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PRESS RELEASE
April 28, 2011

Click here to read the interview in Armenian

ATP Strengthens Sustainable Development Programs as the United Nations Declares 2011 to be International Year of Forests

An Interview with Executive Director Jeff Masarjian

Jeff Masarjian has been executive director of Armenia Tree Project since 2001, following a long career in clinical social work, family treatment, and organizational management in the non-profit sector. He founded, and for 13 years directed, a specialized foster care program for children at risk. In addition to having a private practice as a licensed social worker, he taught a course in community services administration at the University of Massachusetts for 10 years. In his spare time, Jeff enjoys hiking, camping, skiing, kayaking, and traveling.

Armenia Tree Project began planting trees at the site of the Tatev Monastery in 2010 in order to make the area more attractive for tourism; this spectacular photograph was taken by ATP Executive Director Jeff Masarjian on the day of the opening of the aerial tramway
Armenia Tree Project began planting trees at the site of the Tatev Monastery in 2010 in order to make the area more attractive for tourism; this spectacular photograph was taken by ATP Executive Director Jeff Masarjian on the day of the opening of the aerial tramway

Armenia Tree Project (ATP) works in three program areas--environmental education, tree planting, and sustainable development. Can you start off by telling us about ATP’s 2010 achievements in environmental education?

Since 2005, environmental education has been one of ATP’s core programs in Armenia. Last year we published the second edition of our teacher’s manual, “Plant an Idea, Plant a Tree,” and added 11 new lesson plans written by experts in Armenia. The manual has been reviewed and approved by the National Institute of Education in Armenia for training public school teachers. It was also translated into English for use in diasporan schools, through our new Building Bridges project, which seeks to connect Armenian youth in the US and around the world with youth in Armenia around environmental themes.

In 2010, 198 teachers were trained by ATP staff and by teacher-trainers on how to use the new ATP manual in their classrooms. Additionally, 617 schoolchildren and university students participated in environmental lessons and practical training at the Michael and Virginia Ohanian Environmental Education Center at ATP’s Karin Nursery.

Next, can you report on ATP’s 2010 results in Community Tree Planting?

Our CTP program continues to be a flagship for success in Armenia. After 16 years, our average survival rate is over 80 percent for trees which are three years or older. We continued with a robust program in 2010, and planted more than 66,000 trees at 177 sites throughout Armenia. The success of CTP is largely due to stakeholder involvement and commitment. Our staff works closely with residents of local communities to plant these trees and maintain them in later years.

Of particular note, ATP was invited to plant trees as part of the Tatev Monastery Revival Project in collaboration with the National Competitiveness Foundation of Armenia. The grand re-opening of the restored complex at Tatev took place in October, with an event that included rides on the world’s longest aerial tramway over a spectacular gorge between Tatev and Halidzor stations, where we planted 1,900 trees and have plans to plant another 2,400 in 2011. It is anticipated that this project will provide the impetus for economic development in local communities by attracting tourists who might be traveling to Syunik or Artsakh, and who will spend money on local food, lodging, and crafts.

(L to R) Armenia Tree Project Forestry Director Zachary Parisa conducting a training session on collecting seeds with ATP’s new Community Development Specialist Vardan Melikyan and Associate Director Areg Maghakian
(L to R) Armenia Tree Project Forestry Director Zachary Parisa conducting a training session on collecting seeds with ATP’s new Community Development Specialist Vardan Melikyan and Associate Director Areg Maghakian

Finally, can you give us a status update on ATP’s sustainable development programs?

In 2010, ATP held a series of strategic planning meetings with our Executive Committee and staff in the US and Armenia. After reviewing our successes and the challenges, we arrived at a number of conclusions that will guide our programming in the coming years.

Of particular note was our realization that we cannot simply plant our way out of the negative effects of deforestation in Armenia. We need to first engage local stakeholders in a process to evaluate and determine what their forest values are. These might include, for example, recreation, biodiversity, protection of topsoil, lumber, and fuelwood, to name a few. Communities need to reach a consensus on defining their own priorities, so that they can learn techniques to manage forests in a sustainable way that will meet their objectives. Planting trees and managing natural resources for the future is one aspect of sustainable development, which must also incorporate social and economic initiatives.

One of the more common issues we encountered in forest development projects was conflicts over land use. Communities that had designated sites for forest tree planting also had livestock owners that were using adjacent sites for grazing, and as a result, some of the newly planted trees were damaged. When there are conflicting priorities in poverty stricken communities, the options providing the most immediate results typically prevail. As such, the long term positive values of forest regeneration may lose out to short term priorities without the proper incentives in place.

What is ATP’s position on tree cutting incidents reported in Armenia?

Trees are still used by many rural families as their only source for cooking and heating fuel, due to lack of access to alternative fuels including natural gas. Our goal is to educate communities about forest management so they can continue to use this renewable resource in a sustainable way.

We continue to read reports about commercial logging. One solution will come from stronger enforcement of existing environmental laws. It is an encouraging sign that the issue is getting more publicity, and local residents are registering their outrage. This is the first step to more public involvement and reform on this issue, which will require a steadfast commitment from the government. These are clearly difficult issues with no easy answers. We hope that our work is a small step in the right direction of finding solutions to these problems.

How is ATP beginning to address the underlying drivers of deforestation which include widespread poverty, lack of access to alternative sources of fuel, lack of environmental management capacity in the country?

Recent reports have shown that poverty is still very widespread in Armenia--at least one third of the population is barely hanging on. This further convinces us that our work is needed more now than ever, since it is usually the most impoverished that rely on natural resources to meet their daily needs.

ATP creates full-time employment for more than 60 people in Armenia, and we hire hundreds of seasonal workers for tree planting in the spring and fall each year. We have a dynamic new leadership in Armenia and they have a positive vision about the future. As a result, we are currently building our capacity and developing new strategies to begin to engage the public to have a voice in policy issues around deforestation, renewable energy, and sustainable development.

Although there have not been major changes on some of the issues, we continue to do what we can on the local level to improve the lives of thousands of people who are directly impacted by our work, through creating new jobs or enriching their communities with educational programs, new parks, forests, and fruit orchards.

You have been outspoken on this issue in recent years, so what is the status of another current environmental concern which is unsustainable mining operations in Armenia?

ATP’s position has been to support sustainable development in Armenia. There are currently more than 600 mines in Armenia, and to my knowledge, none are operating according to standards which place public health and environmental protection at a premium. There is growing public backlash in communities that are adjacent to operating and planned mines, because residents don’t see their community or family interests being served by mining companies. The profits are privatized and often leave the country, while the liabilities become a public burden that others are left to deal with. The tax revenues collected by the government from mining operations typically do not find their way back to the communities that have suffered long term damage to their land and health. We’re also seeing that these effects can spread to neighboring regions and create hazards to ecosystems and to public health that will have devastating consequences for Armenia’s future.

Can you evaluate or list some of ATP’s main successes since the founding of the organization in 1994?

In our recent strategic planning meetings, we have reflected on some of our major accomplishments and identified a number of “lessons learned” which have informed our planning for the next several years. In terms of infrastructure, ATP operates tree nurseries in the villages of Karin, Khachpar, and Margahovit. We operate an environmental education center near Yerevan in Karin, and another is under construction near Vanadzor in Margahovit.

We have trained more than 1,000 secondary school science teachers on how to use ATP’s “Plant an Idea, Plant a Tree” manual in their classroom and we have published a “Sustainable Forestry Manual for Armenia” with stakeholder meetings and trainings planned for 2011. We have planted millions of trees at more than 800 urban and rural sites throughout Armenia and Artsakh, and the harvest from our fruit trees has exceeded two million pounds. Finally, ATP has received the National Award of the Energy Globe for Sustainability for our tree planting and education programs.

What are some of ATP’s strategic priorities for the coming years and how do these fit into your overall vision for the future of Armenia’s forests?

In response to some of the challenges outlined above, ATP has made a strategic decision to focus our efforts on “quality rather than quantity,” by spending more time and resources to develop social capital and resources in communities, before making investments in future forest development.

We are planning a new and more comprehensive program to that end, which we call S.E.E.D.S. (Social, Economic, and Environmental Development for Sustainability). It is widely acknowledged by experts that sustainable development that considers the needs of future generations must balance all three of its component parts. Promoting any one to the exclusion of others is a recipe for failure.

At our John and Artemis Mirak Nursery in Margahovit Village, we plan to postpone large-scale reforestation operations in order to meet the objectives of this new programming. Our plans at the Mirak Nursery include establishing a seed bank for valuable native forest trees that will provide resources into the future.

Our new program will replace and improve upon what was previously known as our Rural and Mountainous Development Program. We are excited about the changes in ATP because the United Nations has declared 2011 to be the International Year of Forests. We plan to share our experiences in sustainable forestry and community development with colleagues globally as part of the UN’s initiative.

Going forward, our plan is to engage with communities that have a demonstrated record of success with our Community Tree Planting program. We intend to bring robust environmental education to these communities, and collaborate with other organizations who can deliver a wide range of economic and social development services. We also plan to initiate trainings with local stakeholders in sustainable forest management and help establish forests that will meet the needs of the local community.


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