In the early 1990s, Armenia was reeling from a devastating earthquake, an ongoing war, and an economic maelstrom. Compounded with uncharacteristically harsh winters, the people cut trees to stay warm – and to stay alive. In the process, Armenia’s forests were depleted. Since then, the Armenia Tree Project, which marks its 20th anniversary this year, has spearheaded a movement to reforest the country and to promote a culture of conservation.
Have you ever wondered what the price of a tree is? And how about a forest? At the onset of the 21st century Germany and the European Commission launched The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity (TEEB) initiative in order to evaluate the economic benefits of biodiversity and to alert governments to the threats posed by its loss. According to the studies carried out by TEEB the loss of forests can cost economies worldwide up to $5 trillion per year. The same study estimated the economic value of Armenian forests at a range of $7 million to $1 billion per year.
The value of a forest is not easy to grasp in purely monetary units. Besides quantifying how forests benefit the economy, we must also qualify the ways in which they sustain human lives. Indeed, forests procure construction timber and fuel wood for industrial purposes. Beyond that, however, forests act as air purification systems that regulate carbon levels in the atmosphere. They protect the land from floods, erosion and keep the soil fertile, which is vital for agriculture, while forest catchments provide both fresh drinking and irrigation water for agricultural lands. Forests also serve as a habitat for wild animals and are a source of fisheries, food and medicinal plants out of which medicines are derived for nearly 80% of the earth’s population.
Given all of that, it is hard to imagine any area of human life or economy functioning without sustainable forests. As it often happens, though, people rarely appreciate the value of what they have until it is gone. To Carolyn Mugar, an Armenian-American, that loss was strikingly obvious when she visited Armenia in 1992. In the height of the energy embargo imposed on the country during the Artsakh (Nagorno-Karabakh) War, destitute Armenians were desperate to get fuel for simple everyday tasks. Not only were people burning anything from park benches to their own furniture and books but they were also cutting trees. Decorative trees gracing parks and pristine forest species were logged, chopped down and burned.
During the war with Azerbaijan, Armenia was denied access to the natural gas that had previously supplied up to 90% of the country’s energy needs. Amid all of this, Armenia’s once prospering economy was in rapid decline. After the disintegration of the Soviet Union the country had lost the huge market for its industrial produce in the face of the USSR and the systems which supported the economy. Poverty and homelessness combined with the lack of energy and fuel brought many Armenians to dire straits, while the three harsh winters of the early 90s forced people to cut down trees en masse to procure the most basic needs for heating and food preparation.
Trees saved people but forests were degraded
For a country on the verge of economic collapse, a quickly diminishing forest cover was the least of its problems. Not so much to Carolyn Mugar, who saw the long-term threat in the deforestation that was spiraling out of control. Desperate times called for urgent measures. So Mugar partnered with Regina Eddy, an expert in the development of NGOs, and in 1994 the Armenia Tree Project (ATP) was born.
In the early stages of its work, when funding and resources were scarce, ATP carried out lots of coppicing, a practice of cutting back shoots sprouting out of a stump in order to let one shoot grow back into a tree. In the eight years that followed, with financial support from the Armenian Diaspora, the organization opened tree nurseries in Karin and Khachpar, planted trees on community sites, ranging from school to church yards, and created orchards in rural areas.
In its initial stages of development, ATP’s aim was to “regreen” bared parks in urban sites and plant orchards. Over the past 20 years, however, the organization has set an ambitious goal of carrying out large-scale reforestation, as well as educational and training projects with international scope. Today 60 permanent staffers in Armenia and a small team in the United States combine their efforts to restore the forest cover of the country, while still planting orchards in rural areas and decorative trees on community sites.
The efforts of locals have also played a crucial role. While ATP owns and runs a mere three nurseries, since 2004 it has partnered with hundreds of local farmers who have been growing seeds, nursing plants in their own backyards, and planting them on the land. ATP has provided the farmers with an incentive for their efforts in the form of training and monetary compensation. Thus, with the combined efforts of locals and ATP staffers trees have been planted on 900 sites in 300 communities all over the country.
To date, ATP has managed to plant more than 4.5 million trees throughout the land and to provide employment to an average of 100 seasonal workers every year.
“Communities have been very much supportive. We have enjoyed an extremely favorable reception because people recognize the benefits of trees. In fact the demand for trees by those communities exceeds our ability to meet it,” says ATP’s Managing Director Tom Garabedian.
Reforestation is not just about planting trees
In fact, mass-scale reforestation poses a huge challenge in terms of ensuring the survival of the planted species. In addition to securing leases on the land from the government or from local communities, ATP has to make sure that the conditions are appropriate for planting and that trees will be safe from livestock and logging. Out of the 4.5 million trees that have been planted by ATP so far, less than 65% have remained.
Managing Director Garabedian attributes the loss to natural failure in terms of sustainability of planting, poor choice of land, lack of community support in keeping livestock away from trees and other natural hazards. According to Garabedian, ATP is still learning and perfecting its methods. “The aim is to achieve a success rate of 85% after 3 years in terms of community planting and a success rate of 65% regarding large scale reforestation where there is a lack of control over natural factors,” he adds
Karen Ter Gazarian is a forestry expert whose experience includes being the deputy director of Hayantar, a project of Armenia’s State Forest Service, as well as being deputy director at the Forest Research Experimental Center at Armenia’s Ministry of Nature Protection. He explains the complexity of mass-scale reforestation and regeneration. “There is a difference between planting trees and planting forests. Artificial planting always has a certain goal, be it creating a forest as a shelter belt for agricultural land or along a waterway, as part of anti-erosion measures or for lumber production.” According to Ter Gazarian artificial reforestation is costly, while natural regeneration is a far more feasible approach. Yet, both involve a wide range of expertise and procedures.
“Natural regeneration requires specialized approach of giving advice to farmers and forest managers, backing the process with legislation and evaluation of what measures can be taken and what results are achieved,” adds Ter Gazarian.
Twenty years after the collapse of the USSR scientific research in the field has been at halt, with only episodic articles and publications appearing but no solid scientific work, which, according to Ter Gazarian, is the basis for on-the-ground work in this field. “Without research we cannot make any credible judgments – research is the basis for sustainable forest management. We need more studies to be done and a lot of specialists should be involved.”
There have been some positive developments in that direction. Organizations and institutions like the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) in Armenia, the Acopian Center at the American University of Armenia, and the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) Climate Change Information Center of Armenia do research on Armenia’s forests and, more generally, on conservation in the country.
According to Garabedian, securing support and resources from the government remains one of the major challenges ahead. The organization is funded by donations from members of the Diaspora and while the government does not offer economic support, it offers assistance in other areas. Trees planted by ATP on land leased by the government are protected from logging for 25 years.
Elsewhere forests are under threat
A study into the local forest industry by the Economy and Values Research Center revealed that barely 9% of the country’s households rely on wood fuel for their needs today. Yet, long after the end of the crisis, in the period between 1998 and 2008 the forest cover of Armenia has gone down from 12% to 8%. According to the same study the forest processing industry in Armenia, which encompasses some 300 companies, is responsible for logging 10 times more trees than the sustainable limit.
ATP believes that the loss would have been much more dramatic had it not been for the efforts of all involved. Garabedian also recognizes the need for much greater effort to be taken by the government at a much larger scale than can be accomplished by an NGO. In 2006 the organization partnered with the Armenian Forests NGO, WWF Armenia and American University of Armenia’s Environmental Conservation Research Center, forming the EcoArmenia alliance.
Karen Ter Gazarian also believes that the issue is far more complex than perceived and might surpass the abilities of NGOs. “ATP have been quite active in involving and supporting communities, giving advice to farmers and inviting international experts. I see some positive steps by NGOs but the core problems still exist – illegal logging and extensive grazing harm regeneration. Financial allocations are laughable and capacity building is one of the biggest issues. Forestry management is like a very sick man to whom doctors are giving small injections.”
Both local and international experts skeptical about illegal logging point out the need for more effective forestry and agricultural legislation and law enforcement to ensure the sustainable use and protection of forests. As a result of deforestation, today two thirds of Armenia are affected by erosion which is severe in some cases. Environmental issues disturb the balance of the ecosystem and the economy as people and their businesses rely on the provision of clean water and air, on the stability of the soil, the fertility of the land, and the abundance of food and timber resources.
Data from the Ministry of Nature Protection reveals that the reproductive ability of forests and their fertility has been undermined. The very pillars of the forest ecosystem which are also the most economically beneficial species – oak, beech, and ash – have been felt down on a mass scale.
Unfortunately, the more severe the deforestation effects, the more difficult it becomes for the forest to regenerate. Oaks have slower regeneration capabilities, followed by beeches. Logging and grazing pose serious threats as farm animals such as pigs eat oak acorns preventing the growth of new plants. Often simple measures such as fencing sensitive territories can help to alleviate the problem and foster natural regeneration.
Experts predict that if oaks and beeches continue to disappear they will be replaced by hornbeam, a species with far faster reproductive capabilities. “Oak forests protect the land from erosion. Once they are gone, the land will lose its fertility, biodiversity and its ability to regenerate. What we are left with is barren land,” comments Ter Gazarian.
Today forestry is taught at universities worldwide, which Ter Gazarian sees as a major positive change. “Students have great ideas about how to foster and enhance the forest. They should be involved and prepared to enter the field.” According to him the very profession is changing, with an overwhelming majority of forestry students at Yerevan University being female and lots of women stepping into and taking over a previously male dominated field, not only in Armenia but worldwide.
To ATP, the biggest challenge in the past two decades has been getting more people to recognize the importance and objective of reforestation.
Today, the NGO also organizes professional seminars and training for local farmers. The textbook “Plant an idea, Plant a tree” issued by ATP was approved by the Armenian National Institute of Education and successfully implemented into the curriculum of national schools – an achievement that was awarded with the National Energy Globe Award for Sustainability in 2008. Thus, while it continues to plant trees, the Armenia Tree Project is also planting ideas.