New Threat on the Horizon
Armenia is located in the southern Caucasus, at the convergence of three major bio-geographic regions, and has within it seven of the world’s nine climate zones. Although it is a small country of 29,000 square kilometers, it is home to 40 percent of all landscape types found in the Northern Hemisphere.
But the mountainous country with its once-abundant forests is also home to sought-after resources, including gold, copper, and timber. War, poverty, and economic isolation have created conflict between efforts to protect the nation’s ecological wealth with the need to create jobs.
Armenia’s enormous biological diversity includes 8,800 plant species, half of which are at risk of extinction; 13 species and 360 varieties of wheat, which was first cultivated there 10,000 years ago; 260 species of trees and bushes; 17,500 invertebrate and 500 vertebrate species of animals, of which 346 species are birds; and one-third of the 156 reptile species found in the former Soviet Union. Of the 500 vertebrate species, 300 are rare or declining, and 18 are at risk of extinction. Many of these species are in peril due to the effects of deforestation.
In 1900, 25 percent of Armenia was covered with forests. After the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, the regional conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh led to an economic blockade of the country which prevented the import of heating and cooking fuel. The widescale cutting of trees for fuel during the next several years left the Armenia with approximately 12 percent forest cover.
Today, according to government statistics, forests now cover approximately 11 percent of the land surface of Armenia, while others have estimated forest cover at less than 8 percent. The United Nations has reported that 80 percent of Armenia is at risk of becoming desert. The loss of the forests is caused by poverty and unemployment, a lack of alternate fuel sources, legal and illegal cutting and export of wood, and improper management.
NEED FOR JOBS
In Armenia, as in many developing countries, people often think that short-term economic opportunities should take priority over long-term environmental considerations. A case in point is Teghut, an agrarian village (population 850), located in a mountainous region more than 200 kilometers north of Yerevan. Decades ago deposits of copper and molybdenum ore were identified lying deep in the forested mountains, but were never exploited.
An international company called the Armenian Copper Program (ACP) is seeking final approval by the government to begin the process of clear-cutting over 600 hectares of forests on the mountain. Although the company has offered to replant trees in other areas of Armenia, small saplings can never replace the habitats and ecosystems that will be destroyed in Teghut, or the plants and animals that will surely perish if the mine proceeds.
The company plans to create an open-pit strip mine to remove the ore, which is estimated to consist of 2 percent of all the soil which will be removed. The waste from the chemical processing of the soil will be deposited into a new tailing dump in a nearby pristine gorge. As evidenced by other copper tailing dumps in Armenia, such as the one in another northern village, Aghtala, toxic chemicals and heavy metals from the dump will leach into the soil and ground water, eventually finding their way into nearby rivers and creating a permanent death zone in the area.
Forests perform important environmental and socioeconomic functions, and when they disappear, long-term consequences result, such as erosion, flooding and landslides, climate extremes, loss of water supply, reduction of topsoil fertility, loss of plant and animal biodiversity, and severe air pollution. The harsh reality is that all of Armenia’s forests may be gone in as little as 20 years at the current rate of deforestation, leading to irreversible environmental damage.
PRESSURE ON PRESIDENT
Recently, 26 organizations in Armenia formed the SOS Teghut Coalition to raise public awareness and lobby government officials to reconsider what appears to be a likely and final approval of ACP's mining plans. Many of the local residents, who struggle with grinding poverty, are understandably in favor of the mining project because of the jobs it will bring, despite the permanent damage that will be wrought upon their land and the health of their families – and others in neighboring regions.
The Armenian government does not have a good track record of protecting the environment from exploitation by special interests. There is rampant illegal logging for both domestic commercial use and foreign export, which operates under the cloak of legally purchased sanitary cutting permits to remove dead or diseased timber. Large areas of publicly owned park land in Yerevan have been leased to individuals who cut down trees and build outdoor cafes.
Despite this, conservationists are hopeful that the government will respond positively to public opinion on the issue. In 2005, many of the same organizations involved in SOS Teghut was formed to save the Shikahogh Nature Reserve in southern Armenia from the government's plans to build a highway through it. Shortly after hundreds of e-mails were sent to President Robert Kocharian by individuals from around the world, the government changed the route of the highway and left the integrity of the reserve intact.
The Teghut coalition, of which my organization is a member, is using a similar strategy to encourage the government to pursue an alternative form of sustainable economic development for the area. Within five days of the coalition's call to supporters to e-mail the president and other government officials requesting that the forest be declared a permanent nature reserve, more than 1,000 messages went out.
Time is quickly running out for Armenia's environment. Jobs
and economic development are a necessity, but a long-term, balanced perspective
is needed to ensure that the best interests of the public and the nation
are best served. It is the responsibility of any government to provide
stewardship of a nation's natural resources and protect the land and public
health, while encouraging sustainable development. We are hopeful that
Armenia, with support and encouragement from the global community, will
do just that.