BY JASON SOHIGIAN
Last month’s launch of the Global Forest Watch website was big news. Google, World Resources Institute, and a few dozen other partners are part of the effort. The site allows users to monitor deforestation in “near real time.” The big takeaway: global tree cover loss far exceeds tree cover gain. Data shows that the world lost 2,300,000 square kilometers of tree cover between 2000 and 2012, or the equivalent of losing 50 soccer fields’ worth of forests every minute of every day for the past 13 years. By contrast, only 800,000 square kilometers have regrown, been planted, or restored during the same period.
We welcome initiatives like GFW, which use cutting edge technology to make forestry data available to the public. This kind of transparency is essential to shine a spotlight on forest loss and to show areas where natural regeneration or reforestation has been successful. This information empowers citizens and is even valued by corporations that want to use sustainably harvested wood.
Now, what does the site show for Armenia? GFW shows that there was forest loss in Armenia over an area of 2,089 hectares and a gain of 1,276 over the period of 2000 to 2011. It’s interesting to note that the data relies on Landsat satellite imagery which has become an accepted source to measure forest cover globally. According to this data, Armenia has seen a loss of approximately 813 hectares of forest over this 12 year timeframe. For reference, a hectare is 2.47 acres or an area the size of a soccer field.
Armenia Tree Project has been planting in urban areas and towns since 1994 and launched its forestry program in 2004. ATP has planted a total of 4,455,869 trees to date at more than 925 sites in all regions of Armenia. Most of our forestry has been focused around 30 sites in Northern Armenia. Our forestry department has planted approximately 3,500,000 tree seedlings over an area of 850 hectares.
However, our seedlings have not even formed into forests with a canopy that would be recognized by satellite data at this resolution. There is no question we are losing forest cover and ATP is trying to turn the tide along with other partners. It’s also worth noting that Armenia’s Hayantar forestry department has been planting during this timeframe.
There have been other efforts to monitor forest cover in Armenia and the general conclusion was that that there has been a net gain in forest cover, consistent with what we have seen in other parts of Europe. However some experts in the environmental community have pointed out that the regrowth of forest has been a lower quality “coppice” tree which is almost like a shrub that has grown out of tree stumps. Setting the statistics aside, there is a consensus that Armenia needs to curb forest loss and that reforestation should be accelerated in order to restore our historic tree cover.
Some of the drivers of forest loss have been industrial logging, unsustainable livestock grazing, and the use of wood for cooking and heating fuel. Of course we recognize that people in rural areas rely on wood. At the same time forests are a renewable resource when they are sustainably managed and not overexploited. In addition to planting there are other strategies that may be deployed in order to reduce the pressure on forests. These include subsidizing the cost of natural gas for households, enforcing a ban on wood exports, and reducing tax on imported wood.
In general, we are in favor of initiatives like GFW that make the information about our forests transparent and publicly accessible. In the end we hope this draws attention to the issue of deforestation in Armenia and globally, and that it shows the importance of investing resources in protecting and restoring this important part of our natural infrastructure.
Clearly there’s a lot left to be done in Armenia to reverse deforestation. One thing we know is that sustainable management of our natural resources like forests will be more cost-effective than depleting the reserves and trying to fund environmental restoration programs. Particularly when some environmental impacts–like desertification caused by deforestation–are irreversible.
Jason Sohigian is deputy director of the Armenia Tree Project. He has a master’s degree in Sustainability and Environmental Management from Harvard University. His research on Payments for Environmental Services was adapted for a talk at TEDx Yerevan on “Redefining Our Economic Systems.”