My first question to Andranik Margaryan, a resident of the Shikahogh village in Armenia’s Syunik Marz, elicited another question.
“Shall I answer in the language of Hovhannes Tumanyan or our lingo?”
“Both,” I responded.
“Well as per Tumanyan, I can saw we are living and send each dead person off with our blessing. In our language, we are barely making ends meet,” Andranik answered.
Nobody works the land anymore in Shikahogh. There’s no water for irrigation. Water used to be pumped in from the Tzav River in the Soviet era. The pumping station no longer works.
Unlike residents of the neighboring village of Tzav, where residents expect jobs from the gold mine at Mazra, Shikahogh locals are concerned that the mine will damage the tourist projects that have already begun.
Shikahogh residents are betting that the natural preserve of the same name will be the key to their future success. They say their fruits and vegetables are just as natural and delicious as the surrounding environment.
They are afraid that the gold mine will change all this.
Rouben Mkrtchyan, Director of the Shikahogh Reserve, says that the gold mine will negatively impact both the preserve and the village’s way of life.
The Shikahogh Reserve has created in 1958 and covers 12,137 hectares. It is the home to numerous endangered species of flora and fauna not found anywhere else.
Mkrtchyan presented his concerns to the company planning to operate the open mine – Opulent Trading Solutions.
The company forecasts that damage to the surrounding environment will be in the neighbourhood of 6 million AMD. Mkrtchyan says he has no idea how the company arrived at such a figure.
Mkrtchyan warns of the hidden dangers as well, pointing to the pollutants that will result from mine blasting.
“The rains will wash all that dust and material down into the rivers. Local villagers don’t realize that their water sources are up there by the mine site. We’ve already recorded a rise in health ailments,” he said.
Mkrtchyan says the Shikahogh Reserve could become a popular eco-tourism site in a few years. Within its borders are the remains of castles and churches, old villages and numerous caverns.
He points out those local villagers will also benefit since it is not permitted to camp out overnight in the reserve. Tourists will have to board at local bed and breakfasts and motels.
There are five villages bordering the reserve – Shikahogh, Srashen, Tzav, Nerkin Hand and Shishkert.
While the reserve has started to attract the interest of tourists, lodgings are quite scarce. Shikahogh, with 272 residents, only has 1 or 2 houses equipped to accommodate guests.
But the administrative building of the reserve has already transformed two rooms into accommodations for tourists.
There are several projects on the drawing board to spur local tourism. One is the Community Social Development Project funded by Germany and jointly implemented with them.
But the gold mine can severely threaten any further development of eco-tourism. The Tzav River flows through the famous Pine Grove of Shikahogh, comprised of 574 maple and 196 walnut trees.
Once the mine starts operating, the pollution of the river is almost a certainty.