YEREVAN -- More than 200 environmental activists and their supporters have marched to a forest in northern Armenia to protest its transformation into an open-pit mine that they say would severely damage the environment, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reports.
The country's leading environment-protection groups have for years been campaigning against plans by the Armenian Copper Program (ACP) mining company to develop a massive copper and molybdenum deposit under the Teghut Forest.
It is estimated to contain 1.6 million tons of copper and about 100,000 tons of molybdenum.
If implemented, the project will lead to the destruction of some 128,000 trees. Critics say that would wreak havoc on Armenia's green areas that have already shrunk since the 1990s.
The ACP has pledged to offset the damage by planting new trees in the area and creating more than 1,000 new jobs.
Despite the uproar, the government gave the green light to the controversial project in 2008. Ecologists say about one-fifth of the 357-hectare forest given to the Liechtenstein-registered company has already been cut down in preparation for the start of mining operations.
Chanting "Shame!" the protesters from Yerevan walked on January 15 to reach the mountainous forest located in the northern Lori Province. Scores of police and ACP security guards were deployed to block the demonstrators from advancing deeper into the proposed mining site.
The protesters were also confronted by a large group of local residents who work for APC. The latter angrily dismissed environmentalist warnings that open-pit mining would severely pollute the air, water, and land.
"You guys don't know the plight of the people here," one man told the protesters. "They were desperate for a living and now live like human beings. What do you want from those people [at the ACP]?"
Another ACP worker said, "While you enjoyed life in Yerevan, we were hungry here."
But some residents of two villages adjacent to Teghut joined the environmentalists in their protest.
"They have appropriated people's wealth and are now doing what they want," one man said of the ACP owners. "They make people work for only 60,000 ($160) drams a month. People work because they have no other choice."
Meanwhile the ACP's holding company, the Vallex Group, accused the protesters of illegally trespassing on its property and disrupting ACP operations. "The company has suffered substantial damage," Vallex claimed in a statement, threatening legal action against organizers of the protest.
Vallex also owns Armenia's largest copper smelter, located in the town of Alaverdi, which is also in Lori Province. The town is notorious for its polluted air and high incidence of fatal diseases.