by Arpi Harutyunyan
A wave of illegal logging is scalping the forests of Armenia. In the lush province of Lori, the air has become deadly from toxins spewed from an ill-equipped smelting plant. In Ararat, citizens complain that a factory is poisoning their soil. In Yerevan, green space has been eaten by uncontrolled development.
Armenia's ecological dark cloud is made even darker by polluted air, but a silver lining glistens . . .
At Lake Sevan—the diamond in Armenia's crown of natural gems—the tide against ecological decay is, literally, being turned.
In the 1990s, Lake Sevan was drained of 6.1 billion cubic meters of water for energy and agriculture—more than double its output in the previous decade.
As a result, the lake shrunk from 1,915.9 meters high to 1,896.46—a drop of 19.44 meters, noticeably visible as shrubs and beach replaced areas that had been under water. (By comparison, between 1949-1962—a time of intense development in Armenia—the annual decrease was only about 1 meter.)
Now, however, all a person has to do is look at the disappearing shoreline, to see that Lake Sevan is well on the way to recovery. In fact, last spring the water level threatened to cover the main road to Gavar, on the lake's southwestern border.
It is easy to see that the lake has risen, but not so easy, apparently, to calculate it. Official reports say its volume is up by 2.38 meters. National Academy of Sciences (NAS) reports say about half that much.
In any case, the trend heartens environmentalists who, during the mid-late '90s, feared that the republic's very existence would be threatened if the drain on Sevan wasn't corrected.
"In those years, plants that used to thicken and enrich the lake were exterminated; many fish, including trout, disappeared," says Rafael Hovhannisian, Director of the Institute for Hydroecology and Fishery at the NAS. "The quality of the water in the lake worsened and as a result became covered in algae, making it useless for agricultural purposes."
The scientist says the reversal of fortune is due to a natural factor—recent years have produced more rain and snow. The conscious effort to combat the draining by reducing industrial use has also produced positive results.
Hovhannisian says that, properly managed, Sevan will be restored to its natural level within the next 20 years.
At the Ministry for Environmental Protection, credit is being directed to the "Compound Program for Restoration of Sevan Ecosystem" that was developed within special legislation drawn to protect the lake, in 2001.
The restoration program is designed to increase the water level six meters by 2034, reaching 1,940 meters—the highest since 1957.
Good news for ecologists brings challenges for entrepreneurs who have built rest houses on shoreline that—if matters proceed as planned—will soon be under water. Hoteliers and other tourists-related businesses, however, are nonetheless eager to see Sevan reach its high-water mark.
"The government will compensate individuals and companies who have buildings above the 1908 landmark level and who have the right for construction there," says Deputy Minister for Environmental Protection Simon Papyan.
GREED OVER NEED
Armenia's forests are in no less danger today than its lake was 10 years ago. If it remains unchecked, the present-day widespread and unregulated logging will eventually lead to deforestation. Some say it already has.
When, in 1992-93, Armenians shivered in homes without fuel or electricity, even environmentalists looked the other way while trees were randomly cut for firewood. Today, though, ecologically minded Non Governmental Organizations say that the forests and groves suffer worse damage than in those dark days.
"Trees that are extremely important for reproduction are being logged today," says Hakob Sanasarian, chairman of the Greens Union of Armenia. "That is, instead of (cutting for procreation) or occasional cutting, trees are logged selectively. That means they choose the expensive woods."
Though often at odds with NGOs, even the government ministry charged with nature protection agrees that forests are in a crisis.
"Due to improper management, forests have become older and over mature," writes Minister of Environmental Protection Vardan Aivazian in his latest annual report. "In some areas they have been destroyed. Logging has resulted in the decrease of the forests' defense capabilities, (leading to) erosion, imbalance of the environment, as well as other negative processes."
Sanasarian says that cutting for need became indiscriminate slaughtering for greed when the energy crisis passed, but the profiteering off forests had just begun by exporters who sell off valuable hardwood to foreign furniture factories.
"The logging began spontaneously in the 90s," says Sanasarian. "Later it became systemized, and authorities centralized the monopoly of logging into their own hands. They began to import fuel wood to the Ararat Valley from the green regions of Lori, Tavush and Syunik to sell. This is how the exploitation of the forests began."
The pace of logging in Armenia's three forest-rich regions—Tavush and Lori in the northeast and Syunik in the south—leads World Bank experts and environmentalists to predict a total extermination of forests by 2036.
According to data of the Hyeantar ("Armenian Forests") Closed Joint Stock Company, the last census of forests in Armenia was conducted in 1993, before mass logging had reached its peak
. The company's own data (from 2001, its latest calculation), shows that 11.2 percent of Armenia is covered in forests. Zhirayr Vardanian, head of the Forest Science Department at the Yerevan Agricultural Academy, says that number should be 28-30 percent.
The Armenian Forests environmental NGO says nearly 1 million cubic meters of natural wood (nearly 8000 hectares of forests) are illegally cut every year.
Senior Forester of Armenia Ruben Petrosian says the last state-organized forest planting in Armenia was in 1988-1989.
"In those years there was practically no illegal cutting," he says. "First, there was no energy problem and even the logged trees would remain in the forests, because there was no demand for wood."
Today 47 percent of the forests in Armenia are in their middle age, 26.3 percent are mature, and over mature trees and the young trees make only 10.6 percent.
According to the specialists, the amount of young trees is evidence of insufficient natural reproduction. And logging has brought some types of trees to the edge of extinction. As a result, the density of the forests in Armenia is changing along with the types of the trees.
The predicted outcome, unless conditions change, is ominous.
"If the density of our trees decreases by just a few percent, the self-reproducing function of the forests will be lost and the forest as an ecosystem will cease to exist," says Petrosian.
Transition here . . . .
Armenia Tree Project (ATP) was founded in 1994, to offset current conditions and combat future damage to Armenia's forests.
Over the past 12 years, ATP has conducted educational campaigns, created ecology-related jobs, and has planted some 1.2 million saplings in an effort to stop the "desertification" of Armenia.
According to executive director Jeff Masarjian, ATP's tree-planting capacity will soon surpass 1 million trees annually. The program has also introduced an environmental curriculum in public schools, and is launching an aggressive public outreach campaign.
These initiatives, Masarjian says, are reaction to a critical need:
"Armenia's forests cover has reached an all-time low of less than eight percent of its territory, which is having a dramatic impact in terms of flooding and erosion, which lead to loss of agriculture."
ATP's programs, he predicts "will create the conditions for the restoration and preservation of the Homeland."
WHEEZING INTO THE FUTURE
Armenia's lungs are being clogged, and the result is that her children are having a harder time breathing.
Trees are nature's lungs. When the trees are gone, breathing gets harder because the air gets dirtier. Environmentalists warn that Armenia's air basin—itself a mini-ecosystem—has lost its self-cleaning function, and the population suffers the effect.
Healthcare workers say asthma and other respiratory ailments in Armenia have doubled over the past 10 years. Environmentalists say the reason is deforestation.
Children suffer first.
"Several years ago the youngest children with asthma were 5-6 years of age; in recent years we have found asthma also with 1-2-year-old kids," says RA Senior Lung Specialist Andranik Voskanian. "This is the reaction of the human body to changes in the environment."
According to data (from 2004, the latest) of the Ministry of Health, incidence of respiratory illness has grown by 45 percent from 2001-2004. In 2001, 5,108 people out of 100,000 suffered; by 2004, the number was 7,500.
Central Yerevan, seated as it is in a bowl and with a topography similar to that of the Lori town of Alaverdi, makes the population there particularly vulnerable.
In Alaverdi, the air is held in place by mountains, then pumped full of toxins by a smelting plant.
In Yerevan, pollution comes from too many vehicles in a confined space where green space has been sacrificed for commercial enterprises.
According to statistics, compiled by the Ministry of Environmental Protection and NGOs engaged in the restoration of forests, the green umbrella of the republic is rapidly decreasing. Data by the Social-Ecological Association NGO says that in 1986, Yerevan had 32 percent green space. By last year, it was only 7.6 percent.
"Yerevan is on the edge of environmental disaster," says former Minister of Environmental Protection Karine Danielyan. "The center of Yerevan has already turned into a zone of environmental disaster."
The environmentalist says ordinary citizens support her claim.
The Sustainable Human Development NGO led by Danielyan has interviewed 300 Yerevan residents on environmental issues. The survey has shown the largest concerns among 90 percent of the respondents are eradication of green areas as well as air and water contamination. The majority say bad urban planning is to blame.
When the daily afternoon wind in Yerevan stirs, its path is followed by eye-irritating and nose-clogging dirt particles that—on the worst days—cloud vision and leave a layer of dust behind.
Danielyan says that, because of the lack of trees, the climate in the republic becomes desert-like. Cars are also to blame.
In 2000, there were about 227,000 registered cars in Yerevan. By 2005 the number had grown to 300,000 (an increase of 32 percent), while the green areas of the capital were shrinking. The combination of these factors is responsible for 97 percent of air pollution in Yerevan.
Last year, new legislation went into effect designed to control vehicle emissions through annual inspection and penalties for violations. It is too soon to say whether the new rules have had a desired impact. Hardliner environmentalists say such control should never have been necessary.
"One shouldn't blame car exhaust for the air problems," says Hrant Sargsian, chairman of the Tapan Eco Club environmental protection NGO. "If the green areas were not destroyed, there would be no such crisis in Yerevan. If there were trees, the air basin would undergo self-filtration and would neutralize the exhaust."
Arguably, the worst air in Armenia is in one of its most beautiful regions, Lori. Residents in the town of Alaverdi say that their city resembles a gas chamber. Air quality specialists say residents' characterization is not far from the truth.
The Armenian Copper Programme smelting plant was shut down in 1988, partly due to the collapsing Soviet Union, but also because environmentalists had rallied against the plant's contamination of the air in the valley where the town rests.
"Our town is in a gorge and the exhausts of the smelter pour into the atmosphere and stay over the town," explains Rafik Ghazinian, president of the Debed environmental NGO, who was also among protestors of the plant in 1988.
During the years the plant was closed, air quality in Alaverdi remained constant at a healthy level. But within a year after the smelter reopened, concentration of air-carried toxins increased to at least 4.2 times the acceptable limits. (In fact, results of the Monitoring Center at the RA Ministry of Environmental Protection showed the concentration was 10.6 times more.)
The culprit of contamination is the 100-meter-high smokestack that is the town's most noticeable landmark. From it, 24 hours a day, sulfur dioxide billows into the environment, causing the destruction of trees, grass, and even honey bees.
Worse, residents of Alaverdi (population 22,000) have reported an increase in illnesses that can be traced to environmental conditions.
"The production separates tin, lead, cadmium, ferrum, molybdenum and arsenic. The combination of arsenic and sulphur dioxide and the cadmium causes cancer. Kidneys are also affected," says Emil Babayan, Head of the Toxicological Department at the Research Institute for General Hygiene and Professional Diseases. "Lead is an extremely toxic material that affects the human reproductive function: consequently, these agents can cause disfigurement and abnormalities."
Records show a parallel between the plant activity and health problems. For example, in 1992, when the smelter was idle, there were no cases of birth defects in the town. But in 2001, 28 cases of birth defects were reported in the town and surrounding area. By 2004, the number of recorded birth defects had grown to 107—a fourfold increase in three years.
In 2002, 360 cases of malignant tumors were recorded; in 2003, there were 392; in 2004, 411.
The ugly picture is almost the same with respiratory diseases: in 2001 the number of children under 14 suffering from such illnesses was 697. In 2003 the number doubled, reaching 1,389.
Today, representatives of the company that runs the plant dismiss criticism from the townspeople and health workers.
Last spring, a representative of the company, Andranik Ghambarian, told ArmeniaNow.com internet journal that pollutants from the plant are not related to the birth defects and other problems.
"This information is false," said Ghambarian. "No one can exclude the existence of emissions, but they don't cause damage. People spread such information because the plant at present has 10 times fewer workers than it had in previous times and the people are unemployed."
Nonetheless, a spokesman for ACP said the company is taking steps to clean up the air by installing filters to reduce contaminants. The project could cost as much as $50 million.
The Ministry of Environmental Protection does not deny the fact that Armenia has lost more in terms of environment than it has gained in the years of independence. But they say the impact of negligence has not only been felt, but is being addressed.
"The increase of the water level in Sevan, the ban on importing cars lacking exhaust neutralizers, the adoption of the list of prohibited hazardous wastes, chemical materials and chemical weed and pest killers and other matters, are among the tangible results that have been achieved in 2003-2005," says the 2005 report of the Ministry of Environmental Protection.