Year 2020 turned out to be quite challenging for countries all over the world, and Armenia was not an exception. According to Mihaela Stojkoska, UNDP Resident Representative of a.i. in Armenia, and Arman Valesyan, ''Integrated Rural Tourism Development" and "Sustainable Communities" projects manager, the key to overcoming all the difficulties and becoming a self-sufficient entity as a country and a state is sustainability. Regional Post sat down with them to discuss these issues.

Text: Margarit Mirzoyan


The game-changer

From the first days of the COVID-19 pandemic in Armenia, UNDP tried to tackle the issue on several levels. The organization started by providing food packages to the elderly people living in the communities across Armenia. Their next step was purchasing the much-needed ventilation equipment with COVID-19 patients. However, at some point, the organization realized that this type of solution is not enough to bring a larger change. “To find the solution which would become a game-changer, a more global approach was required. Any further actions should lead to more sustainable, long-term, and diversified results,” says Mihaela Stojkoska.

Under the global umbrella of sustainable development, UNDP started the “Sustainable Communities” project, which is funded by the Russian Federation and implemented by UNDP in Armenia in close cooperation with the Ministry of Territorial Administration and Infrastructure of RA. Eventually, at some point, the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) became more visible in practice and the time had come to turn from theory to practice to witness tangible results.


Seeds for the communities

From this starting point, awareness campaigns were implemented, developing and publishing around 100,000 guidelines and spreading them via supermarket chains and drugstores.

As the project moved further, it acquired a larger scale. UNDP started implementing works to reduce the expenditure of the communities, placing energy-efficient systems so that these resources could be used to cover the costs related to the social and economic issues within the communities. These solutions would be the placement of solar panels, LED light systems, and many more. But the key solution, which the UNDP team suggested, was the development of a separate model for food security, namely the establishment of a seed reserve with its logistics center. This would give the community an opportunity to become self-sufficient and independent by reproducing seeds.

The seed production in Armenia is not on the highest level, there are only a couple specialized centers working in that direction. The main goal of the program is to ensure the compliance of the seed production value chain in the country. What does it mean? Currently, farmers in Armenia purchase the seeds of the fourth, fifth, and more reproductions, when, by establishing a seed reserve, the farmers could have the seeds of the highest quality at their disposal. These reserves won’t be benefiting only the community; UNDP wants to position them at the macro level so they benefit the whole country.

The research centers will provide the reserves with the seeds, the latter will plant and deliver the first reproduction seeds and pass them on to the farmer, integrating a value chain for the entire Armenia. The reserves will have a whole infrastructure under one roof: warehouses, production sights, etc.

The pilot reserve will be established in the Chambarak community, Gegharkunik region. But UNDP doesn’t want to stop there. The organization plans on building 3-4 similar reserves in other communities. The primary idea is to become an example for the whole country to ensure the self-sufficiency of the communities.

“If one day another crisis occurs; we may face a food shortage which is a direct road to famine. “To have one centralized point for these activities is quite hard and costly for the government,” says Ms. Stojkoska “so we suggest distributing this weight to the communities, each of which will produce its champion product, and an exchange system will be established between the reserves in different communities and, finally, a high-quality diversified food basket will be available for each community.”


Partnering with the private sector

Continuing to promote the idea of sustainability, during the pandemic, UNDP actively supported small and medium-sized enterprises, which involved both small grant programs and large co-financing initiatives directed mainly to women and youth. The idea was to work directly with people, help them realize their own ideas, rather than give them final products. “This approach will lead us to a more resilient and sustainable plan and results, we will teach people how to resist the hardships in a long run, rather than providing a temporary solution,” says Mr. Valesyan, “No one will understand your issues like you, no one will stand your grounds the same way as you want to, thus one has to do it for himself/herself.

The logical continuation of these ideas is the two business competitions launched by UNDP within the “Sustainable Communities” project. The first one is the "Start-Me-Up" business competition covering Aragatsotn, Armavir, Kotayk, Ararat, Syunik regions, as well as 34 border communities of Gegharkunik and Vayots Dzor regions. The main goal of the competition is enhancing the development and diversification of offered services in the mentioned regions as well as supporting the already active and brand new business ideas. More globally, the initiative will contribute to the social-economic development and sustainability of the communities as well as create opportunities for young people and women to be more active in their communities. The reduction of poverty and fostering a business environment in the regions will be the final chord of the project.

The second competition under the "Sustainable Communities" project is called “My Village” supporting entrepreneurs in the agricultural sector, covering the same regions and settlements as the previous project. Here the aim is slightly different. The competition will support new and existing small business entrepreneurs to foster productivity, renovate and re-equip innovative ideas.


On the top of the hill, in the middle of the forest

Under sustainable development, UNDP developed not only the “Sustainable Communities” direction but also the “Sustainable Tourism.” Initially, both the community and tourism projects had the same goal - to help people make their communities comfortable for living and creating. But from here the aims of these two projects went in different directions. Tourism took the road of traditions, culture, nature, and the preservation of heritage.

In Gegharkunik region, there are three communities - Dprabak, Kalavan, and Antaramej - which spontaneously formed a rural tourism cluster on the top of the hill, in the middle of the forest. UNDP noticed this triangle, which has a huge potential but at this moment operates with half of it. In order to unleash the rest of the potential and position it as the first tourist cluster in Armenia, UNDP decided to come up with a cluster model which could be later on used in other communities as well. Here, inside this triangle, the economic opportunities are limited, and the main source of income is livestock. However, during the past years, rural tourism has become a more stable activity in these particular communities. “We believe that tourism opportunities can become the main competitive advantage for this region by means of this cluster,” says Arman Valesyan, “What they need is a solid presentation and branding. They need to repair the roads and the roofs of the houses, change the lighting systems, renew the signs, repair the fences, ensure media coverage, train the locals to serve the visitors better, increase the number of guesthouses, invest in the infrastructure of the village and many other details to be taken care of.”


A place for living and creating

According to Mr. Valesyan, if the cluster fully operates, it can serve up to 100,000 visitors a year. There are more than 950 villages in Armenia and the locals have no idea about many of them. What if all of them form clusters and make tourism the main competitive advantage of Armenia as a whole? This will contribute to the global idea of sustainability, as it will benefit both tourism and the community. At the end of the day, the main goal of the umbrella concept of sustainable development fostered by UNDP is to help people living in Armenia to form and develop a place where they can happily live and create at every moment.

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