Armenian Government Road Would Slash Rare Nature Reserve

WATERTOWN, Massachusetts, June 7, 2005 (ENS) - The Armenian government has announced plans to build a new highway that bisects one of only three pristine forest reserves in the country. The plan alarms a Watertown based conservation organization that has planted hundreds of thousands of trees in Armenia since 1994.

The Armenia Tree Project warns that the government's chosen route for the highway would mean cutting at least 14,000 old growth trees and 90,000 younger ones.

In Armenia these numbers are significant, the group says, because while at least 40 percent of the country was once covered with trees, current estimates place forest cover at around eight percent. At current rates of cutting, "the last of the forests could be gone in as little as 20 years," the Armenia Tree Project predicts.

The new highway is planned to take a route across the Mtnadzor Forest that covers a third of the Shikahogh reserve in southern Armenia. Established in 1958, the reserve is inhabited by rare and endangered plants and animals.

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Southern Armenia's Shikahogh reserve is the planned site of a new highway. (Photo courtesy World Wildlife Fund Armenia)
Today, as many as 12 leopards live in the Shikahogh reserve, and the Armenia Tree Project says their habitats would be disturbed by the road’s construction and the resulting traffic pollution.

The organization's founder Carolyn Mugar sent a letter on May 25 to Armenian President Robert Kocharian and Prime Minister Andranik Margaryan, with copeis to the minister of nature protection, the minister of transportation, and other top officials.

“The Shikahogh forest reserve provides unique habitats for many rare and endangered plants and animals whose survival depends upon the government’s responsible stewardship," wrote Mugar. "We call on you to protect this reserve for the sake of future generations of Armenians and the world’s ecosystem.”

"Any gains that may be realized by building this road through the preserve will be far outweighed by the long-term environmental and political damage that Armenia will suffer," Mugar wrote.

A coalition of organizations and individuals, including the Armenia Tree Project, Armenian Forests NGO, the World Wildlife Fund, and the Armenian Assembly of America have been working together to identify viable alternatives to the proposed route which would do less environmental damage.

They are asking that the government halt the plan to begin immediate construction until public hearings can be held.

The Armenian government has cited “strategic” reasons for routing the highway through the reserve, but the plan has not only aroused resistance among conservationists, it has caused a split in the government.

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Formerly forested, this area of Armenia is now barren. (Photo courtesy Armenia Tree Project)
To date, the Ministry of Transportation and the Ministry of Defense have stated their intention to move forward with construction plans and ignore any proposed alternatives.

In response, Minister of Nature Protection Vardan Ayvazyan has announced his intention to resign if the road is constructed through the Shikahogh reserve.

This stated determination to ignore alternative routes has led conservationists to question the true motivation for the government’s plan, given the financial value of the oak trees from the old growth forest that will be destroyed to make way for the road.

The Armenia Tree Project points out that running the highway through the reserve "would violate numerous national laws and internationally signed treatises to protect such nature preserves, which are widely regarded as part of a national heritage."

“The construction of the proposed road through the preserve will introduce pollution from passing vehicles into this almost pristine forest, destroy the habitat for rare wildlife and migratory paths, and attract illegal logging, depriving future generations of Armenians of an irreplaceable resource," wrote Mugar to the Armenian officials.

"The encroachment by illegal loggers has already destroyed much of Armenia’s forests during the past decade,” Mugar wrote in her letter, which was also sent to government officials by Armenian Assembly of America Chairman Hirair Hovnanian.

The Armenia Tree Project (ATP) says currently 70 percent timber cut in Armenia is used for heating because alternate fuel sources are not available. In cities such as Yerevan, residents desperate for fuel cut at least two million trees during the energy crisis of the early 1990s.

"Once beautiful parks have now turned to ecological graveyards devoid of greenery. Today, they collect debris, invite vandalism, are aesthetically offensive, and are vulnerable to erosion and further environmental degradation. If this trend continues, Armenia will turn into a desert wasteland in an estimated 20 years," the organization says.

To combat the deforestation, the Armenia Tree Project is producing 40,000 indigenous trees each year on formerly barren plots of land in refugee villages, where two of their tree nurseries are located, and planting trees throughout urban communities.

Mugar

In Aygut, where Armenia Tree Project has established backyard tree nurseries with local residents, ATP Founder Carolyn Mugar urged Armenians everywhere to participate in the organization's Trees of Hope campaign in observance of the 90th anniversary of the Armenian Genocide. April 11, 2005. (Photo courtesy ATP)
A rural tree planting program has been launched in Aygut, near Lake Sevan. Armenia Tree Project Executive Director Jeff Masarjian says that deforestation there has reached crisis proportions and villagers are struggling to fend off poverty.

The forests of the area's Getik River Valley shelter the Lake Sevan watershed, which although deforested, can still be salvaged, the Armenia Tree Project believes.

Masarjian says the organization works by partnering with communities like Aygut to replant the native forests.

In Aygut, families will earn a living by planting and nurturing tree seedlings in a program intended to gradually transform the entire community into a forest nursery.

Already, villagers have gathered over 80,000 seeds of 12 local tree species, including wild apple, wild pear, walnut, linden, hazelnut, and cherry, to be sprouted in 18 forestry nurseries. The resulting 20,000 seedlings will be planted in Aygut’s declining forests this fall.

Find out more online at: www.armeniatree.org

The Armenian Ministry of Nature Protection is found at: www.mnpiac.am