Local residents of Söyüdlü village, located in the Gadabay district in western Azerbaijan, decided they have had enough of the environmental damage caused as a result of gold mining in the village. On June 20, residents took their grievances to the streets of the village, objecting to the construction plans for a second artificial lake. Residents say the existing artificial lake, built in 2012, is used to dump toxic waste from the mine, according to reporting by Meydan TV and OC Media. The waste is poisoning the drinking water with severe consequences on residents’ health. The protests quickly escalated as a result of disproportionate state response, with reports of several local residents arrested and fined, journalists battered, and civic activists critical of the state response to the protests facing detentions in the capital Baku.
Bu gün Gədəbəyin Söyüdlü kəndində ekoloji problemə etiraz edən sakinlərə qarşı polis rezin güllələrdən və gözyaşardıcı qazdan istifadə edib.
— AbzasMedia (@AbzasMedia) June 20, 2023
Police used teargas and rubber bullets against local residents of Gadabay's Söyüdlü village who protested against the ecological problems.
On June 22, police installed checkpoints for entry into the village, verifying address registrations of anyone trying to enter the village.
Gədəbəyin Söyüdlü kəndinin giriş və çıxışına polis postu qurulub. Kəndə gələnlərdən şəxsiyyət vəsiqəsi istənilir. Əgər qeydiyyat ünvanları kənddirsə, içəri buraxılır, yoxsa geri qaytarılır. Bu da kəndə gələnlərin narazılığına səbəb olub. pic.twitter.com/Y7VxCE799h
— AbzasMedia (@AbzasMedia) June 22, 2023
Police posts installed at entry and exit poitns of Gadabay's Söyüdlü village. Visitors are asked to show their IDs. If their residential address is in the village they are allowed to enter, if not, they are prevented from entering. This has caused resentment among the local residents.
According to lawyer Samed Rahimli, the installment of checkpoints is illegal. In an interview with Abzas Media, Rahimli said, “In order to place restrictions on entry and exits to the village, there must be a Presidential Decree on the state of emergency approved by the National parliament.”
Most of the protestors were local women.
Like all rural protests in Azerbaijan, women are the leading force. The lady on the right says “we ask for help from all women of Azerbaijan, let us raise healthy children” pic.twitter.com/FZXgPjClem
— Cavid (Cyanide enjoyer) (@cavidaga) June 21, 2023
One resident, Gatiba Aliyeva, told journalists that the lake was poisonous and even causing cancer and drought. Others have told Toplum TV that cancer cases in the village have been on the rise, but the Ministry of Health claims they have no evidence of this.
According to Earthworks, an organization that helps local communities protect their land, water, and health, gold mining is “one of the most destructive industries in the world” and can “pollute water and land with mercury and cyanide, endangering the health of people and ecosystems.”
Speaking to Meydan TV, Professor Abulhasan Abbasov, said the problem in the village is not new and has been going on for the last ten years, creating a significant environmental impact in the region:
The ecological impact of the unscrupulous approach has shown itself, and casualties have increased, from bees to cattle. If mining affects animals, it is sure to affect humans as well. Especially among the rural population, rare diseases have began to spread, specifically, oncological and blood diseases.
Residents say ever since the first artificial lake was built in 2012, their pasture land and bee farms have been destroyed.
Police officials used tear gas and rubber bullets against the protestors, triggering a public outcry against the state's response.
Police forces of illegitimate autocratic regime in Azerbaijan have brutally attacked Azerbaijani villagers who are trying to save their village against Aliyev's company. pic.twitter.com/oSgghqlVnK
— Rüstəm İsmayılbəyli 🌹 (@ismayilbaylir) June 20, 2023
At least ten local residents have been detained and fined, while 15 were reportedly injured, and police also arrested political activists in the capital of Baku who have criticized the state's response to the protests on social media. According to reports, three journalists reporting from the village were also battered by the police.
Gədəbəy hadisələrini işıqlandıran jurnalist Nərgiz Absalamova, Nigar Mübariz və Elsevər Muradzadə polis tərəfindən zorakılığa məruz qalıb.
— Ulviyya Ali (@UlviyyaAli) June 22, 2023
Journalists covering events in Gadabay, Nargiz Absalamova, Nigar Mubariz and Elsever Muradzade faced police violence.
Azerbaijan: Legal harassment is currently being unleashed against a group of activists & journalists who dared to speak out on the excessive use of police force toward protesters from Soyudly village of Gadabay. They are protesting against the risks associated with gold mining.+
— Emin (@legalactivism) June 22, 2023
The protests also spread to neighboring administrative districts, reported AzadSoz. In Shamkir, residents blocked roads in solidarity, and in Neftchala, where the head of the administrative district went to see local residents in an attempt to prevent potential protests, he instead was beaten up by the locals.
While residents were mistreated by the police, the head of Gadabay's administrative district, Orkhan Mursalimov, was more concerned about the way he looked on camera. In an interview with Voice of America, Mursalimov told the journalist to film him from a further distance so that he does not appear ugly on camera. He has also said the toxicity of cyanide was “disinformation spread on social networks.”
After two days of protests, Prime Minister Ali Asadov announced he would set up a commission to investigate the developments in the village of Söyüdlü.
Meanwhile, Minister of Ecology and Natural Resources Mukhtar Babayev said they would not create a second artificial lake. “If true,” wrote activist Sahila Aslanova on Twitter, “we can say that the protests of Söyüdlü residents had partial impact.”
The company behind the mining
According to reporting by Meydan TV, the company that owns the gold mining business in Gadabay is Anglo-Asian Mining, formerly known as RV Investment Group Services LLC, a US firm based in Delaware. The company's website says it has eight contract areas in Azerbaijan with rights to mine gold, copper, and silver deposits. In previous years, the company was investigated over its ties to the daughters of President Ilham Aliyev, Arzu and Leyla Aliyeva.
The company's track record on environmental and human hazards is not stellar. One of the board members is John H. Sununu, a prominent US climate change denier. And the company does pledge according to its website “to conduct all of its activities, including exploration, operations and decommissioning, in a responsible manner that minimizes risks to the health and safety of personnel and protects the environment.” However there is no record of the kind of measures the company deploys in order to achieve its impressive pledge. What the company website does mention for its Gadabay plant is that a “new site has been identified for a new tailings dam in the vicinity of the existing dam,” and that its construction after some delay is underway scheduled for completion “around July 2023.”
The company made no statements about the protests, police violence, or its plans about further construction plans.
The blame game
Whether linked to the ties of the company behind the mining plant or for other reasons, the state was quick to point blame at various perpetrators of the protests in Söyüdlü village. According to state officials, what started as “Western-supported” protests transformed into “Russia-orchestrated” protests, and then accusations were leveled against the former political prisoner, member of opposition Popular Front Saleh Rüstəmli and his son, and finally FETÖ [The Fethullah Gulen Terrorist Organisation], who stands accused of orchestrating the coup attempt in Turkey in 2016.