As big and small polluters move to developing countries taking advantage of lax regulations, cross-border cooperation among environmental groups must transform from mere solidarity to strong collaboration if we are ever to achieve real environmental protection anywhere. And although genuine environmental movements have rarely (if ever) had a not-in-my-backyard stance, cross-border horizontal environmental cooperation needs further intensity to impede discriminative investment policies of states and financial institutions prioritizing their financial benefits over environmental and societal wellbeing.
Armenia is one such country that has some illustrative cases of investments which have left locals feeling exposed to unequal, discriminative and unjust policies by countries and financial institutions which have the leverage to impose their interests over the interests of the locals. For years local environmentalists have been raising issues of metal mines in Armenia polluting its air, rivers and soil. There has been mobilization against various projects, yet investors were able to protect their investments and in cooperation with Armenia’s former government. The German company Cronimet is one example, as its copper-molybdenum mine in south of Armenia for years violated laws of Armenia and polluted the environment, as the toxic waste from the mine’s tailing has in numerous cases leaked into nearby rivers.
The Danish-Russian cooperation in the case of Teghut in northern Armenia is another example, where a copper-molybdenum mining project was carried out in violation of Armenian laws and where leaks into the environment from the tailing dam of the mine were frequent occurrences. At the end of 2017, the Danish investors decided to withdraw their money from the project (some contemplate that this was due to unfulfilled financial obligations). It took the company three years to admit that the sustainability indicators of the tailing dam had not complied with Armenia’s legislation or international standards. But this was nothing new for environmentalists who had raised the problem with the investors and yet the latter had turned a deaf ear pursuing their own interests. As a result what locals are left with today is lost agricultural potential and a closed mine with no employment there.
As the quest for fast profits intensifies, Armenia is forced to face a new gold mine project in Amulsar strongly supported by the U.S., the U.K., World Bank, European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD), etc. The scenario here would be similar to other cases as the implementation of this project would violate laws of Armenia and put Armenia’s clean water resources at stake. The project has been halted after years of opposition by activists and scientists was complemented with the resistance of some locals who after the recent revolution in Armenia saw hope to prevent this project which would otherwise put their health and livelihoods at stake.
Not So Green Policies for the Rest of the World
And while the list of such unsustainable projects supported by these and other investors is limitless (both in Armenia and abroad), the very same investors speak about the importance of green policies and sustainability. A question arises - does the importance of sustainability refer only to specific countries? “All our operations are guided by the need to promote environmentally sound and sustainable development […],” it states on EBRD’s website. “We back projects that protect the environment our children will live in while we innovate to make their future more prosperous,” the European Investment Bank’s (EIB) website notes. The World Bank has a whole separate policy on environmental matters. Western states are shifting towards circular economies and alternative energy production, they are promoting green industries in their own countries and yet not applying these elsewhere. Is trash less concerning when it is miles away, even if it is floating in shared waters?
Speaking of trash, the end of 2017 and beginning of 2018 saw the adoption of legislative measures to achieve more waste recycling and reduction of landfills in Europe with fixed deadlines. These measures will encourage even more recycling and will bind member states to ensure that by 2030 “all waste suitable for recycling or other recovery, in particular in municipal waste, shall not be accepted in a landfill.” Yet, even before these measures, the EU had already adopted a Waste Framework Directive encouraging waste recovery and a Landfill Directive aimed at reducing landfills in Europe.
Meanwhile, in 2015 a contract was signed between Yerevan Municipality and European Banks (EBRD EIB) to construct a new sanitary landfill in Yerevan which has no waste sorting and recycling components. The EU is also involved in supplying some 8 million Euros for this project that provides only a temporary solution to the chronic waste problem in Armenia. Overall this project will cost 25 million Euros, of which 16 million will be in the form of a loan, which Armenia’s citizens will have to repay at some point. And yet, after some 28 years, Yerevan (and other parts of Armenia) will have to again think about what to do with its waste and landfill. And while the liability for such a shortsighted project lies on Armenia’s policy makers (the previous ones especially), the question is why would Europe support such an unsustainable project?
This question was addressed to all sponsors and implementers of this project, and while there has been silence on behalf of the EU, the European banks put the responsibility on Armenian authorities to include the sustainability component into the project. Yerevan Municipality and the Ministry of Territorial Administration and Development (prior to the change of governance) gave uncertain responses hinting at the possibility of building waste incinerating factories (based on biochemical processes). Another question arises - is it cheaper to construct incinerating factories rather than building a sorting factory and then sending the sorted waste to already existing recycling companies (about 30 small recycling companies operate in Armenia according to Urban Foundation’s 2014 report)? This calculation is a matter of study for economists and yet it is clear that such projects give no chance for countries like Armenia to move towards sustainability (unless the new government scraps these unsustainable projects, which has been the demand of the civil society).
Funding Slow Death?
Armenia is only one example in the list of countries where private interests of investors trump the needs of the public. Lebanon has a chronic waste problem too (among many other infrastructural issues) and yet money that flows in from Europe leaves locals with more problems than solutions, raising doubts over such investments. After the 2015 waste crisis in Beirut, the EU went ahead providing some 35 million Euros in 2017 for “improving the overall efficiency and effectiveness of solid waste management” in Lebanon. And that’s in addition to 21 million Euros provided earlier that year for addressing municipal and health waste in Beirut and Mount Lebanon. Yet some of the solid-waste treatment facilities out of the 10 funded by the EU have never been operational or have stopped working in recent years (the recent one being Tripoli sorting and composting plant that was opened in June 2017). Some consider that this money being pumped into Lebanon, a country plagued by corruption and Europe’s silence over the environmental crisis there is done to find quick solutions, preventing especially the Syrian refugees in Lebanon (estimated to be about 1 million) from moving to Europe. But wouldn’t they move anyways, if there is no more clean air left to breathe and clean water to drink?
And indeed there is such a risk of running out of clean air in Lebanon as the government plans to build waste incinerators. While this policy is backed by the UN and the World Bank, civil society has raised its concerns over the UNDP encouraging the government to adopt the least environmentally friendly option. One civic group, Waste Management Coalition, mentioned in its letter to the UNDP office in Lebanon that this policy is inconsistent with the UN goals on reducing CO2 emission and values on sustainable development. The civic group raised questions as to why the preference is given to an expensive project that will cost 1.2 billion USD for purchasing incinerators instead of less costly and greener plan adopted back in 2006 and envisaging sorting and composting facilities.
The issue of waste is a sore one also for the Armenian community in Beirut since a huge amount of the waste is dumped near Bourj Hammoud where many Armenians live. It is estimated that the waste stored on the shore of the sea annually releases around 120,000 tons of leachate polluting the Mediterranean. This means the violation of the Barcelona Convention for the protection of the Mediterranean Sea, but also deprivation of the locals from fishing, recreation, etc. What is not estimated, however, is the precise amount of people in this area whose health is affected by the waste odor and emissions from waste flaring, as well as polluted waters in the sea. The only party benefiting from the situation is the local municipality (currently under the administration of the ARF) which is calculated to receive 25 million USD until the landfill closure.
But back to investors and advisors: the infrastructural mismanagement in Lebanon concerns civil society also for its negative impact on health. There are many such examples, such as bad wastewater management (as in the case of the Beirut river filled with sewage and flowing into the sea) or the power plant in the Zouk area which from time to time breathes black fumes and results in elevated cancer rates in the area. Civic groups therefore fear that waste incinerators will further pollute the air. Lebanon is already ranked as having the highest rate of cancer in the Middle East caused by pollution as mentioned by the WHO and Ministry of Public Health. Operation of incinerators (especially with chronic mismanagement in Lebanon) will therefore contribute to the growth of this figure. Therefore the question is whether the international actors advising or funding such projects realize that they are actually becoming complicit in polluting the environment, breaking international conventions and deteriorating human health? Armenia has also seen an increase of 70 percent in oncologic diseases in the past two decades with a high mortality rate ranking Armenia first in the world. The direct link between environmental pollution and deterioration of human health can hardly be objected.
Visions for Breaking Through the Greed Machine
Ever since the revolution in Armenia, the Amulsar mining project has been temporarily halted and the government seems to be searching for alternative, green solutions for the waste management in Armenia. Therefore, it seems that the political will is in place to actually take Armenia towards the path of sustainability. Now the question is whether international financial institutions and donor countries will be supportive of these steps for coherence in their own words and actions.
Importantly, when it comes to demanding accountability from international stakeholders, local civil society groups will have a harder time to push for accountability, if their pressure is not complemented with the support of international environmental/activist groups. And therefore the responsiveness, solidarity, cooperation and support of such groups locally and across borders is key if we are ever to do anything about stopping the prevalence of private interests over what matters most – clean environment and societal wellbeing.