AUA Acopian Center for the Environment

AUA Acopian Center for the Environment

The Independent Voice of Nature within Armenian Society

The American University of Armenia (AUA) Acopian Center for the Environment has been around for over 25 years with a mission to make the environment a central point at the global discussions taking place in Armenia. Regional Post talked with the Director of the AUA Acopian Center Alen Amirkhanyan about the present and future of the center and its role in the transformation of the Armenian society.

Interview : Margarit Mirzoyan    Photo : AUA Acopian Center

 

How was the ACE brought to life, and what is the main idea behind its operation?

The AUA Acopian Center for the Environment has been around since 1992. One year after the establishment of the AUA, Sarkis Acopian, the benefactor of the center contacted its administration, suggesting to establish an environmental center and later on hugely supported its operations. Mr. Acopian was a migrant from Iran of Armenian descent who moved to the US and gained his wealth in the electronics industry but had a huge passion and commitment to wildlife conservation. He and his family actively worked in this direction in Pennsylvania, cooperated with several environmental organizations and educational institutions to create a similar type of awareness, educational and research base, and when AUA opened its doors, they saw an opportunity to bring this passion to Armenia. Initially, the center was called Environmental Management and Conservation Center. The first significant project they started in the first few years was The Birds of Armenia project, which served as a base for the publication of The Birds of Armenia handbook, which remains the only field guidebook about the bird populations in the country. This was the genesis of the center’s establishment.

AUA Ecotourism Conference 2019 field visit, focused on protected areas and ecotourism.

 

How does the center operate? What is its primary focus?

The center has three broad directions. One is Education. We offer the bulk of the environmental courses to the AUA undergraduate and graduate students. At the undergrad level, the center offers more than 12 courses in the frame of General Education offerings. The courses include introduction to environmental sciences, food, mining, waste, water, sustainable cities, biodiversity, and more. We also teach several courses at the graduate level. AUA graduate students have to complete one unit of environmental course to be able to graduate. Outside of AUA, we’ve also developed environmental education materials. With UNDP support we’ve a 20 hour environmental education modules for civil servants and municipals works. This is now available as an online training tool. The center’s other direction is Community Outreach. We engage with communities, such as through our Sustainable Energy Academy, where we work with communities to identify ways in which communities can improve the energy efficiency of their buildings and introduce renewable and clean energy sources to meet their needs. We work with community members to come up with their own solutions, which also leads to community empowerment. Last year, we even financed some of these exceptional ideas for community members to implement them. We’ve also have youth outreach programmes, working with a large network of youth groups to engage them in understanding and acting on local environmental challenges. Another key community outreach work has been organizing policy discussions and debates. We’ve been able to stimulate policy dialog on ecotourism, mining, waste governance, and forests. The events have been able to propel to center stage policy discussions that are missing in the country. The communities engaged cover the rage: policymakers, civil society organizations involved in the sector, relevant businesses, and academic institutions. We rarely organize conferences purely for academics; we do action-oriented engagements. That’s why it’s called community outreach. The third direction of the center is the Research component, which ranges from fundamental scientific research to policy research. The latter, for example, is a study on waste governance, its legal and institutional framework in Armenia and how it can be aligned to circular economy principles. Currently, we also work on several papers regarding the forest sector, which still can become starting points for policy discussions as well. We also have fundamental research on water and biogeochemical cycles. We also are part of a large-scale EU Horizone 2020 project, Respondrone, where we are analyzing the needs of first responders in cases of environmental disasters.

Chambarak youth at the Sustainable Energy Academy 2018 exploring solutions for their communities

 

As far as I know, besides the AUA Acopian Center’s core work, the center has started couple of parallel initiatives.

There are two other initiatives. The first one is the AUA GIS and Remote Sensing Lab that we created in partnership with the AUA Akian College of Science and Engineering. The lab brings know-how to AUA on using earth observation platforms and satellite images for environmental planning, monitoring, and diagnostics. The geographic information systems (GIS) tools, in turn, enable mapping of environmental, public health, demographic and more types of data. Our second major initiative is the AUA Center for Responsible Mining, which was established in 2014. It’s separate from the AUA Acopian Center in terms of its agenda because mining does not only pose environmental issues; there are public health, occupational safety, disaster management, community and national economic development aspects as well. Here in Armenia, there’s a certain knowledge base on metallurgy, but there was not much in our country on mining that is socially and environmentally responsible. This idea was the main reason for creating this center, which brings an academic, evidence-based discourse on the critical issue of the mining sector in Armenia.

 

What about international cooperation? How did the center become a bridge between local and foreign organizations and initiatives?

Armenia is environmentally a very rich and unique place and a lot of international researchers in the field are interested in a country like ours. Also, Armenia is one of the EU’s Eastern Partnership countries, and there’s a focus on including these countries into EU initiatives. So, our focus was to tap into it and connect with all these networks and programmes. We had several EU funded projects, and we’ve applied for several new ones. We had tremendous success with the Horizon 2020 project, which is a major EU research and commercialization funding facility. We have two projects that have been approved, and this is connecting Armenia to the leading researchers abroad. The projects themselves are very interesting, but the relationships that come out of these projects are also very critical for Armenian researchers and institutions. We’re also largely engaged in academic exchange programmes. For example, with funding from DAAD in Germany, we have a flourishing cooperation with the Hohenheim University on the use of GIS tools in biodiversity monitoring and assessment. We also have Erasmus Plus collaborations, where we’ve developed academic programmes and curriculums with our European partners. In addition, we’ve had EU Black Sea Cross Border Cooperation projects, and more is on its way. Being part of this network means increasing and expanding the sphere of influence of our work.

AUA Acopian Center researcher interviewing community members on their natural resource use. Initiative partner, the University of Hohenheim, Germany

 

My question might sound trivial, but why do you think that educating the younger generation is more effective in promoting the environmental questions in Armenia than, for example, conducting hands-on operations at the sights?

First of all, these two are not mutually exclusive. I think you need several approaches to environmental work and our approach is not only education, but it’s also engagement and piloting in the communities, as well as research that investigates and analyzes the experience and puts forth new ideas. All these are very important for a healthy system that tries to generate innovation. Of course there are sometimes conflicts of values. Different people prefer one outcome over the other. Sometimes this preferences are based on inadequate understanding of facts and processes. I think that’s where education is vital for the people – it can inform their values. Education creates a common language and understanding of issues – a base on which people can have civilized discourse.

 

Do you think that we have a lack of eco-education or environmental awareness, particularly in Armenia?

I think Armenia has come a long way. It has changed a lot in terms of environmental awareness. I think Armenia has become much more dynamic in this discourse; still, we have a lot to do in terms of the environmentally informed policies. Such policies should concern the ministries of economy, finance, territorial administration, environment, and education, to name a few. The challenge for us is to understand how we can see environmental issues as cross-cutting, issues that should concern us all. If the concerns are delegated to one specialized group or agency, then they are more likely to become sidelined and marginalized.

This challenge is not unique to Armenia, but if we manage to overcome the isolation of the environmental topics, it would be a great success for us and a great example to set for the world. Our center has been talking about the circular economy approach, which promises to explore the interconnectedness of the economic and environmental domains. It guides countries on how to align economic activities with the material and energy flows that are within the ecologically possible. Of course, historically, many rural societies lived that way – in harmony with the environment, but with modern urbanized and industrial economies we’d gone the wrong way for a while and the industrial revolution radically shifted the relationship between humans and nature. I think now all stakeholders from both private and governmental sectors should try to figure out how to realign this relationship.

 

We discussed the role of the government and the economy. But what is the role of universities and similar institutions in making this alignment possible?

I found that the universities in Armenia are not utilizing their potential as a force social transformation. I think that educational institutions have to become more aggressive in figuring out their role in society. Here in Armenia, usually, universities are service providers – they teach and at time are commissioned to conduct research. They are rarely the ones that come up with ideas that challenge society. My vision of this center at AUA is that we should become that force, esp. by working with partners and stakeholders. We as a center are about healthy dialog and discourse on issues. Everyone can bring their ideas to the table. We can discuss, disagree, even dislike each other, but at the end of the day we have a healthy discussion and we can think about directions in which we can advance. In such discussions various interests are taken into account and the decisions are made on a very solid understanding of various positions, interests, costs and benefits.

 

Let’s get back to the center: what are you currently up to and what upcoming events and projects do you have?

One major event is the AUA Ecotourism Conference 2019. This is the fourth year we’ve done this conference. While for the last three ones we used to bring everyone who does something in the sphere of ecotourism in its broader sense, this year we’ve decided to change the format as, in my opinion, the previous one achieved what it was supposed to, viz., network people and exchange ideas. This year we’re going to focus on one topic, namely, on the role of protected areas in development of tourism. We’ve invited EUROPARC Federation, the organization creating standards and processes in which protected areas can become tourist destinations but ensuring environmental as well as social and economic sustainability. IUCN’s World Commission for Protected Areas Tourism Specialists Group is also among the attendees. The International Ecotourism Society is present as well. We are bringing significant capacity to Armenia to work toward developing sustainable tourism approaches that helps people and nature. The next big conference we’re organizing is the Forest Summit. We are doing this in partnership with the Armenian Tree Project. The whole idea of this summit is to make forests a focus of policy discussions. We've heard a lot about forest issues in the news recently; illegal logging and the fact that some communities feel entitled to logging is a clear example of policy failure. People have become so dependent on the forest that they feel like it’s their right to cut the trees. This is a policy failure. Also Armenia has committed to doubling its forest cover by 2050. How are we going to get there when we still rely so heavily on fuel wood from our forests? These are the questions the summit will address. It is a big multi-stakeholder input for the government in developing a national forest policy.

Engaging policymakers in key discussions. The Forest Summit 2019.

 

We’ve also done smaller events, for example, with Nordic Solutions for Sustainable Cities, where we’ve connected the international experts with policy decision-makers here to discuss urban sustainability, especially in the urban mobility. Another prominent initiative is EU’s Horizon 2020 programme. As I’ve mentioned, two of our proposals have been accepted. One is Respond Drone project, which we do in cooperation with the Ministry of Emergency Situations and with German Space Center as a lead partner. It’s an 8-million-euro project, and we have some of the top software developers in the world on our board. The other project is called Peritia, and the lead partner here is the University College Dublin. This project examines the role of experts and trust in experts in policy making. So, this project tackles the conditions of trusting experts and how to enhance this trust. This is a critical part of enabling deliberative democracy.

Nordic Solutions for Sustainable Cities focused on aligning the natural and the built environment.

 

What is the future outlook for the center?

The center is a center of excellence at the American University of Armenia. It will continue to grow with the number of projects it does and the staff. ACE will deepen its networks and expertise. We’re not going to be an institute of Zoology or Botany as there are experts in the country working on those topics. We see ourselves as a center where systems thinking takes place, defining how things connect and what the missing parts of this system are and how all of these are connected to social transformation. Our task is to bring together the partners and the networks improve knowledge, policymaking, community awareness.

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