Text and Photos by Inna Mkhitaryan
The town of Akhtala, in Armenia’s northern Lori region, is one of the oldest mining centers in the country. For 255 years, generations of Akhtala residents have worked in the local copper mines. Today, around 400 people from Akhtala and neighboring Shamlugh work at the Akhtala Mining and Processing Enterprise. Despite the dangerous working conditions and low salaries, locals cannot imagine their lives without the jobs the mining company provides.
Mines in Armenia are under pressure due to growing concerns over environmental damage. But for local residents, there is a double cost: the danger that the mines pose for every miner on the job and the growing fear that the mines may be destroying the very land their homes stand on.
For 57-year-old Susanna Sargsyan the biggest danger is the one facing the miners at work everyday.
"Every day miners risk their lives. There is a 50/50 chance that they will come home alive in the evening or be killed by a landslide. There have already been many accidents and landslides in the mine. It is not a safe job,” she says.
I was in Akhtala 11 years ago to photograph the miners. Recently I returned to find out how their lives have changed—specifically whether the quality of their lives has improved during these 11 years.
As soon as I reached the main square, I showed one of the photos I took during the last trip, a portrait of Pyotr Markin, to the men sitting there. While the men were trying to identify the person in the photo, blue-eyed Pyotr, 69, approached us.
Pyotr is Russian. His family moved to Akhtala in 1962. He worked in the mine for 50 years, retiring in 2015 only after a landslide in the underground mine hurt his leg.
“We had very good working conditions during the Soviet Union. After the [Soviet Union] collapsed, the mine was virtually abandoned. Sometime later, it started operating again, and even though the management changed several times, we didn’t feel much difference. The mine is very rich, but the people are poor. Many young people gather in this square and waste away their days, because they say there are no jobs at the mine—there are no vacancies," Pyotr says.
Mining is an important part of the Armenian economy. But ecologists say the mining industry has polluted the soil and harmed the environment. Research by the Center for Ecological Noosphere Studies at the National Academy of Sciences of Armenia has shown that the consequences of mining in Armenia are already dangerous for the environment and local residents.
The findings dovetail with the fears that have been expressed by environmental activists for many years. The current political debate is playing out in mining communities around the country. For example, activists are suing the mine company that wants to dig at Amulsar mountain near Jermuk in Vayots Dzor region. It is believed to be full of gold – an estimated 74,000 kilograms – and silver. But activists argue that the mine’s toll on the environment will be costlier than the riches it could provide for the budget.
While politicians, activists and academics debate the environmental toll of mining, pensioners Susanna Arustamov and Sergey Arustamov experience the impact every day when they look out their window.
When the couple moved to the village from Baku in 1990, the house was surrounded by a lush, green forest, they say.
Little of that peaceful environment remains, however. Today they cannot even close their door due to soil erosion.
The damage is due to the mine, according to the Arustamovs. Originally the mines were a source of income and helped them improve their lives—Sergey worked in the mines for seven years, and his salary helped them renovate the house and cultivate their garden.
But today they live in fear of the blasting operations at the open mine.
The couple is afraid that one day their house and garden will collapse due to the digging works underway below their house.
“When we moved here, there was such a beautiful view and a dense green forest. Everything has been destroyed and I’m sure that the small part that remains of the forest will not survive," Sergey says.
But other miners still praise the mine, despite the injuries and dangers. Vardanyan Gagik is 51. He lives with his Georgian wife Syuzanna Vardanyan in Shamlugh. Gagik has been working at the Akhtala Mining and Processing Enterprise since 1996. In 2004 he became a drilling man.
But he got caught in a landslide at the underground mine in 2018, and broke his leg. The mining company paid for his treatment, however, and when he could return to work, he was rehired as a security guard.
Gagik is thankful for his job and the mine company's decision to cover his health bills, since he didn't have health insurance.
But life is more difficult now. As a security guard, he earns less than half of what he earned working in the mines.
“I get a small salary, around AMD 73, 000 (around $153). When I was working as a drilling man, I got more: from AMD 150, 000 (around $315) to 200,000 (around $420). Years don’t change anything in our life. It is the same life. But my life has changed because of the landslide," he says.