UK Embassy working so closely with this toxic company who are riding roughshod over democracy in Armenia? Instead, it should be doing all it can to support the Armenian people’s struggle for clean water and decent, sustainable jobs.”
What the locals fear
Lydian calls Amulsar an “example of responsible mining in Armenia”. Successive UK ambassadors and Foreign Office officials have publicly backed the project since 2013, saying that it meets high international standards and had engaged well with local stakeholders, as well as meeting with Armenian officials concerning the project.
That year, the Save Teghut civic initiative wrote an open letter to the UK Foreign Office, calling on it to investigate UK ambassadors’ support for the Amulsar project.
“It is incomprehensible that the Ambassadors of the UK defend the private interests of a company registered in an offshore zone”