Haykush Aslanyan

The Affair of the Noravan Forest is back in the News

The community of Noravan in the Armavir Marz once had 164 hectares of forest. Years ago the Marzpetaran (Regional Administration) allocated 4 hectares of it to the community’s cemetery. The remaining 160 hectares was passed from one balance sheet to another so many times and sold off in parcels that nothing remains today.

In 1993 Noravan resident Smbat Abgaryan signed a rental contract for 5.5 hectares of the forest, to be used for crop production, with the Armavir Forest Service”. Later on he entered into an agreement with the Botanical Institute of the National Academy of Sciences to use 4 hectares of the rented land as an experimental station on which to plant fast growing varieties of American and Canadian poplar trees. According to this agreement, the scientific study would terminate in 2010. But the experiment came to a premature end and the 1.5 hectares used as crop land was seized from Mr. Abgaryan as well. (See: Land Grabbed from Villagers)

The regional authorities had previously planned to sell off the forest land. They declared the Armavir Forest Service concern to be bankrupt which paved the way for Government Decree No. 1848, issued on December 9, 2004, according to which the forest was transferred to the asset roles of the Armavir Regional Administration. All contracts signed with the now registered bankrupt firm were declared to be null and void. The Decree also altered the status of the land from a forest zone to a rural economic zone and downgraded the area to a level 5, essentially meaning that the land is unfit for cultivation. Razmik Khachatryan, another former renter, said that, “They downgraded the land so much that the new owners are now paying 2700-3000 drams for every one hectare while they were getting double that from us as rent before.”

In the spring of 2005 an auction to sell off the forest was started, but the renters of the land weren’t informed at the time. Smbat Abgaryan stated that even the first auction hadn’t been announced. A repeat “show” auction was organized and the forest was sold off to a large group of officials. “If I had known about the auction, I myself would have bought the land I was renting at the time. How was it that the nephew of Mayor Khlghatyan, sitting in his house in the village of Voskepar, in Talin, just picked up the newspaper one day, read about the auction and came here and bought the land? Or how did the 73 year-old mother-in-law of Vardan Khachatryan, the former Finance Minister, find out about the auction sitting in her home in Yerevan? But none of us here in the village knew a thing?” exclaimed Ruzanna Hakobyan, another former renter.

Yura Manvelyan, the lawyer attached to the Armavir Regional Administration, who personally organized the land auction, labeled these complaints by Noravan residents as baseless, declaring that, “I sent announcements regarding both the first and second auction to the “Hayastani Hanrapetutyun” newspaper. The reason they didn’t participate in the auction was that they were convinced that the government would let them keep the land they had been cultivating for so many years.”

We should note that Article 72, Section 2, of the ROA Land Code states that the sale of land at the starting bid price is permitted to those who can prove that they have been cultivating that land for then or more years.

Abgaryan and other Noravan renters went to the courts to have the results of the sham auction declared invalid. Three separate courts, the Armavir Court of First Instance, the Appeals Court and the Chamber of Civil and Economic Affairs of the Court of Cassation, all refused to hear the case. Smbat Abgaryan declared that, “As if I can’t prove that I’ve been cultivating 5.5 hectares. What other evidence do I need? The trees that I’ve planted are proof positive.” Armavir Mayor Ruben Khlghatyan has found a way to exert moral pressure on Mr. Abgaryan. Mayor Khlghatyan is the present owner of the land once worked by Mr. Abgaryan. According to Abgaryan, at the direction of the Mayor, a case is being put together at the Armavir Police Department accusing him of intentionally causing property damage. “The property in question was some dried-up trees that I targeted for spring pruning, to make way for the growth of other trees.” stated Abgaryan. He’s convinced that the authorities, by taking this step, are provoking him to raise a hand against the very forest he’s planted and cared for so that it’s treeless and looks rather like a piece of tillable land. “They shouldn’t hold their breath since I won’t go to such an extreme.” Smbat retorts.

The forest of Noravan, some 2 kilometers from the Lukashin stone quarry and 7 kilometers from the atomic plant, shields the village of Armavir and surrounding hamlets from the spiraling quarry dust and radiation whenever the wind kicks up. If the forest is decimated there will also be irreparable damage caused to the environment. Smbat Abgaryan has informed the Greens Union of this issue and requested that the group organize a working committee to study the Noravan case. Mr. Abgaryan states that, “When we talk about environmental protection and the ecology they only understand Yerevan, Sevan and Teghut. The eco-problems of the lands surrounding the atomic plant somehow fall outside their purview.

The affair of the Noravan forest, which first broke some three years ago, is back in the news due to the renewed actions of the local villagers who are concerned that the new regime isn’t aware of its history. In the meantime Mr. Abgaryan labels the stance taken by the regional and municipal authorities as criminal since they are trampling the constitutional rights of himself and others like him underfoot.