Friday, August 1, 2008

A working visit to the Republic of Armenia...

Hundreds of rural families in the Getik River Valley are growing seedlings that ATP will purchase for reforestation in the nearby hillsides (Photo by Jason Sohigian)

I had the good fortune of conducting in a working visit to the Republic of Armenia on July 17-21 to inspect the nurseries and tree planting sites overseen by Armenia Tree Project, and to attend the inauguration of the Mirak Family Reforestation Nursery in the northern region of Lori.

ATP’s new reforestation nursery in Margahovit Village has the capacity to produce over one million tree seedlings per year, and it has already played an integral part in the organization’s partnership with Yale University’s Global Institute of Sustainable Forestry funded by the Critical Ecosystem Partnership Fund.

The inauguration was attended by Robert Mirak and his sister Muriel Mirak-Weissbach, who were traveling with a large group of diasporans, and it was publicized widely by Armenia TV, Armenia Now, Armenian Reporter, and other local media. In addition to this nursery, ATP is planning to establish a new Ohanian Environmental Education Center in the same region.

This church is lost in the forest on the way to one of ATP's remote forest planting sites--the pieces are scattered around the area and were inventoried in Soviet times (Photo by Jason Sohigian)

For three days I traveled with reforestation staff Robert Alexanyan and Vadim Uzunian to inspect the 12 forest sites in Northern Armenia established by ATP since 2004. In addition, we visited 15 of the 400 rural families in the Getik River Valley who are growing seedlings for ATP in the Backyard Nursery Program that was awarded the Energy Globe Award for Sustainability, as well as the community fruit orchards established by ATP and the environmental youth clubs in the regions where we are doing reforestation.

One highlight of the trip was a visit to the site of the Mkhitar Ghosh Vank, which dates from the 9th-11th century. The building stones and khachkars are broken and scattered all over the site, and the church was relocated after an earthquake, when a new church was established in Ghosh village. There are numbers on some of the stones, since an inventory of the site was apparently done in Soviet times.

We met with the forester Gagik Amiryan on a Saturday afternoon at his office in Vanadzor, where he explained the use of demonstration plots to show the importance of trees in agricultural systems (ie. improving grazing land, creating shaded areas, fruit and timber production, crop protection, community nurseries, and community education). Gagik recently participated in a program in Canada coordinated by Adrina Ambrosii called Building International Bridges for Forest Futures.

I visited the botanist Nora Gabrielyan at her home on Sunday so she could sign a copy of her new book “Flowers of the Transcaucasus and Adjacent Areas.” This magnificent book co-authored with Ori Fragman-Sapir highlights 623 plant species from Armenia, Eastern Turkey, Southern Georgia, Azerbaijan, and Northern Iran with color photographs and descriptions, and it is available at select shops in Yerevan and from the publisher Koeltz Scientific Books. Dr. Gabrielyan is currently working on the 11th volume in a series documenting the 3,500 species of plants in Armenia. In the evening I saw Arto Tuncboyaciyan and the Armenian Navy Band at the Avantgarde Folk Music Club, with my brother-in-law Haygaz and his colleague from FINCA Armenia.

There is an obvious sense of pride and appreciation among the program beneficiaries and ATP in-country staff for their work. These rural development programs have been successful in reducing rural poverty and rehabilitating the environment since the organization began implementing reforestation projects after 10 years of doing mostly urban forestry. ATP began partnering with the United Nations Environment Program’s Billion Tree Campaign immediately after it was announced in 2006, and this year has pledged to plant another 600,000 trees in Armenia.