The following article was published by Russian Conservation News (www.russianconservation.org) as part of a special section in its Summer 2005 issue on “Conservation in the Caucasus: Spotlight in Armenia.”
Armenia Tree Project Beginning to Fight Deforestation Threat
At the turn of the 20th century, an estimated 25 percent of Armenia was covered by trees. According to a Ministry of Nature Protection report on biodiversity, forests now cover approximately 10 percent of the land surface of Armenia, while others have reported forest cover at only eight percent. Because of the low level of forest cover, the World Bank has estimated that 80 percent of Armenia is at risk of becoming desert. At the current rate of deforestation, all of Armenia’s forests may be gone in as little as 20 years, leading to irreversible environmental damage and loss of a critical component of Armenia’s infrastructure.
The loss of forests in Armenia, brought about by a lack of alternate fuel sources, legal and illegal cutting and export of wood, and improper management of this renewable resource, is having a dramatic impact on the environment. A primary cause of deforestation is poverty and unemployment. Without other sources of income, people inevitably turn to unsustainable harvesting of forest resources. In urban centers such as Yerevan, residents desperate for fuel cut between 2–3 million trees during the energy shortages of the early 1990s, often leaving only the stumps remaining. These barren lots were once protective hillsides circling urban areas as a vital barrier to pollution and dust, and once beautiful parks were turned into ecological graveyards devoid of greenery.
Forests perform important environmental and socioeconomic functions, but when they disappear inevitable and long-term consequences result, such as increased erosion, flooding, and landslides, drying of the local climate and loss of water supply, reduction of topsoil fertility causing lower crop yields, loss of plant and animal biodiversity, and severe air pollution. As the Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Jared Diamond has noted in his recent book, “Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed,” deforestation, soil erosion, and water management problems all result in less food for populations. Such problems have also been exacerbated over history by droughts, which have been partly caused by humans through deforestation, notes Diamond.
To help address this crisis, Armenian-American philanthropist Carolyn Mugar founded Armenia Tree Project (ATP) in 1994. During the winter of 1992 while visiting Armenia, Ms. Mugar saw that families desperate to heat their homes were burning their own furniture, and massive numbers of trees were being cut for fuel. In order to research and develop a plan for an organization that would work towards preventing further deforestation in Armenia, she hired a local staff in Armenia, and ATP’s efforts were officially launched with a tree-planting at the Nork Senior Center in Yerevan in 1994. In the US, a small staff was hired to do fundraising and public relations with the national and international community.
Over the course of eight years, thousands of trees were planted in communities throughout the country as part of the Sponsor-A-Tree program funded by thousands of individual Diasporan donors, two state-of-the-art nurseries were opened in Karin and Khachpar (in the Aragatsotn Region), several forest rejuvenation programs were implemented in the Tsitsernakaberd Genocide Memorial Park (in the Yerevan Region) and elsewhere, and a database of Diasporan donors was created.
ATP has expanded over the past several years, and as a result, the organization has revisited its methodology to ensure that programs and objectives work hand in hand toward accomplishing the interrelated goals of tree planting, poverty reduction, and environmental education and advocacy.
Since 2001, ATP has begun to redirect its goals towards more aggressive, all-encompassing reforestation efforts, aimed at rehabilitating devastated rural and urban areas and providing Armenian citizens with the resources as well as incentive for redeveloping their immediate environment. Specifically, programs have been launched in Aygut (in the Gegharkounik Region) in the vicinity of Lake Sevan and in Vanadzor, the third largest city in Armenia, located in the Lori region. Since 1994, over 600,000 trees have been planted and restored, and hundreds of jobs have been created for Armenians in seasonal tree-regeneration programs. For the coming year, ATP has been searching for ways to expand its output and begin planting trees at an even larger scale to combat the threat of deforestation in Armenia. In addition to the 50,000-60,000 trees outplanted each year from our traditional nurseries, in Aygut ATP has 200,000 seedlings growing for reforestation purposes, and at its current nursery site in Vanadzor there are more than 300,000 trees growing.
ATP’s tree planting strategy has three components. The first is production of trees on an increasingly larger scale at the state-of-the-art nurseries at Karin and Khachpar, at the reforestation nursery in Vanadzor, and in backyard reforestation nurseries in the rural Getik River Valley. Second is planting these trees in partnership with residents of urban and rural communities at public sites, rural backyards, and areas targeted for mountainous reforestation. And third is coppicing, whereby the unproductive shoots that sprout from a stump are trimmed by teams of workers in order to grow a new, vital tree with an intact root system. ATP’s targets for 2005 have been to extend community tree planting activities to local villages where backyards and common areas will receive new trees, rejuvenate public areas including the Botanical Gardens and Komitas Park (both in the Yerevan Region), and to reforest a large tract of land in Aygut.
As highlighted by international foresters such as Nobel Peace Prize winner Wangari Maathai of the Green Belt Movement in Kenya, poverty is one of the great enemies of forests. Historically, people with no other viable source of income or energy have destroyed the forests that were their lifelines, due to non-sustainable harvesting. Therefore, successful reforestation must be combined with locally based poverty reduction efforts in order to protect existing resources and investments in the future. In both urban and rural settings, poverty reduction and community development activities reduce the pressure on remaining forests.
After assessing the severity of tree cutting and how it affected the vitality and sustainability of citizens in rural, impoverished areas, ATP laid out a strategy to reforest the Getik River Valley, an area located just north of Lake Sevan. ATP initiated a pilot project that was designed to reforest degraded lands while generating income through micro-enterprise development in villages inhabited by Armenian refugees relocated from Azerbaijan. In 2004, ATP taught 17 families in the village of Aygut techniques for growing tree seedlings in backyard nursery plots.
With ATP’s technical support these micro-enterprises produced 20,000 seedlings, and ATP paid participants for each seedling transplanted into the forest. This year, ATP has expanded this project to include 200 families who will be growing 200,000 seedlings. The development of these “micro-enterprise” nurseries not only provides for larger scale reforestation efforts, but also significantly increases each participant’s annual income.
While ATP’s primary focus is reforestation, it has also encouraged the involvement of other agencies in providing a broad range of services to the Getik River Valley. Organizations including Heifer International, Project Harmony, World Vision, Armenian Eye Care Project, UNDP, USDA-MAP, and Weyerhaeuser Family Foundation are all involved in new projects. The ultimate goal is to revitalize the socioeconomic and ecological conditions of the thirteen villages throughout the Getik River Valley.
ATP is also developing environmental education as a core program area in order to prepare the nation’s youth for becoming the next generation of environmental stewards. By actively engaging youth in a process to better understand and appreciate the value of a healthy and sustainable environment, ATP seeks to protect the trees planted today from future exploitation.
ATP has developed an environmental curriculum called “Plant an Idea, Plant a Tree.” ATP staff and Peace Corps volunteers are field-testing the environmental education curriculum on students of all levels at the Ohanian Center, at the ATP nursery in Karin, and in villages. They are providing ATP feedback on the quality of information provided and its effectiveness. The eventual goal is to present the curriculum to the Ministry of Education for implementation in schools throughout Armenia, but it is still in an early stage and we anticipate it will be some time before that is done. In addition, all of the reforestation work in rural villages has a key educational component focusing on youth. An Environmental Education Center at the Karin nursery is a state-of-the-art facility in which students from secondary schools and colleges, as well as professionals in the field, attend trainings and seminars on trees and the environment.
Advocating for the development of a sustainable forest policy in Armenia and environmental laws that provide for natural resource protection is most effectively accomplished with a coalition of like-minded individuals and groups, and ATP has been a proponent of working in collaboration with partners to promote an environmental ethic at all levels of society.
Just this year, ATP worked with others to advocate for an alternative to a proposed roadway through the middle of the Shikahogh Nature Reserve in the southern part of the country. In May when the construction project became known to the public, ATP founder Carolyn Mugar sent a letter to the President and other high ranking officials urging them to hold public hearings and choose an alternate route. ATP staff traveled to the site on fact-finding missions with scientific experts and journalists, and Ms. Mugar traveled from the US on such a visit in June. The ATP outreach office issued several press releases and action alerts via email to constituents about the endangered reserve, and commissioned a documentary film, funded in partnership with Armenian Forests NGO and World Wildlife Fund on the Shikahogh Reserve. The coalition of individuals and representatives of more than 40 local and international NGOs and scientific organizations is cautiously optimistic that a decision to bypass Shikahogh will be implemented. During a June 17 public forum at American University of Armenia, the Minister of Transportation announced that the government is choosing a new route that bypasses the reserve, and the Prime Minister appointed a commission to study the issue.
In its first 10 years of operation in Armenia, ATP has developed a significant range of knowledge and experiences. As it builds on successes and failures by moving toward large-scale reforestation efforts, ATP has begun the process of appealing to international agencies and organizations for larger sources of funding. In addition, ATP has begun to focus its attention on some of the challenges of reforestation in Armenia. These include the need to work in cooperation with Armenian governmental agencies and local communities for securing access to land for reforestation, finding adequate supplies of local seed sources since most of the healthy trees in the country have already been harvested, and meeting the organization’s stringent site selection criteria. Sites are chosen based on a number of factors, including access to adequate water, protection from livestock grazing, and adequate protection measures against fire and especially poaching and cutting.
After operating in Armenia for over a decade now, it has become apparent that the constraints on reforestation are not merely financial. ATP is dedicated to working with communities, organizations, governments, and individuals toward the goal of assisting the Armenian people in using trees to improve their standard of living and protect the environment, guided by the need to promote self-sufficiency, aid those with the fewest resources first, and conserve the indigenous ecosystem.
[Jeff Masarjian is Executive Director and Jason Sohigian
is Deputy Director of Armenia Tree Project. For additional information
about the program and the problem of deforestation in Armenia, visit the
Web site www.armeniatree.org.]