Forest or Mining? People and Government Must Decide, Says Andre Gumuchdjian
The Armenia Ministry of Environment, on April 6, gave the green light to a My Forest NGO project to reforest an area, just south of the town of Stepanavan, in the country’s northern Lori Province.
The organization’s initial delight was tempered, however, when members learnt that mining companies have their eye on some of the land in question.
One of those companies is Hayasa Resources Corp., founded by Dennis Jay Moore from Australia.
The company wants to prospect in the area and held public hearings in several local communities. On April 7, residents of Gogaran village (Spitak) and neighboring residents of the Sarahart and Shenavan villages disrupted an April 7 public hearing. Residents of the Urasar (Stepanavan) and Pushkino villages gave their initial approval for prospecting at another public hearing held the same day.
My Forest plans to plant trees in an area measuring 3,000 hectares.
Andre Gumuchdjian, founder and general director of My Forest, says they searched for an area suited for tree planting. Google Maps shows that the triangle the NGO has chosen chosen is relatively green and quite suitable for planting. It is in a humid region, in the southern part of the Chknagh river basin.
My Forest, founded 2,5 years ago, is on a mission to increase the forest cover of Armenia and thus fight climate change and alleviate the consequences of global warming.
Armenia’s forest cover now only measures 11.2%. Georgia has a very high rate - 40.6%. 13.7% of Azerbaijan is forest, 28.9% of the territory of Turkey. The average forested area in EU countries reaches 40%.
Gumuchdjian says they intend to plant 400,000 trees a year. The NGO has already planted 385,000 saplings in the provinces of Lori and Tavush over 150 hectares.
He says that Armenia is obliged to increase its forest cover to 20.1% by 2050. The government has yet to specify what areas will be reforested.
"20.1% means 260,000 hectares of new forest," says Vahe Martirosyan, My Forest’s Operational Head.
"100,000 will be from HayAntar managed lands, but the remaining 160 thousand hectares must be taken from local communities. The 3,000 hectares we discovered is only 2% of that,” says Gumuchdjian.
He says that not all areas are suitable for reforestation and that such areas must be protected from commercial usage such as miming or largescale agriculture or cattle breeding. The government and citizens are faced with a serious decision.
My Forest senior researcher and GIS (geographic information system) specialist Taron Aleksanyan says that they do not identify such places.
Gumuchdjian, who hails from Belgium, says that country’s government has created a map outlining what areas are suitable for reforestation and protection. He says such a zoning map for the entire country is needed.
Water, oxygen, economy, investment
Gumuchdjian says 80% of drinking water comes from the forest. If there is no forest, there is no water.
"Our people not only need gold, but also drinking water. If the state does not make the right decision now - to save water for the future, then it will be too late. This is a strategically important issue, because we should not give it to our neighbors. We must protect our drinking water. Then too, the forest provides oxygen and maintains the temperature," he says.
Gumuchdjian says that the belief that mining spurs the economy must be contested. He says that afforestation and reforestation are given special importance overseas and that large sums of money can be possibly diverted to Armenia for reforestation. In turn, this brings jobs, economic development and improved living conditions.
Gumuchdjian says huge sums of money are being spent of reforestation, which mainly goes to the Amazon and Africa, and if only 1% of that money goes to Armenia it will make a huge difference.
He also believes that Armenia’s forestry sector can also serve as a source of revenue by exporting saplings and says that several organizations have expressed any interest in investing in the sector.
My Forest plans to create 100 reforestation jobs annually.
"As for the mine, we do not know how many jobs or investment is at stake. In the the first year we will have 100 people working and that number will grow very fast, up to 400 people. In the near future, there may be more from nearby communities," say My Forest Deputy Director Lilit Martirosyan.
"We can offer much more than a mining company, both in investments and jobs, plus a healthy environment. We are missing the opportunity to create something good and creating something not so good and beneficial for people and communities. Forests are good for communities, and we can create them” – Andre Gumuchdjian.
My Forest has also met with Hayasa Resources Corp. officials who assured the NGO that mining, if and when reserves are found, would be limited to a small area and that any work wouldn’t impact the reforestation area.
Vahe Martirosyan counters that My Forest is more than planting trees.
"We are turning the whole ecosystem into a forest. And we work with environmental and non-environmental organizations and individuals, such as beekeepers, travel agencies, which are of some interest to communities. Will beekeepers or tourists come to a forest where mining is taking place and polluting the environment?” Martirosyan asks.
Kumushjian says that he is not against mining but is convinced that mining shouldn’t be carried out in the area they’ve decided to reforest.
Gumuchdjian has also contact contacted the Australian Dennis Jay Moore who wants to mine in Armenia. Moore is also the Chief Operating Officer of Fremont Gold LLC. Kumushjian is trying to persuade the Australian to stop prospecting in the reforestation area. The talks continue.
The villages of Gogoran, Sarahart and Shenavan granted My Forest preliminary approval to plant trees in the rea. The NGO must now go back and get final approval since the villages have been incorporated into the Spitak community. The NGO fears they may change their mind and back the mining companies.
"Can you imagine what a cruel thing it would be if they did some research and found something under the forest we planted," Vahe Martirosyan asks.
Top photo: Andre Gumuchdjian