Life in Meghri is not as sweet as honey, as the name of Armenia’s southernmost town would suggest, nor is it as satisfying as the taste of locally grown fruit.
Spring reaches Armenia first in the “honey town” but this year it was not the coming of the season, but the coming of parliamentary elections that made residents eager for the passing of winter. Why? The only time authorities in the capital remember this part of their republic is during a campaign season, locals say.
Politicians come, give promises, then go to forget again, say bitter residents.
“And until the next elections we live with the hope that the promises will be met, then we lose hope and start looking forward to having new elections,” says 52-year-old Roza as she carefully arranges dried figs and persimmons that she hopes to sell and live off the income until the next yield comes.
In the sprawling Syunik province and separated from the Islamic Republic of Iran by the Arax River and a barbed-wire border, life in Meghri and surrounding villages is in nearly every way imaginable not at all like life in the Armenian capital. In fact, because of its unique, temperate climate, this part of Armenia is more like its southern neighbor.
The town of 4,500 nestled between towers of rock survives due to the sun and its soil, from which fruit grows sweeter and with less effort than in other parts of Armenia. But selling the produce has become the nemesis of gardeners who watch fruit spoil because Armenia’s infrastructure has gone bad, too.
In pre-independence times, three canneries worked in the three nearby towns, but today only one remains for the entire Meghri region—and it works at only 10 percent of its capacity.
This area has always been remote, if not isolated. Old-timers remember that during the Soviet times tourists had to get special permits for visiting Meghri, because it was the frontier of the USSR. Still, visitors came not only to see the horizon of the great empire, but also to enjoy fruits that were not produced in any other Soviet country.
In one of the ironic twists of independence, even people within the tiny republic that is today’s Armenia, don’t get to enjoy Meghri’s bounty, because the produce rots in isolation.
Meanwhile, orchard tenders such as 67-year-old Alvard Danielian watch trucks from Iran haul fruit north, while her fruit goes to waste.
“We toil throughout the year, we plant it, harvest it, and then it gets spoiled, we cannot take it to Yerevan because it is a long way off. As a result, our figs turn rotten, while they (retailers in Yerevan) bring figs from Iran on large trucks. This makes us feel so bad, because while our figs rot, they buy them from the Iranians,” Danielian says.
Danielian receives a meager monthly state pension of 26,000 drams (about $68) and has to fend for herself by also tending a few fig trees.
Tearing large, blue-green figs off the tree, she says, angrily: “There is no buyer for this fruit. They say there is a big factory across the border with Iran, and we could, too, export our fruits at least at some higher price, but it requires an agreement at the level of the two states. We’re like kids without parents. Who cares to come all the way down here and try and solve some problem?”
“All the way down here” is just 375 kilometers (233 miles), about the same distance as Washington D.C. to New York City. In developed countries, it would be a commute, but in Armenia it is a journey.
Selling but not satisfied
Farmers in Meghri complain about prices paid for their produce by the area’s only cannery. They do not sell their crops to the plant until they lose all hope of selling at a price they consider acceptable.
“Figs are purchased here at a price of about 40 cents per kilo, whereas in Yerevan, figs sell for $2. It is very unfair. They know we can’t get it to Yerevan; that before we reach Yerevan it will all get spoiled and we will have to dump it, and they in fact quote a price at which they would buy a dumped product,” says Sergey Vardanian, a 45-year-old father of five.
It is a buyer’s market, so long as there is only one buyer, Meghri Cannery, where once there were 300 employees but now just 44 who work only during summer.
But just the glimmer of life at the cannery is nonetheless a ray of hope here, as the shockwaves of the global economic storm a few years ago reached Meghri and the plant that exports more than 70 percent of its production saw a 50-percent decline in orders from foreign customers.
“In 2009 we were almost on the verge of closing. There were no orders, we could not afford to purchase fruit, while fruits were getting spoiled in the fields,” says Meghri Cannery director Grisha Grigorian. Since then the company has managed to regain some of its former markets and now its director proudly presents the types of products they make. “These are newly made fig marmalades that we will send to Ukraine, these are walnut jams that we are going to send to the United States, and within these production premises we prepare fig jams for Russia,” says the cannery director, leading a reporter on a tour of his plant.
When at the depth of the global economic recession in 2009 the cannery had to suspend its operations, the government came to Meghri’s aid.
Due to a loan of $105,000 from the Fund for Rural Economic Development in Armenia (FREDA), the cannery has managed to triple its production volumes compared to the crisis year of 2009. Last season it stored up three times as much fruit as two years before. Yet, the cannery’s management says they still cannot set higher fruit purchase prices, because doing so would raise the cost of production and would risk losing foreign markets.
“Whereas in 2009 the cannery produced only about $180,000 worth of production, last year  the total production exceeded $526,000. The number of jobs increased from 20 to 44,” says FREDA Executive Director Tigran Khanikian.
The cannery is now at the stage of re-equipping. Upgraded production and auxiliary facilities have been built, and workers are confident the cannery will qualify for the International Organization for Standardization certificate and will be able to gain new markets abroad. Technical upgrading is also planned—the cannery again received a soft loan of $130,000) for this purpose in 2011.
The cost of isolation
The support the cannery receives will eventually pay off in more work for the locals but, meanwhile, residents here bemoan a perplexing condition that they find particularly frustrating.
Apart from the fact that farmers in Meghri get the minimal pay for their agricultural produce, they in fact suffer a double cost-of-living impact, as goods imported from Iran are sold in Meghri at prices nearly twice as high as they are in Yerevan. For instance, the price of Iranian lemons that could be purchased for about 40 cents a piece in Yerevan, reaches about 80 cents in Meghri; a dish-washing liquid in Yerevan could be purchased for a dollar, while it is twice as expensive in Meghri.
Why? Because those Iranian trucks hauling the household goods or food products drive past Meghri and other southern regions on their way to clearing the state customs house, a day’s mountainous drive beyond, in Yerevan.
After clearing customs, the products are shipped back south, where they are ready for retail. Naturally, the time and travel accrues expenses. Still, folks in Meghri find it absurd that items produced practically in their neighborhood reach their store shelves carrying double the price they go for in distant and more affluent Yerevan.
“This issue has repeatedly been raised before the central government, but no solution has yet been provided,” says Meghri Mayor Sergey Hayrapetian, whose constituents want to see the government open a customs house on the Iranian border.
Another major problem also awaits its solution in Meghri. While most of Armenia’s territory, including some of the remotest populated areas, has been supplied with natural gas, the supply of this relatively affordable fuel is not available for Meghri yet.
“The Iran-Armenia gas pipeline also passes next to us, but we are deprived of it, too. We are the remotest and last to be remembered. They had promised to solve the matter before the (May parliamentary) elections,” says taxi driver Suren Movsisian.
Meghri is also left off tourist routes, because of its remoteness, but not because it has nothing to offer.
There are 65 monuments registered in this ancient town and nearby villages that are architecturally unique. Plus, the walls of 17th-century churches in Meghri’s old and new quarters bear frescoes by artists from the family of Naghash Hovnatanian, a renowned artist from the period whose works are also within the Mother See of Holy Echmiadzin.
“Meghri is naturally extremely interesting. The town architecture is very unique for Armenia but it is quite a long way off, and the road leading there is tortuous and difficult to drive, and that’s why it constantly gets ignored,” says Robert Minasian, chairman of the Association of Tour Operators.
Who will be the last to leave the village?
Only 17 kilometers (10.5 miles) away from Meghri, the village of Karchevan is facing depopulation. The villagers appear to have grown tired not only of struggling with nature, but also of being cut off from the rest of “civilization” and being ignored.
“When we gather in the center of the village, we often discuss who will be the last to remain in the village, who has so much patience and strength. Our young leave, and you can’t blame them. They want to live a good life, and here everything is dying out, says 74-year-old Karchevan villager Surik Ghazarian.
The Karchevan folks remember well what then Prime Minister Serge Sargsyan said while visiting their village as part of his 2008 presidential election campaign: “There are no remote provinces. What we have is a small area, and we ought to keep this area as the apple of our eye.”
“And who keeps it? Only ordinary people do,” says Ghazarian. “We stop cultivating land. And when a villager stops working on his farmland, it is only a matter of time before he leaves the village. Sometimes people need to be encouraged to cultivate their land through proper programs.”
Karchevan, a village of 90 households 417 kilometers (259 miles) from Yerevan, is not far from the border with what is modern-day Azerbaijan’s exclave of Nakhijevan. It has never been a big village, but Karchevan gets smaller, having dropped from about 500 residents to about 200 since independence.
The little village has a heroic past. Centuries ago, it fought against Persian rule, and the witnesses of that struggle are the ruins of a fortress that was built here as far back as the 12th century.
And in October 1920, Armenia’s prominent statesman, thinker and fedayee Garegin Njdeh waged a three-day battle near Karchevan to push the troops of Azerbaijan’s Khalil Pasha out and thwart Baku’s designs to conquer Zangezur.
But people today do not talk much about those heroic days, as they have plenty of survival challenges in their own day-to-day lives.
In Karchevan, villagers tend to be increasingly less engaged in farming, as problems with irrigation persist and cattle-breeding has become unprofitable—again because of problems with selling products.
“This remoteness, and being cut off from markets is a hindrance to achieving any result. Even reaching Kapan (the provincial center, about 100 kilometers—62 miles away) is difficult; besides, there is no large market there, and that’s why today we have only 15-20 heads of mature cattle in the village and as many heads of small cattle,” says Karchevan villager Armen Avetisian.
Apiculture—beekeeping instead, is quite well developed in the village. Karchevan has about 820 hives and most of the honey produced here is bought by Iranians—from some who cross the border, from the many tourists who have recently made Yerevan a destination, and from truck drivers.
Varos Soghomonian sustains his eight-member family by beekeeping. He says selling honey is no problem because the product is of a very high quality.
“The vegetation of our mountains gives plenty of good nectar so that the taste of our honey is unparalleled. That’s why I’m no longer looking for any markets; a few Iranians already know where I live. They come every year and buy the honey; I’m very satisfied,” says Soghomonian.
Oddly enough, the main source of work for people in Karchevan remains in industry. This is one of those rare rural communities where at least half of the population is employed in a plant in a nearby town—in this case, at the Agarak copper and molybdenum enterprise.
The plant is a salvation for about 900 workers in the area. They felt their dependence on the mine more acutely in November 2008, when all four mining companies of Syunik, including the one in Agarak, ground to a halt amid a major global economic downturn and plummeting international base metal prices.
The Agarak plant went through a nine-month downtime affecting some 800 workers, many of whom did not receive wages, while some would be paid only two-thirds of their wages.
“Those were hard times. People had simply been left without means of livelihood. And while people could shift for themselves in our village by doing something on the land or by keeping livestock, the town of Agarak was in a more terrible situation,” says Karchevan villager Zohrab Hayrapetian, who has worked at the Agarak plant for 32 years.
The plant resumed its operations in July 2009. As part of its anti-crisis measures, the government of Armenia issued a $14-million loan to the Agarak plant on the guarantee of its production capacities.
“It was a salvation, without which the plant would have simply been stifled by that crisis,” says Artur Nikoghosian, an advisor to the Agarak plant director.
Due to this stabilization loan, the company managed to pay its arrears of wages for several months, purchase new equipment and upgrade its production. In 2012 it plans to put into operation new hi-tech facilities fitted out with new automated tools, which the plant’s administration says will also reduce environmental damage and risks.
The four mining companies in Syunik help keep unemployment in the province lower than in other parts. According to official data, unemployment in this southern province is 23 percent, while in other provinces it is higher. For example, in the northern Shirak province of Armenia it reaches 47 percent.
However, mining activities have inflicted some serious damage to the province’s rural economy, as a lot of lands (the extent is currently being assessed) have been poisoned and become unfit for cultivation.
Environmentalists have repeatedly warned about hazards. In particular, tailings depots with toxic wastes of the plants operating in the province now occupy an area of more than 10 hectares (24 acres) of land, with three times as vast an area being affected by toxic leakage.
However, the difficult choice between agriculture and mining in this region has already been made, with the mining industry being the winner.
“Using the entrails of the earth today has become an evil, which is almost impossible to fight against, because it involves big interests and large money. The only thing that we can do today is save at least Meghri from this disaster; Meghri where such sweet fruit is grown that you cannot find it elsewhere in the country,” says leading environmentalist Karine Danielian, who heads the “For Sustainable Human Development”Association.
In Karchevan, meanwhile, they worry about the environment, but not as much as they worry about unemployment. The economic choice is simple: A mining job that pays $400-650 a month, or a farm life that may be more trouble than it is worth.
There are jobs, but the future is obscure, and many people leave so that their children can continue their education. As people in Karchevan say, they leave in order to be “closer to life, civilization.”
The village has a famous school, which was established well before the country’s Sovietization. The 130th anniversary of the school’s establishment was marked in 2011. But today this old school that once had about 200 pupils has only 29, which is fewer than even the number of pupils in one class at a Yerevan school.
There are grades that have only one pupil, while there were no first-formers at the beginning of the new school year in September 2011.
Artur Karapetian, an eighth-grade student, has not had a classmate for two years now.
“My class is one student, me. There is no one that I could even talk to at a lesson. I suffer, so I want to leave this place,” says Artur.
Young people do not see their future in the village. But there are also exceptions.
Forty-five-year-old Vanik Khachatrian has a rare family whose three sons have remained in the village and feel attached and determined to stay. The elder brother is married and has two daughters. The family is also unique because its members are engaged in factory work and farming at the same time.
“My wife and I have been working at that plant for 30 years now. My son is also employed by the plant, but we can’t pin all our hopes on it alone, as the last crisis is still fresh in our minds. That’s why we keep sheep and bees. It is very tiring. Sometimes you have to climb to the mountain pastures after a night shift at the plant,” says Khachatrian.
Gor Khachatrian, 25, graduated from the Yerevan Agricultural Academy. He is embarrassed by the limited opportunities in the village, but has found his life in the Internet, which is a rare thing in Karchevan.
“It is difficult in the village, you feel sort of like you are being buried young, especially when you see how active life of young people in the city is, what opportunities they have. “This is a border; if we all leave and go, Azeris will not think long before entering here. Simply, those in power should also think and remember that people live in borderlands and they, too, want to live it normally,” says Gor.