Kieran Cooke, who hails from Ireland, has been a journalist for over 25 years, specializing in environmental and climate-change issues. He teaches courses on environmental journalism at the Deutsche Welle Academy, a training center for journalists created in 2004. (Deutsche Welle is Germany’s international broadcaster). He has worked for the BBC and the Financial Times.
Kieran is now in Armenia, teaching courses on climate-change issues related to the Caucasus for reporters based in Armenia, Georgia, Abkhazia, South Ossetia and Artsakh. This is his second visit to Armenia.
What kind of environmental issues do you see when come to Armenia as a foreign visitor, or even a journalist?
Something I see immediately as a visitor, not really as a journalist, is the problem of rubbish. That’s to say, the peoples' attitude of throwing things on the street or in the parks, whether it is plastic garbage or cigarettes.
You can see that it’s an immediate problem. It might seem small, but it’s very noticeable. And I think that Armenia, for instance, will have to think about this if it wants to increase tourism. If it does, it will have to change peoples' attitude about throwing rubbish willy-nilly. Yes, Armenia is a very beautiful country and tourists want to visit, but they don't want to come and look at a pile of rubbish in a church lobby. So, that is one thing.
Is this more noticeable in Yerevan or in the provinces as well?
I have seen it in Yerevan, and I also have seen it in around Lake Sevan and in other places. Suddenly there is a pile of rubbish there. For someone coming from Germany, they don't like that. They don't like seeing rubbish strewn about.
I think, generally, what Armenia shares with many countries is that it wants the economy to grow and it wants to have jobs. The trouble is, if people come and destroy the landscape, as with a mine, then you are destroying something. Once it's gone, it's gone forever. A lot of mining companies say: ՛՛Oh, we can come back and plants trees and everything will be better than before.'' It's never the case. So, you have this choice. You can provide jobs, because the mining companies will say: ''Oh, we provide 200 jobs.'' And you can understand this because people are hungry. They want jobs and need the money. But can't you think about mushrooms, forestry, and making, packaging and selling good vegetables to other countries; developing these sorts of industries rather than destructive industries like mining. Of course, Armenia has a lot of mining resources, which is good perhaps, but it has to be controlled.
And then, in the longer term, I am here to talk about climate change. And perhaps for a lot of people here, this is something they think, as opposed to people in the West who are always talking about it, doesn’t concern them. But the experts are saying that in Armenia the temperatures are going to go up and there is going to be less rain. I know there’s recently been a lot of rain in many parts of Europe, but the long-term outlook is less rain and higher temperatures. This means that people will have to change the way they live, the way they farm. Maybe they will have to grow different crops in future. Farmers are very traditional, they don't want to change, but if they don't change, who is going to grow the food?
What do they need to change?
They need to change the way they use water. They have to be far more careful about using water, for drinking and for irrigating crops. So, they have to run new ways of storing water, or putting channels underground, so that the sun doesn't seize the water. So you store water in water storage units. I see leaking pipes in many places and not enough is done to make sure water isn’t being wasted.
Water is very important. Perhaps they should be thinking about crop varieties, about growing more resistant types that can grow in a hotter climate. People have to think about all this. But the government also has to tell people these things as well and be honest with them. Yes, now you have rain and clouds, but just think ten years done the road. What will happen then? Think of your children. It is going to change. Everybody says nothing is normal anymore, but the old ways are going to change. And of course, for a country like Armenia that isn’t rich, it is very tough. Armenia is not to blame for climate change. It is country like my own, Ireland. The USA and China are to blame, but if Armenia doesn't make changes, then future doesn’t look very bright.
Many of the climate figures actually show that there will be big changes in Yerevan, for instance, or in the Ararat valley. The temperatures will increase quite a bit. What will people do when that happens? Buy more air conditions? They will have to spend money on air conditioning and have use more water to grow their crops. People have to realize this is coming. This is going to happen.
How does one explain to people that they should refrain from certain actions in order not to produce more CO2?
It is very difficult. I think educating young children is one way. They can be taught, in creative ways, that some things, like burning trash fires, increases dangerous gases in the air. They can be taught the merits of conserving water. Sometimes children are much better, because they have an imagination, they understand these sorts of things.
CO2 is not produced in Armenia as much as in other countries.
Unfortunately, while Armenia doesn’t produce much CO2, the trouble with CO2 is that it doesn't care about borders. It comes from everywhere. So, while CO2 may come from America, it may also come from the Arctic or China. It is global, and this is the problem - how do you reach a global agreement? It is a global issue and not just the obligation of one government. So, Armenia can say, we don't produce much CO2, and thus they might ask richer countries to donate funds so that Armenia develops its economy in a way that doesn't harm the environment. Armenia can argue, hey look, you are the people who are causing the problem, not us in Yerevan. It is London, New York, Beijing or Mumbai.
Do you see the Armenian government taking care of the environment? Is such a thing noticeable to foreigners?
Like so many countries the economy comes first for the government. This is clear. And I can understand it because the people who vote for them want jobs. They want the economy to be good so they can have more money to spend on children’s education, to get a better house, or to buy a car.
But the risk is in thinking that you can make the economy rich and never care about the environment; that we’ll think about the environment later. That's not good, because in ten years time the environment you end up with might well be completely different and unfamiliar. Sometimes I think that governments and officials don't have much imagination. They think of economic development - mining, manufacturing, whatever. What about agricultural products? What about honey, mushrooms and things that Armenia is famous for, like its vegetables? These can be the basis of a thriving industry as well. So instead building a cement plant, you build a factory specializing in herbs and you package and sell them in London and New York.
The environment should receive more priority. The government should be spending more money for the environment and should look very carefully at mining projects, because mining is one thing that destroys the land and cuts down trees. Just look at Alaverdi where the air is foul. It must be very controlled. You mustn't allow people to come in and give promises saying: ''Here is some money, I will create 2000 jobs.'' You must also say, OK, we will draft a legal agreement that you must do this and that. In the West, such contracts with mining companies are very strict because nobody believes many of their promises anymore. So I think they have to be far stronger policing of the mining industry.
The protection of forests makes so much sense in many ways. If you cut down trees you change the climate and open the door to various ailments. And of course by doing so, you do not capture CO2 anymore. Trees are also very good for maintain water systems.
Armenia is a beautiful country with a great potential for the tourist industry. But, as I pointed out, tourists don't want to come and stay in hotel and smell smoke from the mining smelter. Tourists coming from Georgia, pass through Alaverdi. It is not a good advertisement for the country. Take care of the environment and Armenia has a lot going for it – a lovely country with good people, clever people.