10 Mar, 2020

Make Armenia Green Again: Can planting 10 million trees shore up the country's borders and save its environment?

Seedlings dot the landscape near the Soviet-era Karen Demirchyan Complex in Yerevan, Armenia, in October 2019 during a tree planting event organized by Armenia Tree Project to commemorate the Armenian Genocide (Photo by Ariel Sophia Bardi).

By Ariel Sophia Bardi
Foreign Policy

In southern Armenia, not far from the Turkish and Iranian borders, the village of Paruyr Sevak straddles a strip of arid, treeless no man’s land between Armenia and Azerbaijan. The border village was settled in 1978 as just a smattering of Soviet-built houses named after Armenia’s esteemed 20th-century poet, killed in a car crash farther up the road. Before the village was founded, Azeri shepherds had wandered there freely with their flocks, but the outpost helped define and delimit the land.

In 1988, a six-year war with Azerbaijan flared over nearby Nagorno-Karabakh, the self-declared autonomous region that is historically Armenian but under Azerbaijani control. The same period saw the fall of the Soviet Union and the redrawing of regional maps. Protracted territorial disputes eventually slowed into a daily drum of Azeri sniper fire, and the village needed more than aging buildings to signal its status as Armenian.

“For the land to be yours, it’s not enough just to have a signpost. You have to cultivate the land. You have to plant trees,” Edik Stepanyan told me on a dry, sunny afternoon this past October. He’s the village mayor and moved there 40 years ago from the city of Ararat, named for the white-capped mountain considered sacred to Armenians, which now sits on Turkish soil.

Planting trees is just what the area is doing. Running through the desert plains, on one side of a dusty two-lane thoroughfare, a towering dirt bulwark protects villagers from Azeri gunfire. (“If we didn’t hear the shootings, then we’d be worried, because we’re so used to it,” joked the 60-year-old resident Mesrop Karamyan.) On the other side, poking through the red, parched soil, still five or six years away from providing any shade, sit close to 5,000 green saplings—the makings of a community forest.

A white sedan sputters by with a treeling strapped to its roof. Nearby Khosrov Forest, a protected nature reserve, is home to bears, wolves, ibex, and a handful of endangered Caucasian snow leopards, but sunbaked Paruyr Sevak, lacking any rivers or streams, has virtually no tree cover. The mayor hopes the new park will soften the harsh climate, with the bonus of doubling down on the village’s claim on the vulnerable stretch of borderland.

“We always have to be alert. That’s the only choice we have,” Stepanyan said. “We either keep these borders or we lose everything.” Besides, he added brightly, “it will be a heavenly place.”

Stepanyan is one of many Armenians looking to transform the landscape. Riding high on the heels of a peaceful revolution that swept out years of corrupt oligarchy, Armenia’s new reformist government, led by the former journalist Nikol Pashinyan, has pledged to double the country’s tree cover by 2050 as part of Armenia’s commitment to the Paris climate agreement goals.

There is a lot to unpack in the plan to “Make Armenia Green Again,” as tongue-in-cheek comedy duo Narek Margaryan and Sergey Sargsyan have coined it. More than an environmental strategy against climate change, illegal logging, biodiversity loss, and desertification, in Armenia tree planting is suffused with cultural survival.

Since 1994, the Armenia Tree Project (ATP), a Massachusetts-headquartered nonprofit staffed by Armenians and Armenian Americans, has led the country’s reforestation efforts. ATP nurseries, greenhouses, community forests, and planting sites dot virtually every corner of Armenia, from the lush, leafy Georgian border down to disputed Nagorno-Karabakh. Their forests often memorialize; they’re named for genocide survivors or are dedicated to patriotic themes. In 2001, ATP planted the poplar and fruit trees skirting the roads around the 13th-century Noravank monastery to honor Armenia’s 1,700-year anniversary as the world’s first Christian nation.

Scaling up that model, in October at the country’s inaugural forest summit—Forest Summit: Global Action and Armenia, convened by ATP and the American University of Armenia—Pashinyan announced that doubling the tree cover would begin with 10 million trees planted by Oct. 10, 2020—representing the global population of Armenians. To put that number into perspective, after 25 years on the ground, ATP celebrated its 6 millionth tree planting only late last year.

Reforestation, a popular talking point in climate change adaptation efforts, is tricky that way. It does have the potential to reduce air pollution, increase rainfall, and absorb harmful carbon emissions. It is equally valuable in terms of symbolism (even the reelection campaign of U.S. President Donald Trump has spoken of planting a trillion trees), whether it is for shoring up borders, committing to cleaner air, or self-aggrandizement. But the danger in symbolism is that it can favor tidy, fast solutions in place of messy complexities, much like the identical rows of trees often planted to replace eroded forest cover.

These eerie, ersatz forests are about as natural-seeming as a strip of McMansions, and they are less adept at carbon absorption and more vulnerable to wildfires. “How can you compare these plantations to real forests, which we have and which we are losing now?” Karen Manvelyan, the director of the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) Armenia, told me this fall in Yerevan. “It’s PR.”

During Soviet rule, forests, streams, and natural sites were considered state property, and in those days, timber was trucked in from Russia. The fall of the Soviet Union in 1991 led to a devastating energy crisis, with Armenians ransacking forests for fast firewood.

ATP founder Carolyn Mugar, living in Yerevan, watched branches stripped and trees felled—the degradation of those years became crucial to the nonprofit’s origin story.

“We would cut, in secret, from places we weren’t supposed to, even national parks,” said 53-year-old Angela Minasyan, who now works as a laborer at an ATP nursery. “We always felt sorry for cutting anything,” she added. “That’s why we’re planting trees now.”

Armenia’s current tree cover hovers at around 11 percent—almost half what it was during the 17th and 18th centuries. Along with Armenia’s wood fuel crisis after the fall of the Soviet Union, industrial logging and open mining pits have also contributed to heavy tree losses—a trend that is reflected in waning forestland throughout much of the world. Indeed, global deforestation rates continue at a frightening clip. The world has lost 129 million hectares of forest since 1990—roughly the size of South Africa.

But the yield on new trees is not easy to calculate. Near the village of Margahovit in northern Armenia, not far from the sprawling, thickly forested Dilijan National Park, Mirak Nursery sits tucked into the low, mist-threaded hills. Equipped with germination tables, its greenhouses can grow up to a million seedlings, including ash, pine, and wild apple—ATP makes a point of only planting native tree species—which are placed outside to adapt to frigid winters. Still, almost half of the seedlings will die once planted.

“If we have 60 percent, it’s good,” ATP forestry manager Navasard Dadyan told me this fall. “To plant [a] tree is the easier thing. You can plant and go. The harder thing is to take care of them. I won’t say anything about 10 million trees,” he added, chuckling.

Early this January, ATP issued a press release with cautious praise of Pashinyan’s bold announcement—and much concern. It cautioned against planting nonnative or invasive species, which might add further strain to local ecology, and recommended mixed-species forests in place of the monoculture pines usually favored.

But the Pashinyan administration’s muscular, large-scale tree-planting plan not only raises concern about quantity over quality; it also overlooks one of the main drivers of deforestation in Armenia, a cause far more controversial than its history of individual, poverty-driven logging: mineral mining, which involves clearing swaths of forests in preparation for mining areas as well as new roads and related infrastructure.

Its reputation as a deforestation driver is well founded: Mining activity has caused almost 10 percent of the total tree loss in the Brazilian Amazon.

Many environmentalists complain that the new government has not done enough to denounce the lucrative, corruption-dogged industry, even greenlighting construction for a $300 million gold mine in the spa town of Jermuk, located on the edge of landlocked Armenia’s largest freshwater source, Lake Sevan. Known for its rich biodiversity, Armenia is home to more than 300 Red Book-listed endangered animal species and over 450 endangered plants. But mines have been traced to habitat loss and toxic residue, known as tailings, and the lake is a protected area.

“On the one hand, you say that we take a green direction,” said Manvelyan, the WWF Armenia director. “On the other hand, you are giving license to new mines.”

The new government took power promising to fight corruption, chase out oligarchs, and dismantle the old regime. It adheres to a kind of social media-savvy transparency. Pashinyan delivers speeches on Facebook Live. Armenians breezily call the prime minister by his first name. One night, I spot “Nikol” out at a jazz club in Yerevan, gamely posing for selfies.

That openness pervades the ranks of the administration. Before I sat down with Vardan Melikyan, the deputy minister of environment, in between panels at the Forest Summit in Yerevan, a man in a dark suit rushed over, interrupting with an urgent-sounding murmur. I instinctively stepped aside, giving them privacy. “Don’t leave.” Melikyan waved me back. “There is no secret.” But the mood noticeably soured when I brought up the mines, prompting a crisp “no comment.” “Maybe people need to wait a bit,” Melikyan finally offered, alluding to legal complications.

“Actually, it’s not complicated,” countered Artur Grigoryan, an environmental lawyer tapped by the Pashinyan administration to inspect mine sites and who was subsequently fired. After a monthlong investigation, in the summer of 2019, Grigoryan had reported evidence of a Red Book-listed butterfly to the Environment Ministry, which would make mining in Jermuk a criminal offense. He made similar findings in Kajaran, a privatized, Soviet-era open-pit copper mine in southern Armenia traced to rampant heavy metal pollution.

“I spoke to the prime minister,” Grigoryan said. “I presented the situation.” Then Pashinyan jetted to Switzerland to talk up Armenia’s economic development at the 2019 World Economic Forum. “From Davos, he signed the decision to fire me,” Grigoryan said.

Mines in Armenia are operated by offshore companies like Lydian International, which act as smokescreens for their owners. This opaque financial structure makes it difficult to know what benefit is being reaped by whom. “Nobody knows what kind of influence they have on the current government,” Grigoryan explained—if any at all.

Manvelyan believes that the massive reforestation plan was announced to deflect from a furor over unchecked mining policies. It is “a kind of compensation” for the public, he said. “But you can’t compensate. It’s two different stories.”

Along with doubling the country’s tree cover, the Pashinyan administration simultaneously announced at October’s Forest Summit that it would aim to increase the country’s population from 3 million to 5 million people, opening up new channels of immigration and recruiting Armenians from the diaspora. In multiplying its forests and—very nearly, at least—also doubling its population, the Pashinyan government has promised hyperbolically bold economic and ecological investment. Each looks to the past while striving to put Armenia back on the map

Back in the southern village of Paruyr Sevak, the mayor looked out approvingly on the makings of the community park, with the clear line its trees had drawn in the sand. He recalled many encroachments of Armenian territory by neighbors on all sides, most notoriously Turkey. Mount Ararat—symbol of the Armenian people and faith—appears mostly as a haze-dulled backdrop from Armenian soil. “We have no more space to move back. If you go and compare Armenia’s maps from before and now, what’s left of it is so little,” Stepanyan complained. “Our borders kept getting smaller and smaller.”

Beyond the craggy, rust-hued mountain range, dogs trawl the rings of landlocked desert, which sit baking under the sun. The thin, sparsely foliaged treelings—wedged between Turkish, Iranian, and Azerbaijani borders—barely rise a foot off the ground. But it won’t be long before they cast long shadows.

Ariel Sophia Bardi is a journalist who has written for the Columbia Journalism Review, the Guardian, HuffPost, BBC, Slate, the Atlantic, Al Jazeera, BuzzFeed, VICE, and many others.