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Saving Armenia's Forests

In Focus, July 2, 2007

By Kellyn Betts

Approximately half of the land slated to become the Republic of Armenia’s first model sustainable forest was planted this spring as part of an effort supported by the Critical Ecosystem Partnership Fund (CEPF) to help reduce desertification in the country.

By late 2008, the knowledge gleaned from the project is on schedule to be codified in the country’s first sustainable forestry manual, which may ultimately prove useful to other countries beyond Armenia’s borders in the Caucasus biodiversity hotspot.

The Armenia Tree Project (ATP), a nonprofit organization committed to preventing deforestation in Armenia, planted the area near the small village of Margahovit in northern Armenia. CEPF supported ATP as part of its strategic direction of implementing models demonstrating sustainable resource use in five target corridors in the hotspot.

Project leaders hope that the forestry manual will increase the amount of knowledge about Armenia’s forests, encouraging communities to protect their natural resources as well as providing them with the plans and ability to manage them.

Risk of Desertification

In 2002, Armenia’s Ministry of Nature Protection released a report that stated that up to 80 percent of the country is at risk of desertification.

"The climate in much of… Armenia is not suitable for forests anymore. The climate has changed over the centuries, which has brought on an expanding desert landscape," said Jeff Masarjian, ATP’s executive director and the team leader of the CEPF-supported project.

The 20-hectare plot set aside for ATP’s project represents "quite a large area for small Armenia," Karen Manvelyan, director of WWF-Armenia, said.

ATP’s reforestation activities engage local communities. The organization first grows and nurtures trees at state-of-the-art nurseries across Armenia, then partners with residents to plant trees in areas that have been severely depleted of greenery. Local residents are trained and employed in forestry activities such as coppicing stumps of trees that were cut down in public areas.

Masarjian said that the forest site should be fully planted by late 2007 with Caucasian pine, beech, maple, oak, chestnut, ash, walnut, apple, and pear trees, all of which match the mix found in existing forests.

Partnering with Yale University

A key component of this project is the development of a partnership between ATP and the Global Institute of Sustainable Forestry at Yale University School of Forestry and Environmental Studies.

In addition to working together on the model forest, ATP and the institute will incorporate results and lessons learned into the sustainable forestry manual. The manual will include area-specific technical tools for creating a sustainable community forest, and rangeland management plans that consider the decision tradeoffs among economic development, biodiversity, and land conservation.

"Everything we’re doing is going to culminate in [the manual, which] will be used to train forestry students in Armenia, professional foresters, and communities living in close proximity to the forests," Masarjian said.

Supplement to Armenian Forest Policy

The manual is expected to have a significant impact because “the idea of sustainable forest use is set forth in the [2005] forest code of the Republic of Armenia, but its [practice] is still limited due to the lack of up-to-date knowledge/skills,” Siranush Galstyan, a conservation officer with WWF-Armenia, said.

The forest code was designed to counteract the effects of the widespread deforestation that began after Armenia declared its independence from the Soviet Union in 1991. An assessment of Armenia’s forest cover published in International Forestry Review in 2005 pegged it at 7 to 8 percent, an all-time low.

"Forest use and management in Armenia has gone largely unchecked since the collapse of the former Soviet Union and subsequent creation of a sovereign Republic of Armenia," Zachary Parisa, a graduate student in Yale’s School of Forestry and Environmental Studies, said.

Poor economic conditions increased the pressure on forest resources as fuel wood for heating and cooking, as well as a source of income through logging. While national policies were created to help alleviate the economic conditions and reduce ecological impacts, the government lacked the resources to enforce such policies, resulting in a common public disregard for forest use.

Building Community Management Plans

The manual is intended to help communities implement an important new provision in the 2005 Armenian forest code, which "allows communities to gain management rights to forest land within their community bounds if they can, among other things, tender a sustainable forest management plan," Parisa said

Masarjian believes that, because other countries in the Caucasus Hotspot all share the same broad ecosystem, the manual could eventually prove valuable for forest management in Georgia, Iran, Iraq, and Turkey.

Parisa, who is spending the summer in Margahovit, is working with foresters as well as seven students from the new forestry school at Armenia’s State Agrarian University to identify and document plants in the existing forests. One of the goals is to catalog non-wood products that can be harvested sustainably, such as mushrooms, herbs, and leaves and flowers for teas.

Masarjian hopes that in time, this may result in some sustainable micro-enterprises for the villagers. The project is already employing villagers from Margahovit in the reforestation effort.

"When people begin to understand that they can generate income by protecting, preserving, and managing the forests sustainably, they are going to be much less likely to allow for the forest to be exploited unsustainably," Masarjian said.

For more information:

  • Contact , Executive Director, ATP
  • Learn more about ATP’s work with community tree planting.
  • Read ATP’s recent newsletter, Trees for Life (PDF, 1 MB).

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© CI, Kelly Keehan
Forests are the most important biome for biodiversity conservation in the Caucasus Hotspot, covering nearly one-fifth of the region.

© Jeff Masarjian
Residents of the Armenian village of Margahovit assist in replanting efforts.

© Hawk Khatcherian
ATP selected and prepared a 20-hectare site near Margahovit for planting a demonstration forest with native species.

To find out more about CEPF’s work in this hotspot, visit the Caucasus section of our site.

Visit the News & Feature Archive for this hotspot.

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Photo credits for banner images: (Frog) © CI, Haroldo Castro; (Chameleon) © CI, Russell A. Mittermeier