The Growth of Loss

By Maddison, Jamie | Geographical, May 2013 | Go to article overview

The Growth of Loss


Maddison, Jamie, Geographical


Armenia's one of the most biodiverse countries outside the tropics. But if the World Bank is right, its forests will be gone in 30 years' time.

Winter sits harshly over the snow-laden village of Saratovka. In Soviet times, the surrounding valley was awash with fruit trees; now a biting wind rakes unsparingly across bare steppe, beating itself against the homes of a people forced by necessity to place yet more of their country's forests into wood-burning stoves just to keep warm.

Across Armenia, a combination of high unemployment and rising utility prices has turned many workers to the focused exploitation of their country's once-plentiful forests. Such is the rate at which trees are being felled that according to the World Bank, Armenia's foremost natural resource will be exhausted within just 30 years.

'Now people are more prone to gain as much money as possible, as quickly as possible, and the worst part is that our government is supporting it,' says one of Armenia's leading forestry experts, Professor Hovik Sayadyan of the Armenian State Agrarian University in Yerevan, the country's capital.

The down-to-earth academic, himself from a small rural Armenian village, explains that Armenia has one of the highest levels of biodiversity outside the tropics. With seven distinct climatic zones, this small South Caucasus republic-not much larger than Wales-can lay claim to hosting a quarter of all plant and animal species found within the 22 million square kilometres that make up the former Soviet Union. Many of these species reside in the country's forests, which up until 1993, covered 11.2 per cent of its territory

However, the break-up of the USSR, a war with neighbouring Azerbaijan, the resulting economic blockade and subsequent energy shortages have all contributed to a rampant legal and illegal logging industry that has, in 20 years, cut forest coverage by close to a third. It's a devastating statistic for the traditionally dry-climate country, which now faces a bleak future of desertification,

'Because of the logging, the protective capabilities of the forests has decreased, erosion and other negative processes have been activated-the ecological balance of the environment has been disturbed,' says the minister of environmental protection, Vardan Aivazyan.

At the imposingly monolithic Academy of Sciences, Inga Zarafyan, president of environmental NGO EcoLur, elaborates. There are no forests in Armenia that are not subject to illegal cutting, but of course the areas closest to infrastructure are suffering most' she says, 'We usually hear that the people are cutting down trees to remain warm as they are poor. But they are not cutting down trees; they are buying the wood, which is an important distinction, as it means that money is already in the relationship.

'Our team conducted an investigation of 30 villages situated inside forest areas,' she continues. 'We found that in each community, there was a minimum of six kilometres of deforested land surrounding them. The people who are living in these areas are in a very difficult position; they are very poor and business is coming in and taking away their forests while just ignoring them.'

ILLEGAL DECIMATION

According to official government estimates, about 60,000 cubic metres of wood is legally harvested in Armenia each year, but EcoLur suggests that the figure is much higher. Independent assessors affirm that a strong black market for cheap lumber has created an epidemic of unlawful logging that is more than ten times greater than its legal counterpart industry, felling up to 700,000 cubic metres of wood annually.

Those trees are keeping the soil in place, protecting the ground from erosion, stopping landslides and, most important of all, retaining our underground water resources,' says Zarafyan. The forests are not diminishing by themselves. Tree cutting is ruining our peoples' places to live; it is ruining full communities and already people are leaving. …

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