Our natural preserves need protection

17:28, 21 November, 2011

Karineh Danielian

Erebuni Preserve-the birthplace of bread--in Desolation

Not far from Yerevan, near the base of Vokhchaberd Mountain, grow three of the four known types of wild wheat. The fourth type grows in certain places in Syria and Palestine, which were considered to be the historic birthplace of that most important grain until the 1930’s, when the three kinds of wheat were discovered in Armenia. This was a real sensation in science. Vavilov, president of the All-Union Agricultural Academy arrived to Armenia to see the wild wheat with his own eyes. He immediately suggested creating a preserve on the area, but it took another 50 years until, thanks to the unwavering efforts of Armenian scientists, the Erebuni preserve was established in 1981. Finally human interference in the area was restricted to scientific research without upsetting the environment and the natural growth and development of unique plants.

As a result of the social and political revolutions of the last decade, the maintenance of the Erebuni Preserve, like many other issues, lost the attention of both government and society. This site, unique in human history, occupies about 89 hectares on either side of the road from Yerevan to Garni, ineffectively fenced of. There are vineyards to the south, and summerhouses and villages in other directions. The preserve is completely unprotected from the human reach of the neighboring residents. The villagers keep a keen eye on the area. At times they herd their cattle there, and even cut the grass. They greet the rare, weak warnings about the ban on using of the land with apathetic bewilderment. It’s gotten to the point that they are demanding, voices raised, to be allowed to use the land. Once they insisted on planting a cherry orchard. Passions were calmed only through the interference of scientists and environmentalists.

It is not only the villagers that threaten the preserve. The fence built at one time to protect the land has over the course of difficult years been dismantled and taken away, piece by piece. During the summer there is always the threat of wildfires. Children play with fire. People have barbeques here. In the past, preserve rangers rode horses, and could keep an eye on what was going on throughout the preserve. Now even in the likely event that a fire breaks out during the harvest, they barely manage to put it out. The edges of the preserve have been ploughed in a largely symbolic effort to protect the area from fires, perhaps in self-deception, perhaps to silence criticism. But it’s no solution. “Not even the loss of the most precious works of art can compare with the disastrous possibility of losing the wild wheat,” says biologist and associate member of the Agricultural Academy Volodya Voskanian, who has worked at the Erebuni Preserve for years.

These days, there is no scientific work being done at the preserve, either. There is a real danger that the gene pool of the grains will be lost. Although the grain is not being used for genetics and selection today, the careful preservation of wild wheat prototypes is of great importance for all humanity. The issue here is that agro-technical and other methods of increasing the yield of grain crops are not unlimited. When they reach a certain point, neither fertilizers nor chemicals will help. That is when their wild prototypes will be called on to perform a rescue mission and the genes of wild wheat will be introduced. It was through the use of the wild samples that Professor Papin Ghandhilian introduced the new “Erebuni” type of whole grain in the recent past, followed by other new grains.

If any human presence is allowed in the preserve, it should only scientific. Today no one is involved in science here. Nobody knows if the preservation regime affects the growth of the wild wheat types positively or not. No scientist sets foot here. The famed Erebuni has been forgotten, its office building in ruins.

Besides wheat, the preserve is home to about 300 kinds of high flowering plants, 20 of which, including the sword lily, a few kinds of iris, and the large-leaf are listed in the Red Book. Close kin of the wheat grain grow here: aegilops, barley and rye. And then there is the gas bush, which was at one time widely used not only in the production of paper, but also in the military industry. It produces a kind of glue which if moistened expands to 50 times its size. During WWII, at Mikoyan’s instruction, the fields of gas bushes were mapped out and possibilities for utilizing it were studied. The bush is used by farmers today, for fuel.

Extensive poaching of animals and plants

Our small country is home to 3,500 types of high flowering plants and more than 17,500 kinds of animals. Armenia is one of the unique corners of the world which has a striking density of endemic (peculiar to that area only) species; there are over 100 types of high plants on each one kilometer. Most of them are included in protected areas - reserves, preserves and national parks. There are three state reserves in the republic today--Erebuni, the Khosrov Forest, and Shikahogh; 23 preserves, which are under less rigid protection and serve to provide the reproduction of prototypes and complexes; and two national parks -the Sevan and Dilijan National Parks, which are also used by vacationers. It is not only the Erebuni reserve that has global significance. Shikahogh has eastern beech forests, which have reached us in rudimentary forms from the time of the ice age, and the famous oriental plane grove, unique in the world. Then there is the volcanic, high mountainous Lake Arpi, at a height of 2,200 meters above sea level. This is considered to be a super humid territory of world significance; it is a nesting place for floating birds on the list of protected territories according to the Ramseur Convention.

But the material and technical resources necessary for the protection of these areas is scant at best, and often completely lacking-from uniforms and vehicles to equipment for fieldwork and research. What little there is worn out and useless. During the last 15 years none of the preserved territories has received fire-fighting equipment. Though it is known that our forests are prone to fires. No fire prevention measures, such as the creation of walking paths, are being carried out. Once fire engines and specialized personnel were permanently stationed on protected land, but that’s a thing of the past. Even the number of rangers is a fraction of what’s needed.

It’s hard to even guess what’s going on in the protected areas today. A reserve is also a research center, which should be monitored annually. But those have long since become history. The state considers such research a luxury. It is generally supposed that 60-65% of our flora’s genetic fund is present in the Khosrov preserve, for example. But nobody knows what the state of affairs of those precious species is. Of course, dedicated nature lovers would conduct research, if it were possible. But monitoring is a far too expensive undertaking, requiring means, time and scientific expeditions. Today we are sure of only one thing-- the protected areas are exploited in every way, and the exploitation goes unpunished. “If it’s an animal, it’s shot and killed, if it’s medicinal plant, it is stolen,” says Hakop Sanassarian, chairman of the Greens’ Union of Armenia.

Obsolete legislation

There are 311 thousand hectares of protected land, 10% of Armenia’s total land, or 6% without Lake Sevan. Until 2002 the reserves and the national parks were exclusively financed by the state budget. In 2002, the state threw the baby out with the bathwater and transformed the protection agencies into non-governmental organizations, which meant that they became forced to develop their resources through business activities in order to sustain themselves. The state promised to make allocations only if necessary, and so far, it hasn’t found it necessary.

In many countries such areas are important to the development of tourism, particularly eco-tourism. The preserves could organize science-oriented tours, by contracting higher education institutions for student workshops, etc. But the change in status has had little effect. Certainly, the staff has not experienced any significant improvement in their economic situation. Not having received their salary for months, they are compelled to provide for their families with goods from the preserves, using the valuable wood for construction or ruthlessly poaching edible wild plants. Here the neighboring populations join in, heedless of the fact that nature’s reproductive abilities are not infinite. The quantitative effects of exploitation are clear even without scientific research --the gradual shrinking of forests, and critical decrease in trout stocks. There is no information on qualitative losses, i.e. whether any species have disappeared altogether. An inventory would be needed to discover the truth. But in any case, says Samvel Baloyan, coordinator of the Biological Diversity Protection section of the Natural Stock Regulation Program of the Department of Ecology, considering the specifics of natural development, 15 years is a very short time for quality losses to take place. In other words, it is not too late, and not everything has been lost, yet. But we should bear in mind that huge quantitative losses can rapidly accelerate the creation of quality losses as well.

The protected areas have been especially neglected in terms of management. The law regulating their management was adopted in December 1991 and has not been amended since then, though the status and principles of operation of all the other structures related to them have changed. As a result of a new administrative-territorial division, the regions have been replaced by marzes; and local governments have been established. Above all, there is today an urgent need to revise the preserve borders. Often they merge with the neighboring territories, and cannot be distinguished. Farmers often graze their cattle on these territories, beyond the permitted borders. At present the preserves are managed through the laws and regulations for non-government business enterprises. The responsibility for preservation lies with these structures with limited means, though the areas are exploited by other state and private organizations as well. This gap often brings about various conflicting situations. It is very important that new legislation, long due to be introduced and adopted, clarify the mode of their management. At present, even when some draft, project, approach or strategy is worked out, it is always met with conflicting interpretations. There is no guarantee of implementation -no law corresponding to new times or new needs. The acting legislation has long since become obsolete.

Any loss would a loss for all mankind

What do experts propose to save our natural treasure? According to biologist Nazik Khanjian, the strategy of creating mini-preserves should be followed. “Originally when preserves were established they integrated very large territories. Our Republic is too small for such luxury. In small preserves both scientific and preservation activities could be conducted on a higher level,” she says. This would save the valuable vortan-red insect, used as a pigment, which is gradually dying out in the Ararat Valley. Scientists say this protected land should be turned into a mini-preserve. Only in this way will it be possible to ensure the normal growth and reproduction of the feeding grass and reeds needed for the insect, at least until some wealthy businessman from Armenia or the Diaspora decides to invest in the industrial production of this world-renown natural paint substance.

On the other hand, the chairman of the Greens Union of Armenia posits that even if nothing else is done proper preservation of these areas could be implemented just following the legislative provisions. This is simply a matter of political will.

Biologist Samvel Baloyan highlights another, equally important matter. The surrounding population should be actively involved in the creation of special zones, so that they have a personal understanding that the preservation of the national parks is first of all in their own interests. They should be incorporated into management activities as a workforce, and a system of legal benefits specifically designed for them should be created, for example.

The ecological safety of these areas is also endangered by a general lack of awareness--the information vacuum effectively alienates the local populations from issues of environmental protection.

And finally, the state should turn its attention towards the preserves, and provide them with real care and protection, not leave at the mercy of forgotten legal codes.

The plants and animals that that happen to thrive in Armenia have a cultural and historical value that transcends national borders. The depletion of biological diversity, the extinction of any species, would be an irretrievable loss for all mankind.