A year after environmental protests rocked Azerbaijan's village of Soyudlu, it is business as usual

Collage by Arzu Geybullayeva. Images free to use courtesy of Global Voices’ content partners.

June 21, marked a year since the Azerbaijani village of Söyüdlü was rocked by environmental protests organized by local residents objecting to the construction plans for a second artificial lake, also known as the tailing dam. Footage of riot police using disproportionate physical force, rubber bullets, and tear gas against village residents was widely reported by the local media at the time.

At least five village residents received administrative detentions and one resident received an administrative fine due to the protest. Journalists covering the protests were restricted from entering the area, with some reporting that police used physical force against them, forcing them to delete their footage. They also faced other forms of threat and intimidation during the protest and in the aftermath. According to Voice of America Azerbaijan service, several other village residents, including a former member of the parliament who spoke in support of the protests were arrested on bogus charges, including drug possession. None of the police officers who were filmed using excessive force against villagers were reprimanded.

The public reaction to the protests and the police's violent intervention prompted authorities to set up a Government Commission to investigate the hazards of the existing dam. Heading the commission was the Minister of Ecology and Natural Resources Mukhtar Babayev (now, president of the upcoming COP29 conference that will be held in the capital Baku in November 2024). Babayev said that the preliminary findings of the commission's investigation showed all ecological indicators related to the dam project were within norms. Meanwhile, the Ministry has refused to allow local independent environmental and ecology experts to visit the site for evaluation and monitoring, despite repeated requests.

The gold mine

The damn isn't the only environmental controversy in the area. The gold mine in Gadabay has been operational since 2009. It is part of eight contract areas across the country operated by a company named Anglo Asian Mining which signed a Production Sharing Agreement (PSA) with the Government of Azerbaijan in 1997 as per information on the company's website. The first artificial lake was built in 2012 to dump toxic waste from the mine, according to reporting by Meydan TV and OC Media.

Now a decade later, residents of the village near the mine say the waste is toxic and has been negatively impacting the health of local residents as well as their livestock due to soil contamination.

A month after the protests started, the operation of the gold mine company was suspended.

Only then, did the company release a statement on its plans to build a second tailing dam. In the statement dated July 17, 2023, the company pledged to protect “the health, safety and well-being of its workforce and local stakeholders” given it was “of paramount importance to the company, underpinning the governance of its operations.”

The company statement also said the Government of Azerbaijan already agreed to allocate new land for the second dam.The timing and the wording of the company statement sounded as if the company was also replying to President Ilham Aliyev's remarks from July 11. During a cabinet meeting, President Aliyev questioned the negligence of the Ministry of Ecology and Natural Resources, accusing it of either intentionally or unknowingly leaving village residents demands’ unaddressed. The President also questioned the permission issued for the construction of the second dam and called for an investigation.

During the second meeting of the Government Commission, Prime Minister Ali Asadov called out the Ministry of Ecology and Natural Resources for its lack of oversight over the area where Anglo Asian Mining operated. Asadov pointed out that monitoring has not been carried out in the area since 2018.

According to an investigation by Forbidden Stories, a network of journalists that ensures the work of journalists facing threats continues, the mining company's CEO and main shareholder, Iranian-American Reza Vaziri, is a “personal friend of the president [Ilham Aliyev].” According to the same investigations, the “Azerbaijani government also shares profits from the mine with the company.”

In September 2023, Babayev vowed, the ministry will carry out strict monitoring of the company. The website of the ministry mentioned the monitoring activities dated July 18, 2023, according to which the commission identified “violation of safety, environmental and sanitary rules, and absence of necessary approval from the relevant executive bodies in the country in the process of operation and construction.”

That same month, the company released the findings of the environmental impact report. According to the assessment, there were no issues with air quality, no sign of cyanide in sampled soil, and a very low concentration of cyanide was found in four water samples, which were within the guidelines of the International Finance Corporation Environmental and Social Performance Standards Limits.

“To separate the gold from the rock, Anglo Asian Mining uses cyanide, and dumps the sludge generated by the process, which contains toxic products including cyanide and arsenic, into the reservoir, known as a tailing pond,” wrote investigative journalists at Forbidden Stories.

Instead, the report claimed that the protests resulted not from the environmental impact of the dam but from the “lack of proactive communication between the site management team and the local community, longstanding issues regarding land allocation and mineral rights, and the failure to follow accepted international protocols for public consultation, rather than a fundamental technical problem with the current tailing storage facility or the proposed location for the new tailing storage facility.”

The report differed drastically from how village residents felt. “What cyanide couldn't finish, you are going to finish now with this poison,” yelled a village woman as footage showed riot police in full gear, spraying elderly women, all village residents, with pepper spray.

Two months later, in November the company restarted its operation after signing an agreement with the government on an action plan “to implement certain enhancements to its operations and procedures.” These enhancements and actions included: improving the environmental monitoring of the site, improving engagement with the local communities, creating emergency response plans, and many other promises. The action plan did not mention whether any of these deliverables were already in motion prior to the signing of the agreement.

Now, a year after the protest, it seems the company, the ministry and the government of Azerbaijan are back to business as usual, with no further or new monitoring reports released since the last assessment published in September 2023. When Global Voices tried reaching out to local residents, none were willing to talk out of fear of reprisal. Meanwhile, Anglo Mining reported a surge in the company shares shortly after restarting its operation on the ground. Speaking at the General Meeting in June 2024, the company president Reza Veziri said although the past twelve months were challenging, the company did not suffer significant losses given its resilience and that projections look favorable.

Veziri's concerns over the company's setback are nothing in comparison to the Gadabay region where Söyüdlü village is located which continues to perform poorly in all economic indicators across the country. According to a report from June 2023 by Azerbaijan Service for Radio Liberty, Gadabay is one of the regions with the lowest access to utility services, including gas and drinking water, it also lags behind in healthcare and education provision as well as economic indicators.

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