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Over the River and Through the Woods

By Olivia Katrandjian
May 23, 2010

“I should tell you, I have a stomach virus,” I said to Areg, the associate director of the Armenia Tree Project, before climbing into the van. The Armenia Tree Project is a non-profit dedicated to reforestation, and we were about to embark on a two-day venture into the mountains to see the organization in action.

“We’re going to probably the worst place in the country to have a stomach virus,” he replied.

I got into the van and met the three men who were joining us - two Frenchmen and a Canadian, working together on Architects of Change, a TV documentary series. They were looking for an organization involved in a solution to deforestation and had found that in Armenia.

“Two years ago it was difficult to convince anyone to broadcast a show on an environmental issue,” said Sylvain, the French director. He was short and well-built. From his arm muscles bulging out of his t-shirt, he looked like he would make a good cameraman. Ironically, his cameraman, Christian, was well over six-foot-five and exceedingly skinny.

“People always assumed an environmental topic would be a sad story,” Sylvain continued. “But this is a solution, this is a success. It’s a local solution to a global problem. It’s not a philosophical or political problem - it’s real. But here, it’s not a problem, it’s a solution.”

In his native French tongue, his words would have sounded heartfelt and poetic. In broken English, they sounded memorized. But he didn’t realize that and he was on a roll: “If there is vision, there is a solution.”

Three hours and countless jokes lost in translation later, we reached our first destination: a village house with a backyard [nursery]. The villagers living there - a middle-aged couple - use their backyard to grow trees from seedlings. After a year, when the baby trees are strong enough to survive on their own, the Armenia Tree Project (ATP) buys back the baby trees and plants them.

Lucia, the woman living here, cares for 1,000 trees at a time. With the money she makes from selling the trees back to ATP, she can buy a television or a space heater. “It’s hard to find jobs in the village so this has been a life saver,” Lucia told me. “Anytime people from ATP come to our village, everyone is so happy.”

ATP also works with a large nursery, but, as Areg explained to me, the organization wants to develop relationships with villagers, not only to help them economically but also to foster greater awareness of the problem. If people are actively participating in the reforestation process, they’re less likely to cut down trees.

But logic doesn’t always translate into reality. When we asked Lucia why she plants trees, it was clear she didn’t understand the bigger picture, even though she’s been working with ATP for almost six years. “It’s nature, it’s beauty,” she said.

In fact, it’s much more than that - if the current rate of deforestation continues, which is an annual loss of over 750,000 cubic meters of forest, Armenia faces the probability of turning into a barren desert within 50 years. But - naturally - Lucia focused on the immediate benefit.

Lucia’s husband didn’t speak much. He chose not to be interviewed for the documentary. Instead, while we interviewed his wife, he made us coffee - a strange role reversal for an Armenian household - and was careful not to step in front of the camera.

When I mentioned it to Areg later, he explained: “He might just be camera shy, but it also could be an ego issue. Planting trees is kind of a slap in the face to these people. You have to understand, they used to live in Baku, one of the largest cities in the Soviet Union. They were cosmopolitan, they had jobs, they had a ‘life’ - and then they were forced to flee and start a new life somewhere else.”

It is a story Armenians know all too well. In fact, when we left the house and headed to Aygut, the village we were staying in that night, I learned that Agyut and the two adjacent villages are populated with Armenian refugees from Azerbaijan. During the war between Karabakh and Azerbaijan, Armenians were forced to flee Azerbaijan. Azeris, in turn, were forced to flee Armenia. So the Armenian mayor living in Azerbaijan set up a population trade - Armenian people living in Azerbaijan would swap with three villages of Azeris living in Armenia. His people would be granted safe passage out of Azerbaijan, and in turn, the three villages of Azeris would be given amnesty to move to Azerbaijan.

“Twenty years ago, an Azeri would have been living in this house,” Areg said. I tried to nod in respone, but the dirt “road” we were driving on was laced with so many potholes that I felt as if I were riding a mechanical rodeo bull.

“Imagine living your whole life in New York City and then one day, you’re moved to the middle of Idaho,” he said. We pulled over on the side of the road in front of a run-down house. Chickens were running about freely. I could imagine it, and at that moment, in the middle of nowhere, only too well.

An old lady greeted us and showed us to our room. As I was choosing a bed, she took my hand and led me outside. “You’re staying downstairs,” she said to me in Armenian. I had never been to this village wasn’t keen on being alone at night.

“I can’t stay up here?” I asked. She looked at my ring finger and saw it was bare.

“Maybe you want to marry one of them?” she asked, pointing to the crew.

I thought for a second. “You know, that’s okay,” I replied and followed her down the metal staircase, taking a heavy bucket of water out of her hand. As we clinked down the metal stairs, I thought of the irony: I was carrying my Coach bag in one hand and a bucket of water in the other. I had gone from hot child in the city to a farm in a northern-Armenian village without running water. It sounded like a bad TV series.

I followed the old woman into the house, shooing away the chickens as I walked through the door. I thought of my supervisor at work. “What about people like me?” he always asks me. “You always make Armenia seem like a backwards country where people are showering with cats and putting rechargeable batteries in their shoes to stay warm! What about people like me, who have hot water and electricity and lead a normal life?”

These villagers were probably like him when they lived in Azerbaijan - and now they had chickens running in and out of the house.

That night, we gathered for dinner with men from the village and the village mayor. I was still feeling sick and hadn’t eaten anything all day. I stood in the dirt, watching the shish kebab meat we had brought from Yerevan grill over the fire in the backyard.

One of the men came out of the house carrying two old water bottles that were definitely not filled with water. “You want some?” he asked as he opened one of the bottles and started filling shot glasses.

“Oh, no thank you, I’m sick,” I replied, rubbing my hand over my stomach to make sure it translated.

“Whatever you have - this will kill it,” he replied, handing me the bottle. I put it up to my nose and immediately made a face and pulled away - that was some strong homemade vodka.

Alcohol does kill bacteria, I thought to myself. But no, there was no way this was a good idea. The mayor was sitting across from me and nodded approvingly. I shrugged and clinked glasses with everyone. The vodka burned so much I could trace it as it went through my chest.

“With this, in one hour I will speak fluent Armenian,” Sylvain said to me in French, lighting up another cigarette.

“Cheers to that,” I replied.

The next morning, with most of the crew still recovering from the night before, we loaded up the van with the video equipment and drove down to the river. The moonshine must not have worked after all, because I felt terrible. But so did everyone else, so I didn’t mention it.

We pulled over by the side of the road, where an enormous old Soviet pick-up truck was parked. The river was raging maybe 50 yards below.

“Man, that truck looks like it came out of World War II,” I said, laughing to myself.

“It did,” said the guy next to me. “Hop on.”

“What, are you kidding me?” I replied.

“How else would you like to get across the river?”

“[Why] are we crossing the river?” I asked.

“That’s the only way to get to the forest,” he replied. We were going to the forest to take footage of the fields of replanted trees.

I put one foot on the top of the four-foot tall tire and grabbed the metal side of the truck. I lifted myself up so I had both feet on top of the tire, swung one leg up over and then the other.

When everyone was on board, the driver started the engine. It made sounds that no engine should ever make. I held tightly to the metal edge of the truck as we drove down the side of the mountain to the base of the river. I braced myself as we drove into the river.

“This is a poor man’s Disneyland,” Areg said to me.

“I’ve never been to Disneyland,” I replied, clutching my stomach with one hand and the side of the truck with the other.

“Welcome to Splash Mountain.”

We made it across the river and drove up a hill, dodging trees and navigating unchartered terrain. When the truck came to a stop, I jumped off the edge into wild grass over a foot high. To one side was a field of baby trees, fenced in with barbed wire that had rusted to a brownish red.

“Careful of the barbed wire,” Areg said, stepping on the lowest one so I could fit in between two wires. “It will give you tetanus.” I dipped down and passed through slowly, tucking my head in and hoping for the best.

I looked around - we were surrounded by green mountains. The sky was bright blue and we were the only people in sight.

“Yesterday we were in Ireland, today we’re in Switzerland,” the cameraman said. “I love this country.”

The film crew went off to film villagers taking care of the trees, and I lay down in the grass. Our driver sat down next to me, playing with a butterfly.

“In 20 years the mayor of this village will be a very rich man,” he said to me.

“Why?” I asked.

“They have planted 25,000 walnut trees. Can you imagine how many walnuts they’ll have in 20 years?”


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