It may seem hard to believe that anyone makes the environment a priority in Armenia.
The countryside is strewn with litter—so much that views of Mount Ararat from its valley are framed by the glistening of cellophane bags and plastic bottles mindlessly tossed as if they would be cleaned up by someone, or magically disappear.
Officials charged with protecting the environment attempt to railroad through toxic waste-producing industries, while others offer elite hunting tours of endangered species through protected nature reserves.
In August, a coalition of 42 local citizen activist groups successfully stopped a gold-processing plant notorious for pollution from being opened near Lake Sevan National Park.
This year the Armenian Tree Project, a Diaspora-created initiative, is celebrating its 15th anniversary, knowing they've planted more than three million trees countrywide.
Meanwhile, 80-year-old botanist Eleonora Gabrielian has personally trekked the country's hills and valleys to find, photograph and publish information in Armenian, English and Russian on Armenia's 3,600 wildflower species.
There are many successful champions of Armenia's fragile and diverse eco-system, and typical of the green movement in much of the world, they are sprouting from the ground up rather than coming from the top down. The republic's environmental activists' defense of nature links Armenia to a massive world movement aimed at protecting the planet.
"From billion-dollar nonprofits to single-person dot.causes, these groups collectively comprise the largest movement on earth, a movement that has no name, leader or location, and that has gone largely ignored by politicians and the media," writes Paul Hawken, author of "Blessed Unrest" and a scientist who has spent over a decade researching and documenting the world's environmental and social justice organizations.
"Like nature itself, it is organizing from the bottom up, in every city, town, and culture, and is emerging to be an extraordinary and creative expression of people's needs worldwide."
Armenia faces tough environmental challenges, but they are being met head-on by a small but mighty eco-army.
Protecting nature reserves
Lake Sevan National Park is technically protected by Article Ten of the Armenian Constitution for good reason, as it hosts not only a plethora of unique flora and fauna species, but also contains 90 percent of Armenia's drinking water. Yet that didn't stop a Russian plant from purportedly trying to open a gold-processing plant which would dump cyanide and other toxic chemicals a mere 10 kilometers from the lake.
Much of the negotiations would have been done in secret if not for a documentary showing the potential hazards of the project produced by Inga Zarafian of EcoLure, who calls her initiative a "PR company for the environment."
"It was a national movement, because the question wasn't just Sevan, it was the national security put on the table," says Zarafian, who has created many documentaries for use in the fight against Armenia's ill-treated ecology.
Her film and various protests to the government spurred the creation of SOS Sevan, a coalition of 42 Non Governmental Organizations, which closely followed the permits process for the proposed plant and urged government officials to talk about it openly, sounding the alarm when talks and report-gathering were done secretly. After a year of hard work, their efforts paid off when the Ministry of Environment rejected the company's proposed plan in August.
Over in southwest Armenia, advocacy and education groups scored a victory when it comes to protecting the Khosrov Nature Reserve, located in Armenia's verdant Ararat Valley and housing the Garni Temple Complex. While Parliament actually passed laws allowing hunting groups to kill endangered animals in the reserves, a Youtube video made by local activists in February showing a forestry employee hunting wild boar managed to create enough embarrassment to get the official fired and reserve officials reprimanded.
"Indeed, without the video evidence, it is unlikely that justice would have been served at all," wrote Simon Maghakian, a blogger, who recapped the incident on Global Voices, an edited international network of citizen journalists/bloggers.
A more productive project at the reserve is the visitor's center and training provided by the Armenian World Wildlife Fund Conservation office and the Norwegian government. The center provides information about Khosrov's many natural wonders—including the rare Caucasian mountain leopard—and serves as a jumping-off point to arrange picnics, hikes and guided tours led by local guides and tour operators trained on eco-tourism by WWF.
"Involvement of communities living adjacent to protected areas can considerably reduce the strain on natural resources there," said Siranush Galstian, the WWF staffer who helped organize the project.
The success of the Lake Sevan fight seems to be catching: citizen activists all over the country are now standing up and proclaiming to potentially toxic industries "Not in my backyard."
Edgar Yengibarian, for example, has organized a coalition of organizations in Hrazdan to fight a proposed metal-processing mine close to three schools and residential houses in a settlement less than two kilometers from the town. The proposed plant has raised environmental concerns that heavy metal processing will release dust into the air that can, at worst, cause cancer and serious respiratory problems as well as clog up the air and water supply. The chemical elements can remain in the soil and human body for decades.
"We all have a legal right to a healthy environment and our concerns should be taken into account," said Yengibarian, coordinator of Aarhus Environmental Information Center that initiated a "Save Hrazdan" movement consisting of 10 other acting NGOs. The coalition has initiated research and is pressuring the government to have public hearings on the proposed plant.
The impact of Armenia's energy crisis in the early 1990s is yet seen in the tree stumps left when nearly 12 percent of the forests were hacked down for firewood.
Hovik Sayadian, a forestry professor at the Armenian Agrarian University, claims the country is down to a mere precious eight percent of forests. "I have been upset to find out that records are misleading and don't give a real picture," he said. "Just use Google Earth and take shots of some places that are forests according to our government data and you will see none. Isn't it sad?"
Dr. Sayadian is urging government officials to take deforestation more seriously.
"We are a small country, and if the current deforestation rate continues, we will have none in 25-30 years."
Thank goodness, then, for the Armenian Tree Project (ATP), which started out with a simple goal of re-greening Yerevan public spaces in 1994 and blossomed into the biggest tree planter in the country. During its 15 years of operation, the organization has planted and restored more than three million trees at more than 800 sites around the country and created hundreds of jobs for impoverished Armenians in tree-regeneration programs.
Even better than planting new trees is to prevent existing ones from being chopped down. That's the goal of the Teghut Defense group, currently battling to save a 1,500-hectare [3705 acres] plot of Teghut Forest that the Armenian Copper Program plans to clear to create an open pit strip mine. Though the Ministry of Nature Protection has approved the project, the group immediately gathered 5,000 signatures to demand protection for the forest and is planning to fight to protect the forest to the end. "We are not going to surrender, because it's not only Teghut; it's a whole chain. If today we let the government get away with Teghut, tomorrow we will lose it all," said Mariam Aghajanian, a spokeswoman for the group.
There is less good news to report in this troublesome area. It took Yerevan city officials eight years to sign an agreement allowing a Japanese company to build a waste processing plant at Nubarashen, an untreated, unlined dumping ground in a millionaire's backyard. During that time, Armenians threw out 800 million tons of trash in Nubarashen or the nearest ravine.
The government might not be in a rush, but let's look at the impact on the average Armenian. That trash isn't just unsightly, but also dangerous, as different hazardous substances, causing everything from cancer to asthma, are emitted into the air when trash—particularly plastics—are burned, according to the Women For A Healthy Environment NGO. This busy organization made up of professional doctors and researchers has been documenting the various health hazards associated with Armenia's untreated garbage for years—from the dangers of burning plastics, to the presence of the banned pesticide DDT in women's breast milk.
"None of the waste dumps meets the minimal requirements for sanitation. Here they just dump the waste, and think it's done," says Lilik Simonian, a medical doctor working at the Armenian Women for Health and Healthy Environment NGO. They've been crusading for stricter standards on burning and burying trash, as well as educating people to use different trash disposal methods.
There are a precious few efforts being made to recycle plastics. Yuri Sahakian, director and founder of the PoliServ Company, uses plastic parts of old refrigerators, washing machines, telephone sets, and heels of shoes to produce construction materials. Sahakian says the enterprise he started in the town of Abovian 10 years ago offers more than 100 various types of products. The plant uses 5-10 tons of material a month to produce the stock, and half of it is recycled from old plastic parts. The businessman also plans to introduce technologies to recycle plastic bottles and packages when he can find capital for the project.
Organic, non-pesticide produce
Organic farming and organic produce are no longer a virtual concept for Armenia. The Armenian Women for Health and Healthy Environment NGO is not only documenting Armenia's health hazards, but also offering solutions. Specifically, they've been pushing pesticide-free food and healthy environment through monitoring, educational programs, workshops and seminars, publications for farmers, agronomists, rural working people and, most importantly, by practice for four years. Besides carrying out pesticide investigation in six key villages in the agricultural Kotayk and Ararat regions, the NGO has offered farmers alternatives to pesticides by training them, sending experts out to help farmers use organic methods and helping them sell their produce, says Lusine Nalbandian, an agro-ecologist working on the project.
Another organization dedicated to Armenia's organic food and agricultural development is Green Lane NGO. Besides assisting farmers in production and marketing of high-quality, competitive agricultural products using alternatives to pesticides via farmer field schools, local extension research groups and cooperatives, Green Lane also sells and delivers fresh produce grown in Tavush to customers based in Yerevan.
Organic produce is real in Armenian markets as well. Ecoglobe LTD is the first and only organic farming and produce organization in Armenia offering international organic certification. There are two ways companies get organic products—either by buying the products from certified farmers or through wild collecting from safe, pesticide-free zones after getting a map and information from the Ministry of Agriculture. In all cases, the products have to pass the certification process by Ecoglobe to be named organic. Among those producing organic products are Tamara Fruit, Yerevan beer, SIS Natural, Chir (Armenian dried fruits) and Amur Koriz LTD, selling fresh organic products, mainly fruits and vegetables.
Measuring and studying Armenian wildlife and plant life
"If Armenia's riches were measured in its number of wildflowers and migrating bird species, the country would be among the richest in the world," says Karen Aghababian, an avian researcher at the Acopian Center for the Environment, located at the American University of Armenia.
Despite its small size, Armenia, surrounded by gorges and mountain ranges, has a comparatively high level of biodiversity, with nearly 23 percent of plant and 10 percent of animal life unique to the area. The scientists and environmental academics at the Acopian Center, established by the Sarkis Acopian family of Pennsylvania, have worked since 1993 to identify Armenia's plant and animal life, producing the well-known "Birds of Armenia" book and promoting or assisting in countless projects to monitor Armenia's flora and fauna. That includes unusual research projects such as the white stork project, which enlists villagers living near the nests as researchers, recording key information about the birds. They also offer tours and seminars for anyone interested in learning about Armenia's rich environmental heritage.
"It's important to know what you have, so you can know what you have to lose," says former Acopian Center Director Dr. Jennifer Lyman.
"Poverty reduction and healthy and well-educated Armenians, along with rigorous protection of the natural environment, should be the goal of any post-Soviet society," she writes in a recent column for the periodical "This Month In Armenia."
"Regular visits to nature centers where children and adults can learn about nature and how it makes human life possible and beautiful should become an inherent part of Armenian life. Armenians can lead the south Caucasus region in implementing eco-solutions for the 21st century rather than stagnating in an economic model that never worked sustainably for any society."