Meeting the Challenge in Armenia

The success of global covenants and international declarations pertaining to biodiversity and sustainable development—in particular those emerging in the wake of the Rio de Janeiro Earth Summit of 1992 and now the Johannesburg World Summit—require not only the formulation of enabling legislation at the national level but, more importantly, implementation plans at the local level: culturally appropriate plans that empower both urban and rural dwellers to take control of their destinies as global resource managers. Long-term planning is predicated upon the notion that in acting locally but thinking globally, we build a better world.

The Armenia Tree Project (ATP) is one striking example of the grassroots implementation of globally significant natural resource conservation plans. The project is operated by the Armenian Assembly of America, a nonprofit inaugurated in 1993.

The World Wide Fund for Nature has identified the Caucasus in its international campaign to protect ecologically diverse regions as a “Global 200 Ecoregion,” based on its species richness, unusual evolutionary phenomena and the global rarity of its major habitat types. Likewise, Conservation International views this region as a “hotspot”—one of the 25 most biologically rich and most endangered terrestrial ecosystems in the world. The transition from totalitarian to independent, democratic states has been especially difficult in the South Caucasus. The collapse of the Soviet economy—and ultimately its political structure—left in its wake spiraling inflation, shortages of consumer goods, and regional instability. In Armenia, for example, a war-stimulated economic blockade by Azerbaijan and Turkey–especially devastating to a land-locked country–cut off fuel, food, and manufactured goods, and placed tremendous pressure on already over-exploited natural resources. Armenia’s forests were destroyed by this crisis, as residents desperate for home heating fuel, construction materials, and more arable land cut down between 2 million and 3 million trees in the early 1990s. It is now estimated that 80 percent of Armenia’s land territory is in the process of desertification. Forests in the northern provinces have been reduced by up to 40 percent in the last 10 years.

The problem of how to protect the environment is daunting in a country where “rule of law” is a foreign concept, where existing forestry regulations are woefully inadequate to the task of curtailing illegal logging, and where a “Soviet-minded” bureaucracy awaits the latest centrally formulated plan to be devised from above.

To fulfill its mission of improving the environment, increasing food supplies, and combating acute rural poverty by creating jobs and opportunities for economic growth, the ATP draws inspiration for its methodology from local Armenian value systems, traditions, and community needs. The “greater common good” model of sustainable development that the ATP has deployed assumes, as a matter of principle, that proactive, self-interested parties will play a leading role in the design and evaluation of projects. In fact, great care is taken to engender a sense of local project ownership and thus responsibility for the survival of the trees. The terms and conditions of all agreements between ATP and a community are negotiated and are recorded in written contracts in which mutual responsibilities are outlined.

To date, the ATP has implemented four vital programs:
1) Tree plantings. ATP has provided more than 274,737 trees for planting at 560 community sites throughout Armenia. Twenty-five percent are fruit trees, yielding an annual harvest of over 116,000 pounds of fresh fruit. A special focus has been to develop a permanent source of fruit for Armenians in greatest need—pensioners, the handicapped, and orphans—by planting fruit trees at the social institutions that serve them. A number of ATP tree-planting projects provide assistance to ethnic Armenian refugees resettled from Azerbaijan. Historically farmers, they lack the necessary resources and skills to improve the lands left to them by departing ethnic Azeris resettled from Armenia.
2) Coppicing. Armenia has over 100,000 stump-littered acres that stand as a testament to the energy crisis of the early 1990s. ATP has launched a long-term effort to restore devastated greenbelts to their former vitality by using the simple forestry technique of “coppicing,” in which the unproductive shoots that sprout from a stump are selectively trimmed, focusing the tree’s energy into a new, vital trunk. This project provides jobs and income to more than 150 ethnic Armenians each spring and fall, and has revitalized over 300 acres of territory.
3) Micro-enterprise. ATP is working with farmers to develop a viable micro-enterprise industry in dried fruit production that will create jobs and increase available food supplies. One commercial-scale and 25 portable solar fruit dryers have been built to preserve fruit. ATP works with farmers at each phase of the production cycle—growing, drying, packaging, and marketing—to ensure a quality-end product.
4) Tree nurseries. ATP has created two village tree nurseries covering 4.2 acres that yield more than 40,000 trees each year. The nurseries also serve as a research and training center for the latest advances in tree nursery technology. Fifty-three varieties of indigenous trees are propagated at the nurseries.

The Armenia Tree Project has a full-time staff of 53, 48 of whom work in Armenia. Its annual budget of $850,000 is supported entirely by an active base of 6,000 individual donors from North America. To support this important work, send your tax-deductible contribution to:
Armenia Tree Project Armenian Assembly of America 65 Main Street Watertown MA 02472-4400 USA
Ian S. McIntosh is co-director of Cultural Survival.

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