Azerbaijani village protests against new artificial lake: Concerns over environmental and health risks rise
On June 20, over a hundred residents of the village of Söyüdlü in the Gadabay District of Azerbaijan gathered to protest pollution of the area by a mining company, assembling near an artificial lake reportedly used to dump acid waste from the mine. Ten protesters were detained, while 15 were reportedly injured in confrontations with riot police. OC Media reports that two journalists are also reported to have been arrested and had their phones confiscated while covering the protests.
The confrontation was caused by the villagers’ objection to creating a new artificial lake in Söyüdlü. According to the protesters, the lake, which will hold the gold mine’s wastewater, could damage the economy, agricultural land, and people’s health. The first such lake was built in 2012, a few hundred meters from Söyüdlü. Now, for the same reason, the construction of a new lake has alarmed citizens.
Residents stated that a lake in the village, which has allegedly been used to drain acid and dump waste from the goldmines for around 11 years, was damaging the nature around it and emitting toxic fumes, making it hard to breathe and causing lung damage. Protesters chanted and carried signs saying, “natural waters are being poisoned”, “The River Kur is being poisoned”, and “People die of lung disease at the age of 50”.
Videos from Söyüdlü showed police using tear gas, pepper spray, and physical violence against those protesting. In a widely-shared video, an elderly woman walking away from riot police is pepper-sprayed in the face, with later footage showing her lying on the ground as other protesters attempt to assist her. Many Azerbaijanis expressed outrage over the footage online and demanded that police be punished for using violence against peaceful protesters.
Azerbaijani Interior Ministry and the head of the region both acknowledged that protesters had been injured. Still, they suggested that protesters had acted violently and police had shown restraint in their handling of the situation. The following day, Minister of Ecology and Natural Resources Mukhtar Babayev visited Gadabay District and stated that the issue would be investigated.
The gold mines are officially operated by a British company, Anglo Asian Mining Plc, managed by Iranian businessperson Reza Vaziri. However, a 2016 investigation by the Organised Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP) found that the mines were, in fact, owned by the two daughters of Azerbaijan’s President Ilham Aliyev.
The mineral resources of the Gadabay, Qadir, and Ugur deposits in Azerbaijan were reassessed in 2020. “According to Anglo-Asian Mining Plc, a British company engaged in gold, silver, and copper mining in Azerbaijan, the reserves of the Gadabay deposit amount to 284 thousand ounces (over 8 tonnes) of gold and 26 thousand tonnes of copper. The “Qadir” deposit, located one kilometre from the Gadabay deposit, contains 49 thousand ounces (1 ton 390 kg) of gold and 191 thousand tonnes of copper.
Anglo-Asian Mining is producing under the Production Sharing Agreement signed in Azerbaijan in 1997. Azerbaijan’s share in the contract is 51%, and the share of Anglo-Asian Mining Plc. is 49%. The first gold production (in the “Gadabay” field) started in 2009, writes the Caucasus Watch.