Editorial: Hope in a Bleak Landscape
It was painful to watch people in Armenia fell the trees around their homes, and burn them along with their furniture, their books, and their shoes back in the terrible winter of 1993, when they had no other way to keep warm. The pain was in the bitter cold, and in the desperation of having to destroy one's patrimony just to survive another day.
Thirteen years later, the trees are still coming down apace. The cutting is now mostly commercial, even if some of the demand for it is still borne of desperation.
About 70 percent of the wood cut in Armenia is used for heating and cooking purposes, according to Armenian Forests, a nonprofit established two years ago by the Tufenkian Foundation. Illegally cut wood is a cheap option for poor families who cannot afford the initial investment required to make the switch to equally cheap natural gas or other energy sources.
As for the other 30 percent, some of the best wood is exported to Iran and Turkey for furniture making. The rest is used to build furniture for domestic consumption.
Be it out of need or greed, no less than 1.3 million cubic yards of woods are ripped down illegally every year, Jeffrey Tufenkian of Armenian Forests tells us. At this rate, Armenia will have no woodlands left in twenty or thirty years.
But things need not go that far before the Armenian people, and especially the poorest among them, suffer the consequences of deforestation. The loss of forests will devastate agriculture, with an increase in soil erosion, flooding, and landslides, a loss of water supply, and a reduction in soil fertility, which will cause lower crop yields. Beyond agriculture, it will cause economic hardship from loss of forest products such as herbs, mushrooms, and fruits. And the elimination of trees, some of nature's best air filters, will intensify the impact of ever-increasing air pollution.
Solutions are at hand. They require the cooperative participation of government, business, nonprofits, and the general public. The priorities are to increase enforcement in order to curtail illegal logging; engage in more sustainable government reforestation efforts; reduce the need for logging for fuel by developing alternative energy sources; and manage forests more effectively.
The government notes that enforcement and reforestation have intensified. Vahag Martirosyan, head of public affairs for the Ministry of Agriculture, tells us that deforestation was a serious problem only until 1999; law enforcement efforts on the one hand, and reforestation efforts on the other have slowed the pace of deforestation such that "today the forest is not dying; the state is protecting it."
Mr. Tufenkian of Armenian Forests acknowledges that the pace of deforestation has slowed. He notes, however, that loggers have moved from quantity to quality, selecting the biggest and most valuable trees for export. As for law enforcement, he says that local villagers harvesting dead trees may be fined, but to date none of the suspected major violators has been charged.
Mr. Martirosyan of the Ministry of Agriculture declined to disclose the number or acreage of new trees planted in recent years. He tells us, however, that much of the government's reforestation work is unsuccessful because of a lack of irrigation and poor implementation. Mr. Tufenkian puts the annual amount of reforestation in the hundreds of hectares, in contrast to thousands of hectares of deforestation. (A hectare is about 2½ acres.)
Another part of the solution is to reduce or redirect the demand for wood from Armenia's forests. The National Assembly can help by eliminating excise taxes on imported wood, making it a more viable option for families that rely on firewood and for furniture makers and interior decorators.
Meanwhile, the effort to develop and better exploit alternative energy sources to logging for fuel is growing. Working with the Armenian government, the World Bank, the U.S. Agency for International Development, the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, and others are encouraging the private sector to make small hydro, wind, solar, fuel cell, geothermal, and other alternative sources competitive and sustainable. Active in the private sector response are SolarEn, with its solar-powered water heating systems, Zod Wind, which is developing wind turbines in the east of Armenia, and H2Economy, which is developing fuel cells for international markets. (These companies are owned by the Cafesjian Family Foundation, which also owns this newspaper.)
And it is not too late to start more effective forest management. The state may sanction some logging, in areas where it would have the least impact on agriculture and the biosystem. Logging rights would be granted through a transparent bidding system that would require loggers to pay a reasonable harvesting fee and to make a binding commitment to reforest according to generally accepted international standards.
Jason Sohigian, deputy director of the nonprofit Armenia Tree Project, rightly calls on the Armenian government to "do everything it can to ensure that wood is not illegally exported from the country." The Armenia Tree Project, established in 1994 by the environmentalist and philanthropist Carolyn Mugar in direct response to the desperate cutting of 1993, has planted over 1.25 million trees, close to half a million of which were planted this year.
Mr. Sohigian rightly believes the government "can do much more to support reforestation—aside from international funding which can be attracted, the government can support the efforts of groups like Armenia Tree Project in providing access and adequate protection and irrigation of land for reforestation. The government should be taking its national energy policy more seriously, so rural areas are not dependent on degraded forests for fuel."
As for our readers, many of them already support the Armenian Tree Project (www.armeniatree.org) and Armenian Forests (www.armenianforests.am). The efforts of these organizations to plant trees, to involve local communities as stewards of their woods, and to engage in public education and outreach are a shining beacon of hope in an otherwise bleak landscape.