Tigran Melikyan, a former employee of Armenia’s State Environmental Inspectorate now in pre-trial detention on the charge of murdering a former forest warden, told the Special Investigative Service in September that during his watch, from 2010 and 2013, up to 50 trucks a day were hauling out illegally cut lumber from forested lands under the supervision of the Dsegh Forestry Branch of HayAntar- a State Non-Commercial Organization under the aegis of the Ministry of Agriculture.
HayAntar is tasked with conserving and monitoring the commercial use of 345,700 hectares of forested areas in Armenia.
Melikyan is charged with murdering Toma Matevosyan, who ran the Lorout sub-branch of HayAntar’s Dsegh Forestry division in Lori Province.
In a statement to Armenia’s Special investigative Service, Melikyan calculated that local police chiefs in the area were raking in profits of two million AMD (US$4,800) per day just on kickbacks to allow for the wood to be transported.
Hetq recently spoke to HayAntar Director Martoun Matevosyan about the overall state of the forested lands under the supervision of HayAntar, the issue of on-going illegal felling of trees and Melikyan's above allegations.
Regarding the illegal lumber trade, Matevosyan said the problem was a chronic one resulting from socio-economic conditions in the country.
He said that while there are no figures for 2014, between 1,200 and 1,300 hectares of timber had been illegally cut according to monitoring carries out by the environmental inspectorate.
Hetq then raised the question as to why the heads of several HayAntar branch heads in Lori Province have no forestry expertise.
“There is a great lack of forestry professionals in Armenia. Sadly, this problem exists in all countries. Luckily, a forestry division recently opened in the Academy of Agriculture. However, dues to various reasons, most graduates prefer to go to work outside the forestry sector,” Matevosyan replied.
When I asked if he didn’t think that most graduates just wanted to avoid the commercial shenanigans occurring within the forestry sector, Matevosyan said he didn’t agree with the widespread view that corruption dominated the sector.
“I’d say that the reason has more to do with the low relative salaries in the sector. We’ve just been able to get the government to raise wages by almost two fold. Working in the forests isn’t easy and sadly most young people nowadays prefer urban to rural life, Matevosyan replied.
I then referred to a May 2014 Hetq article where the residents of the village of Marts in Lori Province, located near a forested area, claimed that officials from the president on down to local cops and prosecutors, know full well about the illegal timber trade and make a tidy profit from it.
“First, let me say the media also forms public opinion. It is also evident that there are no reporters skilled to professionally cover the forestry sector. Given the lack of information, these same journalists and villagers often are of the opinion that the trees were harvested illegally,” Matevosyan argued.
He then said that on a yearly basis some 3,200 cubic meters of fire wood is legally culled from the Dsegh forest reserve but that when the timber is seen being transported out, the uninformed believe it’s the result of illegal felling.
Top photo: HayAntar Director Martoun Matevosyan