Armenia Heeds Public: Highway Route Spares Ancient Forest

By Arevhat Grigorian

SHIKAHOGH, Armenia, July 11, 2005 (ENS) - The Armenian government has abandoned plans to build a new highway through a nature reserve after an unusual public outcry, led by local environmental groups.

In June, the government approved a road route linking Armenia and Iran, to the south, across the Shikahogh Nature Reserve.

Instead, the road will now circumvent Shikahogh and the Mtnadzor forests, where unique trees and plants shelter a small number of rare panthers.

The government was forced to bypass the reserve by adopting an alternate route that will add seven kilometers (four miles) to the original 89 kilometer (55 mile) projected length.


There was standing room only at the public forum at American University of Armenia, where NGOs expressed their opposition to a proposed roadway through the Shikahogh Nature Reserve in southern Armenia. (Photo by Photolur courtesy Armenia Tree Project)
Armenian environmentalists say avoiding Shikahogh will save 14,000 rare trees and hailed the climb down by the government as a major victory.

But Transport and Communications Minister Andranik Manukian said the plan to build the road through Shikahogh had been reconsidered not because of pressure from nongovernmental organizations, but due to so-called “strategic problems.” Some observers said the government was merely reluctant to admit a defeat.

“True, the government does not accept it in any way, but public opinion was the reason for the change of a decision,” said Sona Ayvazian, environmental policy expert with the Centre for Regional Development/Transparency International Armenia.

Vladik Matirosian of the local nongovernmental organization Khustup said deforestation would have caused four billion drams ($US8.8 million) in damage to the environment, and endangered many animals in the area.

“Because of land explosions and the construction machinery, the forest’s fauna would at best have fled the territory which is an impregnable, irreplaceable habitat,” said Martirosian.

Many species in Shikahogh - like the Bezoarian goat and the Armenian moufflon, a species of wild sheep, are indigenous to Armenia. The reserve is also home to between five and eight Asian panthers - an endangered species of which there are only 20 in the greater Caucasus.

The name Shikahogh, or orange earth, comes from the orangey, fiery red color of soil in the area. Scientists say the 10,000 hectares of forest help to moderate hot winds blowing from desert plains in Iran to the south. The vegetation is also influenced by air from the Caspian Sea to the east. These climatic conditions have created a mix of plants and animals unique to the region, they say.


In Shikahogh on June 10, members of the coalition to save the reserve encircled a plane tree estimated to be over 700 years old. From right: Armenia Tree Project (ATP) Founder Carolyn Mugar, ATP Foundation President Susan Yacubian Klein, Armenian Forests NGO President Jeffrey Tufenkian, and Thomas Samuelian of Arlex International (Photo by Photolur courtesy ATP)
The oldest parts of the forest in Shikahogh are 1,000 years old. The growth is so thick in places it blocks out almost all sunlight, so that deep in the forest even the brightest days can seem dark. Experts say the local ecosystem has been kept intact largely because of the region’s remoteness.

Shikahogh’s director, Ruben Mkrtchian, said the government dispatched construction machinery towards the reserve this spring. But Mkrtchian says that following appeals by him, his colleagues and the local office of the World Wildlife Fund, the government did not press ahead with delivery of the equipment.

A coalition of organizations and individuals, including Armenian Forests NGO, the World Wildlife Fund and Armenia Tree Project (ATP) a Massachusetts based reforestation NGO, worked together to identify viable alternatives to the proposed route.

Opponents of the plan then appealed to the president of Armenia, the chairman of the National Assembly and the prosecutor general, demanding the project through Shikahogh be scrapped. Some in Armenia say influential Diaspora figures lobbied extensively and met with President Robert Kocharian in an effort to overturn the decision to build the road.

The president of the Armenian Forests NGO, Jeffrey Tufenkian said, “Yes, we believe this is a great precedent. We would like to see the continuation of this kind of involvement by NGOs, international organizations, the Diaspora and the general public. If this kind of public participation continues, Armenia will have a great future.”

But Tufenkian said it remains to be seen whether the decision to cancel the road project through the reserve is part of a larger trend.


Armenia Tree Project founder Carolyn Mugar in the Shikahogh Nature Reserve (Photo by Photolur courtesy ATP)
“We are certainly glad that the highway will avoid the major part of the reserve, but we are still concerned that the processes seem to be happening in an illegal manner,” said Tufenkian.

“For such major projects the government is required by Armenian law to carry out proper environmental impact assessments. They are also required to analyze different possible routes, and they are also required to hold public hearings. When they took the decision about this new route, they seemed to be doing none of this.”

Although the public campaign appears to have contributed to a good result, the environmental coalition SOS Shikahogh is monitoring the implementation of the alternative route to ensure that adjacent habitats are not threatened by the proposed road. After visiting the site several times with engineers and activists, the coalition believes that with proper planning and implementation the road can be constructed while also protecting the natural environment of the region.

Armenian Forests NGO, the World Wildlife Fund, and Armenia Tree Project worked together to produce a 30 minute documentary on the Shikahogh Reserve, created by Vem Media Arts in Yerevan. A group of 350 invited guests previewed the film on June 29, and it was aired on Armenian TV last week.

{Published in cooperation with the Institute for War and Peace Reporting. Arevhat Grigorian is a correspondent for the newspaper website "Hetq" in Yerevan.}