Public Forum on Armenia’s Environment Highlights Work of Armenia Tree Project And Armenian Forests NGO

WATERTOWN–On January 24–approximately 40 members of the community attended a public forum hosted by the Armenian National Committee of Eastern Massachusetts (ANC-EM) in collaboration with the Armenia Tree Project on Armenia’s environmental challenges–featuring Armenia Tree Project (ATP) executive director Jeff Masarjian–and Armenian Forests NGO (AFNGO) president Jeffrey Tufenkian–at the Armenian Library and Museum of America in Watertown–Massachusetts.

The evening began with the viewing of a documentary produced by VEM Media for the Armenia Tree Project–Armenia Forests NGO–World Wildlife Fund–and the American University of America describing the building of a coalition of NGOs in Armenia that successfully addressed the threats facing the Shikahogh Nature Reserve last year.

The event was moderated by ATP Deputy Director Jason Sohigian–who said he and other environmental activists have been heartened by the increasing support of environmental issues in Armenia–both by the Armenian government and by the diaspora. On a local level–the ANC has become involved in environmental discussions and the Armenian Revolutionary Federation (ARF)–as part of the ruling coalition of Armenia–has placed more emphasis on environmental policy particularly through taking responsibility for the Ministry of Agriculture–said Sohigian who also noted that Yerkir Media has been championing the Armenian environmental cause.

Sohigian introduced the two panelists–who described the efforts of their respective organizations in protecting Armenia’s environment and natural resources.

Jeff Masarjian explained that during the Soviet era–Armenia did not have sustainable environmental policies–and there was a severe lack of public awareness about the problems that Armenia was facing–such as deforestation–pollution–and desertification. Although–he admitted–deforestation became a severe crisis in the early to mid 1990’s when there was a shortage of heating fuel and trees were cut down for fuel.

Masarjian explained that in Armenia–there are 8,800 species of plants–2,000 of which are used for healing and industrial purposes; 13 species of wheat; 260 species of trees; 7,500 species of invertebrate animals; and 500 species of vertebrate animals. He said that Armenia owed this unique–enormous biodiversity to the fact that it encompasses seven of the nine types of climate zones–and 40 percent of the types of landscape. But–due to deforestation–many of these animals are facing a loss of habitat–he said. Air quality and water quality have also drastically diminished over the years.

Masarjian explained–however–that Armenia lacks a system of checks and balances for environmental issues. The Forestry Department has not planted forests for a considerable while–and forests were recently placed under the Ministry of Agriculture instead of the Ministry of Nature Protection. He said that Armenia needs to restructure the government so that there is a separate ministry especially for the forests.

ATP has been working to rebuild the forests in Armenia–by planting vast areas of oak–maple–hornbeam–wild apple–and wild pear trees–all of which are indigenous to Armenia. Masarjian explained that it’s not safe to plant "monocultures," using one type of tree to repopulate the forests–because a tree disease could destroy the entire population. He also said that it is not enough just to plant the trees. The government needs to address poverty and community development issues so that people are not forced to cut down large amounts of trees in order to generate heat–create room for crops–or to build new housing.

ATP focuses heavily on education–so that people can understand the impact that losing forests could have on Armenia–as well as about the benefits of reforestation. ATP also houses an educational center in its Karin nursery in Armenia.

Jeffrey Tufenkian then detailed the consequences that deforestation has had on Armenia–including a change in the microclimate–floods caused by land erosion–and an increase in pollution levels throughout the country.

He said that people do not want to destroy the forests but–in many instances–they have been left without alternatives for reliable heating. Other options such as solar energy and wind energy have been considered–but have proven to be too expensive for Armenia at the present time.

The people of Armenia need to learn sustainable forestry practices–Tufenkian said. AFNGO focuses on educating the public through media advocacy. So far–the NGO has worked in ten communities to develop Armenian environmental action groups–to train citizens on trash disposal–tree planting–stream cleaning–and energy efficiency.

ATP and AFNGO recently scored a tremendous victory when they utilized the media to create worldwide awareness about the Armenian government’s proposed plan to build a highway that would destroy the Shikahogh Reserve during construction. It was the first time people spoke up and took action to make Armenia an environmental democracy–said Masarjian. Together with an international coalition of environmental groups and other agencies–ATP and AFNGO were able to persuade the government to use another route that would avoid going through a substantial part of the reserve. "It set a precedent for mobilizing the people," said Tufenkian.

For more information on the ATP–visit www.armeniatree.org. For more information about AFNGO–visit www.armenianforests.am. To learn more about the ANC visit www.anca.org.

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