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Armenia reckons with climate change and its Soviet past through reforestation

A four-year fuel blockade in the 1990s threatened the tiny country’s forests. Ever since, it’s been replanting its trees—a task that’s more complicated than expected.

ByAlissa GreenbergNOVA NextNOVA Next
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Saplings at Karin Nursery outside Yerevan, Armenia. Image courtesy of the Armenia Tree Project

Thirty years ago, Ashot Avagyan and his family left their Baku home in the dead of night with only their passports, hoping to make it to the Armenian border safely. In their hurry to escape, they left the rest of their belongings behind in their apartment in Azerbaijan, joining the stream of ethnic Armenians crossing the border to escape from violence that was tilting toward ethnic cleansing.

After a difficult journey, Avagyan and his family settled at a refugee camp with 100 other families in Karin, a dusty gray-brown outpost in the desert outside of Yerevan, Armenia’s capital. For a while, Avagyan worked odd jobs, but his family could barely make ends meet. He even traveled to Russia to try construction work there but found the work isolating and poorly paid.

Finally, he and his wife were offered work at a nearby nursery run by the Armenia Tree Project (ATP), an American-Armenian NGO. Born and raised in a city, they had never worked with plants before, but they soon learned how. “It’s so good to know that I grew those seedlings, and now they’re growing somewhere else, making this country green,” Avagyan says.

That's especially meaningful because Armenia has worked for the last 25 years to reforest after a war-torn period in the 1990s denuded significant swaths of the already semi-arid country. ATP has led the charge, providing trees for public lands in 1,200 communities around the country (which is slightly larger than Vermont), teaching basic ecology and forestry to 23,000 Armenian students, and marking its six millionth tree planted last fall. Around the same time, Armenia’s newly formed parliamentary government (the result of a peaceful 2018 revolution) committed to doubling existing tree cover by 2050. 

This commitment marks a cultural transformation in a country that continues to struggle with desertification and illegal logging. As it marks a quarter century of reforestation, this “new” Armenia is beginning a slow transition away from the monoculture forestry of its Soviet past. In joining the burgeoning global effort to green the planet and fight climate change, it must reckon along the way not just the ecological but also the philosophical and cultural complexities of planting trees. 

Man carrying two saplings across a field

Tree propagator and dendrologist Gev Zaroyan in the field. Image courtesy of the Armenia Tree Project

Armenia has never been heavily forested. Much of the country looks like New Mexico: semi-arid desert, scrubby and dry but shot through with fast-moving rivers and a scattering of snowy mountains. The archaeological record indicates that for millennia, starting 6,000 years ago, the country boasted 35% forest cover. Slow, gradual deforestation—likely for agriculture—reduced that number to 11% by the 1980s, even as Soviet rule brought huge monoculture plantations (tracts of a single species, usually pines) to the region.

During that period, Armenian foresters followed Soviet protocols in growing huge numbers of seedlings in vast 300-hectare nurseries (by one estimate some 40 million per year), in an attempt to green the country and counteract a wave of illegal logging. The Soviet model also included the central training of foresters in Russia, who were then sent out in what University of New Hampshire forestry professor Anthony Davis calls a “colonial exercise” across the USSR. In many cases, their goal was cajoling pine seedlings evolved for the steppe out of many differing climates and ecosystems—seedlings chosen for their hardiness and the quality of their wood, but also because they represented Moscow. 

Then came the so-called “Dark Years,” from 1992 to 1995. The USSR fell apart; an earthquake destroyed much of Armenia’s infrastructure; and Azerbaijan and Turkey declared war and created a fuel blockade, cutting Armenia off from its supply of natural gas. (Recently flaring tensions that have killed and injured hundreds in both Armenia and Azerbaijan date to this period.)

“Trees were cut right in the middle of the city,” remembers Armenian-American activist Carolyn Mugar. “It was like the arms and legs of the city were being amputated.” 

Desperate for warmth and fuel to cook with, Armenians turned to their trees. “Trees were cut right in the middle of the city,” remembers Armenian-American activist Carolyn Mugar. “It was like the arms and legs of the city were being amputated.” 

All over Yerevan, “you would wake up in the morning and where there had been a tree in front of your window, it was gone,” says Vardan Melikyan, Armenia’s Deputy Minister of the Environment. In some areas, neighbors organized watches to protect their trees from destruction. Melikyan’s neighbor found cutting down local trees too painful and instead burnt his parquet floor.

By the time the crisis neutralized in 1995, the country’s forest cover had decreased to 7%. And the problem wasn’t just the extent of loss. “Areas that were forested lost quality; lots of species disappeared,” says Hasmik Khurshudyan, Chair of Forestry and Agroecology at the Armenian National Agrarian University. Even villagers that weren’t desperate for fuel often cut down old-growth trees to sell and support their families. Mugar decided the best way to help her country was to start with its trees. 

A quarter of a century later, ATP remains at the forefront of Armenian reforestation efforts, known in particular for the outreach and community education it builds into its programs. It’s joined by Hayantar, the Armenian government’s forestry arm; the Foundation for the Preservation of Wildlife and Cultural Assets (FPWC); and a constellation of international NGO projects. 

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The diversity of current Armenian forestry initiatives begins to hint at the crossroads the country faces in its tree planting, Davis, the forestry professor, says. FPWC, for example, has planted 25,000 wild fruit trees since 2016. As part of its larger work preserving keystone species like the Caucasian leopard and Syrian bear, the organization aims to prevent crop raids and diffuse human-wildlife conflict by providing sustainable food sources for bears and other foragers outside villages. In contrast, the majority of Hayantar’s holdings are still mostly monoculture, grown in large plantations and more or less following the Soviet model. “If you go into one of the nurseries, it feels like you’re in Russia,” Davis says. “The Russian school approach—same equipment, same species, same guidelines and handbooks.” 

This spring, the three organizations worked together to tackle the adverse effects of COVID-19 by paying rural communities across the country to plant 2 million willow cuttings along river beds. For FPWC Project Manager Sona Kalantaryan, it was a glimpse of how well things can go when all the players cooperate. “Willow cuttings grow very simply, and they’re a very important species but not endangered,” she says. “It was an easy way to help both the people and the environment.”

Young pine trees in rows outside a greenhouse

Pine saplings growing at ATP's Khachpar nursery near Yerevan. Image courtesy of the Armenia Tree Project

Today, ATP has grown from its humble beginnings into a network of four large commercial-grade nurseries and an office employing 80 people—plus smaller backyard nurseries scattered throughout the country that sell established saplings back to ATP. Three of the nurseries grow seedlings for ATP’s community tree planting program, providing urban and semi-rural forests in Armenia’s cities and villages. The fourth is specifically aimed at large-scale reforestation. Each nursery focuses on one type of tree: one grows mainly fruit trees, another evergreen, another more decorative species. 

Production is dictated by space and agricultural cycles, explains Gev Zaroyan, a propagator and dendrologist at ATP’s Khachpar nursery near Yerevan. While some plots host seedlings, others are rejuvenated with crops of beans or peas. Meanwhile, other staff members talk with communities interested in receiving trees about how to meet their needs and work with GIS systems to identify areas for more extensive planting, where forests might once have grown during the country’s greener eras. 

Zaroyan also oversees the backyard nursery program, helping a rotating cast of 35 families plant and replant until they’ve coaxed established trees from cuttings or seeds. Each family grows about 30,000 trees at a time, which ATP buys back once they mature. There are about a million saplings growing across the entire program at any given time. 

“Especially in northern Armenia, there’s a lot of poverty and lack of jobs,” Zaroyan says. “They’re able to cover a lot of expenses this way.” ATP has also harvested some 7.5 million pounds of fruit from its trees, a harvest that has helped alleviate the lingering food and income security that persists in some parts of Armenia. 

The program helps address not just reforestation, food security, and unemployment issues, but also preservation efforts in Armenia’s few remaining forests, he adds. “When we work with these families, we sow seeds in their minds. The people who grow trees for us won’t go into the forest anymore to chop trees down. Now that they know the value, they’re more thoughtful about it.”

Three people near young patch of trees.

Tree propagator and dendrologist Gev Zaroyan talks with a backyard nursery owner in northern Armenia, where many of ATP’s backyard nurseries are. Image courtesy of the Armenia Tree Project

With this system well established and gaining momentum, ATP celebrated 6 million trees last October with a forestry conference in Yerevan. “From an Earth systems science perspective, 6 million trees is a rounding error,” says Guy Hydrick, a Ph.D. candidate preparing a dissertation on ATP forestry who attended the conference. Khurshudyan takes an even more skeptical tone, saying reforestation efforts thus far barely makes up for continued widespread illegal logging. Still, Hydrick and others in the field recognize the significance of that achievement in an Armenian context. In this case, he argues, the “raw number of trees isn’t necessarily the best metric."

Kenya’s Green Belt movement, for example, may have planted 51 million trees since 1977, but “there haven’t been so many deliberate attempts to reforest arid areas,” says David Mathenge, a project officer there and conference attendee. Mathenge says his work has mostly focused on places where trees thrive without a lot of support—places that are plentiful in Kenya, which sits on the equator, but not in Armenia. 

Places like Armenia are “starting from scratch,” adds Maya Nehme, Director of the Lebanon Reforestation Initiative, whose work is often cited as parallel to that of Armenia because of Lebanon’s similar climate and size. “A lot of the land has lost its soil; you can’t just plant everywhere.” 

Armenia’s new administration celebrated ATP’s milestone by establishing a goal of doubling forest cover in the next 50 years, including 10 million trees in 2020 alone, a goal complicated by the COVID-19 pandemic and recent renewed hostilities with Azerbaijan. Melikyan, the Environment Minister, hopes the project will draw on global examples—from Kenya, its focus on community involvement; from Lebanon its scientific approach—and foster cooperation. “This is not someone’s, or one organization’s, task,” he says. “It’s a national-level thing; we’re talking about 10% of our country’s territory.” 

Small pine forests on distant mountains

Soviet-style pine plantations (dark patches in the distance) viewed from ATP’s Mirak nursery in northeastern Armenia. Image courtesy of the Armenia Tree Project

At the conference last fall, Melikyan stressed that the government’s 50-year goal is “not about doubling forest cover by planting one billion pines.” His vision, he says, includes forest with hundreds of species, in some places emphasizing landslide prevention, in others tourism or wood production. Still, by spring of this year, Kalantaryan of FPWC had heard that the administration was maintaining plans to import 90% of its first 10 million trees and that most of them would be pines. (And not long after that, the administration delayed its 10 million tree goal entirely.)

“To me this is kind of catastrophic because this could be very damaging to the ecosystem,” she says. “Yes, it’s simple: We know pine grows easily, and we know how to grow it. But this is not the way we should go.” She had hoped to see the government working with more endemic species—perhaps juniper, to replace the native juniper forests lost in 2017’s calamitous forest fires.  

Kalantaryan feels the government’s goals are admirable but misplaced. “I don’t think it’s a good approach to talk about numbers in this case,” she says, wondering if Armenia even has the capacity to care for that much forest as it matures. “And before doubling these forested areas, we need to know what we want to double.” 

When Armenia looks to the future, does it want tree cover—more trees of whatever kind, probably pines—or forest cover full of oaks, birches, native plants, and all the ecological complexity that entails?

That’s an issue being raised in many parts of Armenia’s forestry sector. “The one question I would ask is: Why?” Hydrick says. “Why do you want to plant forests?” Other than the intrinsic value of a tree and the general desire to combat climate change, he says, “in order to measure success you need some kind of goal or function you want them to perform—natural beauty, carbon sequestration, biodiversity, fuel.”

The question of Armenia’s future forests, then, becomes one of almost philosophical proportions. Without a shared vision for its forests, Armenia may revert to the pine forestry it knows—perhaps out of a kind of post-Soviet longing, or simply an attachment to that which is familiar and reliable. The tradition still exerts a draw “at kind of a soulful level, because for some generations it’s what they would have done as kids,” Davis says. Much of Hayantar’s holdings are still pine plantations, and some 20% of the trees ATP has planted are pine, though the trees did not evolve to grow there and growing in monoculture makes them vulnerable to disease. 

Still, Davis sees the new forestry goals as an opportunity for self-reflection. “Do we double down and scale everything we’ve done for the last 25 or 50 years, or are we going to take the time to figure out what we want the future condition to be?” he asks. When Armenia looks to the future, does it want tree cover—more trees of whatever kind, probably pines—or forest cover full of oaks, birches, native plants, and all the ecological complexity that entails?

Nursery worker bent over row of saplings

A worker at ATP’s Karin Nursery outside Yerevan. All the workers at Karin are refugees from the previous conflict with Azerbaijan. Image courtesy of the Armenia Tree Project

The Hrant Dink Memorial Forest in northern Armenia is made up of 53,000 pines—1,000 for each year the journalist and free speech activist Hrant Dink lived before his assassination on a Turkish street in 2007. In traditional Soviet style, its trees march in dense, careful lines over the crest of an otherwise bare green hillside, above a two-lane road crisscrossed by the occasional wandering cow. 

Considering the forest from the road, Davis looks concerned. He cranes his neck to look at their scraggly, browning tops and declares them "much worse" than when he saw them three years ago, victims of a disease affecting many of Armenia’s monoculture plantations. Planted this close together, the pines will crowd each other out, he notes. This forest, one of ATP’s earliest projects, will need to be thinned, even as the organization shifts away from monoculture.  

Down the hill from Hrant Dink in the village of Margahovit, those shifting priorities are on display. The nursery still shelters lines of furry spiky baby pines, set out in the chilly fall air to get used to the climate—as well as rows of infant apples, pears, and cedars, their leaves a blinding green. Students from nearby schools often visit to learn about ecology and agriculture, peering at the cedar saplings in the greenhouse and learning about tree anatomy in a series of bright classrooms overlooking hills draped in polygons and triangles of pine.

As of 2017, 72% of all the trees ATP had ever planted were still alive, a survival rate well above the international average. FPWC’s rates approach 98%. That’s in part because Armenia’s forestry culture has community support baked into its process, Hydrick says. ATP’s plans for new plantings, for example, include the usual ratings of soil and water quality—plus community enthusiasm. Community outreach is huge. If they don’t have community buy-in, they don’t plant the site.”

Davis, Hydrick, and Nehme all agree that this enthusiasm, shared across NGOs and government agencies working on high-level policy, as well as nursery workers and volunteers on the ground, is Armenia’s true reforestation success. “When you have all those different oars rowing in the same direction, that’s exciting to be part of,” Davis says. 

Disclosure: Alissa Greenberg received a grant from the organizers of the Armenian Forest Summit (including the Armenia Tree Project and the American University of Armenia) to attend the conference in October 2019.

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