Forest Question
SOCIETY

Forest Question

Every year Armenian environmental activists warn us about new and devastating cases regarding the felling of trees in the forests, particularly in the North of the country, in and around Dilijan National Park. Sometimes the Government will respond, initiate an investigation, and in most of the cases it either turns out that the felling is legal, or some of the lower level forestry officials are fined, fired or imprisoned. So, what is the current situation of our forests, what did it look like in the past, what do we want it to be like in the future, and how do we achieve this?

Text : Vardan Melikyan   /  Photo : Hayk Barseghyan

 

Two thousand years ago about 40% of the Republic of Armenia’s current territory was covered in forest. At the beginning of the 20th century the figure was 20%, while today only about 11% of the country is covered in forest. Wood has always been a highly-valued resource, so deforestation has always accompanied human habitat, including Armenians and different invaders and occupiers of the country. The 20% of forest cover had rapidly deteriorated to around 7% due to the difficult 1920s, industrialization of the 1930s and WWII. Later, a large-scale reforestation program was initiated, where millions of seedlings were planted annually, from the 1960s till the independence of the Republic of Armenia, and forest cover has reached around 11%. Another phase of massive deforestation began in the 1990s, when Armenia was facing an energy crisis and people needed wood for heating and cooking. According to “Hayantar”, the state forestry agency of Armenia, starting from 2003-2004 the issue is gradually being resolved thanks to the increasing availability of gas in the country, stating that the demand for wood has decreased around five-fold. During 2004-2016, the harvesting of wood, as per official statistics, has decreased from around 74,000 cubic meters to around 25,000 per year. On the other hand, according to independent estimations, Armenian households burn around one million cubic meters of wood annually.

Surprisingly, even as a result of such pressure on forests, its area is not shrinking significantly, as confirmed by data recently collected by GIZ using satellite images. The problem is that the forest quality is worsening – the density of canopy decreases, while the species composition changes to a less favorable one. While 70% of our forests are beech, after felling these are replaced by lower value hornbeam and shrubs, like blackberry, that prevent the natural regeneration of forests. Add to this climate change, resulting in the increase of the mean air temperature and the decrease of precipitation, and eventually we may indeed lose our forests, if things continue how they are.
The National Forest Program of Armenia, approved in 2005, states that the optimal forest cover for Armenia is 20.1%, taking into consideration various climatic, watershed management, soil protection, urban development and other factors. This means that the forest cover has to roughly double and over 250,000 hectares will need to be planted. According to Hayantar data, during 2004-2015 planting and sowing was implemented on 3,666 hectares. Additionally, around 1,000 hectares have been planted by the Armenia Tree Project, an NGO established by Diasporan Armenians based in Massachusetts. A good effort, but not sufficient, since at such a pace, it will take hundreds of years to accomplish the target of 20.1%, so more effort is needed.
The planting of forests costs money, around USD 3,000 per hectare, to be precise. So, in total it will cost around USD 750 million to reach 20.1% forest cover, a huge amount for Armenia, especially taking into consideration the current state of the economy. But first, there is no need to invest all of the money immediately, as reforestation is a long process and it can take up to 50 years, and furthermore, the planting of forests is an investment with long-term economic benefits.

Forests are not just trees and shrubs, they are complex ecosystems with thousands of flora and fauna species that cooperate and compete with each other, providing unique services and resources for humans, like protection from landslides and mudflows, purification and regulation of water, production of biofuel and food, tourism, etc. Forests are also extremely important to mitigate the effects of climate change , as they can sequester and store huge volumes of carbon dioxide. Furthermore, agricultural fields located next to forests can yield up to 20% more crops, providing extra income for farmers.
Another important area to focus on is the proper regulation of wood harvesting, in order to prevent further degradation of existing forests. Many Armenian households still rely on wood as their main source of energy, as it is cheaper than natural gas. Ten cubic meters of wood, necessary for the heating and cooking purposes of an average household, can cost around AMD 150,000 per year, while the cost of natural gas can be four or five times higher. Armenia does not have its own fossil fuel resources, and of course it is wrong to expect that we can influence the price of fossil fuels. So, the solution can be found in increasing the efficiency of the use of wood and other sources of biofuel, like straw, food waste, dung, etc. Improved insulation of houses is another step that can help cut energy needs and respective costs.
One obvious step towards increasing efficiency is to make sure the wood is properly dried before burning. If one visits rural areas of Armenia during the winter, it is easy to notice the white steam pouring out of chimneys, which is a result of burning wet wood. Instead of heating houses, the wood first dries, losing a lot of energy, that could otherwise be used to meet heating needs. The stoves used in most of the households are also inefficient and need to be upgraded for better results. The next and more advanced step is using wood together with other biomass for production of fuel pellets and briquettes. The experience of Basen village in the Shirak region, where the local production of fuel pellets has recently started, shows that these can be competitive both in terms of costs and provided comfort.

Another issue related to the use of wood resources is that in many cases, trees that are felled for burning can be used to produce higher value products, thus providing additional income and consequently better access to natural gas with all the benefits related to its use. Local communities have to be provided with a higher degree of freedom in regards to the ways of using harvested wood to enable the development of crafts and other high value-added activities within legal parameters.
The implementation of the above-mentioned changes could lead to a decrease of pressure that is currently placed on forests, while also providing additional income that could be channeled into reforestation and afforestation programs. Another source of funding for these activities is the unemployment and social payments. This can be provided in exchange for participation in forest related work, thus also decreasing the risk of social capital devaluation and preventing a lapse in work ethic. At the same time, as forest activities are not permanent, participation in these should not be considered a form of employment, but rather some form of volunteer activity, so that participants are not removed from social programs.
If serious steps are taken towards implementing large-scale reforestation initiatives, there will be other available sources of funding too, including the Diaspora (mentioned earlier), which already invests in reforestation and can most likely invest more. International development organizations and governments of developed countries can also participate in funding through different schemes related to the cancellation of national debts in exchange for implementing projects that mitigate the effects of climate change.

Finally, besides all of the economic benefits and funding sources, there are some examples of countries, that have a reputation for amazing forest landscapes, which previously did not have such landscapes a few decades ago. Sweden, New Zealand and South Korea are among these. Armenia can be the next country.