Speaking for the Trees

A Powerful Coalition Works to Protect Armenian Forests

Decades of oppressive, one-party rule and economic embargoes have left Armenia overwhelmingly poor and desperate. And poverty has led to destruction of the very natural resources that are the country’s most precious heritage.

Armenian tree-planting efforts increase the annual income of village farmers.© Armenia Tree Project

A mostly mountainous and fiercely nationalistic nation bordering Turkey to the east, the Caspian Sea to the west, Iran to the south and Georgia to the north, Armenia is experiencing the growing pains of developing countries trying to pursue a better life, while preserving social customs and a ruggedly beautiful environment.

Some of the biggest environmental problems in Armenia (including rampant deforestation and a reopened Chernobyl-era nuclear power plant) have to do with providing electricity and heat to people who’ve often had to do without.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, Armenia sought its full independence in a war with Azerbaijan. From 1991 to 1994 economic blockades prevented heating oil from coming into the country. "That resulted in massive burning of wood, from furniture to books to trees in forests and parks," explains Jeff Masarjian, executive director of the nonprofit Armenia Tree Project, founded in 1994. "With little if any insulation in houses, and no alternative sources of fuel for heat and cooking, the people had little choice. Poverty is the greatest enemy of the forest."

Although heating oil is now available, deforestation remains an ongoing problem because firewood is often the more affordable choice. "If the deforestation isn’t reversed immediately, the World Bank estimates that all the forest could be gone in 20 to 50 years," says Masarjian. "Eighty percent of Armenia could turn to desert. Once it’s lost to desert it’s lost forever. Landslides, loss of habitat, and the disappearance of topsoil are the multiplying effects of deforestation."

Deforestation also increases flooding, reduces soil fertility and dries local microclimates, reducing the water supply. Armenia was once 25 percent forested, but now only eight percent of the land is covered.

In 2005, Armenian cities have a fairly reliable source of natural gas to heat homes, so the reforestation effort has begun in earnest. The Armenia-based nonprofit group Armenian Forests, founded in 2003, works with local communities to set up sustainable forest management practices and encourages alternatives to live Christmas trees.

The Armenia Tree Project is working to counteract both poverty and deforestation by giving out seeds to farmers who work plots of land as small as 10 feet by 10 feet. From a plot that size, 1,000 to 1,500 seedlings are produced in six to 18 months, depending on the type of tree.

The Armenia Tree Project buys the seedlings back for less than it would cost from a commercial operation, and the money earned can double the average Armenian’s income (of about $280 per month for villagers, according to a 2003 survey). Along with the tree-raising venture, an environmental education program aimed at schoolchildren teaches the next generation how important trees are to Armenia’s future, and how environmental health will affect both their physical and economic well-being.

Despite the best efforts of these projects, pressure on the remaining trees remains. Last June, the Shikahogh nature reserve—one of three large protected forest areas in Armenia—was threatened by a government road-building plan. The road would have cut right through the reserve, and would have meant the loss of 15,000 to 20,000 trees in an ecologically valuable area that is protected on three sides from the harsh winds that make much of Armenia cold and dry. In the Shikahogh, moisture from the Caspian Sea creates a microclimate where some 1,100 flowering species of plants grow. It is also one of the last refuges of the endangered Near Eastern leopard.

"The lower slopes of Shikahogh are a diverse ecosystem," says Karen Manvelyan, director of the World Wildlife Fund-Armenia. "Native bushes, wild mushrooms and wildlife live on the slopes. Insects feed on the bushes, and animals eat the insects or other small prey. All this could be lost."

Manvelyan calls the Mtnadzor Forest, which covers half of Shikahogh, "a monument of natural heritage." After intense pressure, including some from Armenians in the U.S., the government promised to reroute the road around the nature reserve. It was a victory for 40 local groups, WWF, Armenian Forests and the Armenia Tree Project. The results of this coup for the trees should not be underestimated in a country that’s just learning about self-government.

"In this post-Soviet state, people feel disenfranchised and alienated from their government," says Masarjian. "Many feel that the government is going to do whatever it wants, so why bother to criticize it? This was a win for both the environment and for democracy."

"The government now understands there is a real and unified environmental movement in Armenia," says Susan Yacubian Klein, president of the Armenia Tree Project. "The main result—and it is an exciting one to witness—is the workings of a civil society from the grassroots level up."