Environmental Activists in Armenia Help Save Waterfall from Development

May 16, 2012

The picturesque area surrounding the Chichkhan River in northern Armenia is home to numerous endangered animal and plant species and some of Armenia’s last remaining forests. The country’s largest waterfall, Trchkan, lies on the river and was granted protexted status as a natural landmark in 2008. So when the Armenian government granted a license to a construction company to build a hydroelectric power plant at the top of the waterfall, a vocal group of environmental activists around the country mobilized to save the waterfall and the delicate ecosystem surrounding it.

Internews supported a broad coalition of NGOs, civic activists, and media inititiatives working together to call for a halt to construction and revocation of the building license. In September 2011, protesters began gathering in front of the Ministry of Environmental Protection. In October, Internews’ community media center (“InfoTun”) in Gyumri initiated a Facebook campaign called “Save Trchkan Waterfall” to drum up grassroots support for the movement. The neighboring Vanadzor InfoTun also joined in the effort, and the Facebook group quickly gained more than 4,500 members.

The Yerevan-based NGO Ecolur, which had previously received a grant from Internews to create a network of environmental correspondents in threatened ecological zones across Armenia, used their wide geographic reach and social media presence to publicize the Save Trchkan effort and pressure government officials to respond to the group’s demands.

Through televised public service announcements, a protracted protest camp-out in the construction zone, a petition, and continued demosntrations in front of the Ministry of Environmental Protection, the movements quickly gained broad support across Armenia. So broad, in fact, that the Armenian Prime Minister himself joined the Save Trchkan Facebook group.

In early November, the movement scored a major (and rare) victory for environmental protection in Armenia: the Ministry ordered the company to halt construction of the power plant and the firm began removing its machinery from the site. Prime Minister Tigran Sargsyan promised that the protected status of the waterfall and the lands surrounding it will be respected in the future.

Ecolur and other environmental groups have questioned why the government ignored the site’s protected status when it allowed construction to begin in the first place. Nevertheless, they are proud to see that their efforts are engaging citizens in governance and and helping shape the ecological future of their country.

Internews’ work with InfoTuns and Ecolur in Armenia is supported by USAID.