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Tree Planters In Armenia Show Forests Are Not Just For Cutting


With gas prices high, many Armenians rely on firewood for heating

With gas prices high, many Armenians rely on firewood for heating

KARIN, Armenia -- In the green, mountainous land of western Armenia, far from any major city, you might think the forest could take care of itself.

But this once wooded land is now largely stripped bare, the result of centuries of logging. Today it is a landscape of grassy hillsides, with the remaining trees scarce and lonely on the hilltops.

It is a scene that has become common in many countries where people regard forests mostly as sources of timber to sell. The forest, they assume, will grow back automatically and when it doesn't they simply accept the loss.

Tom Garabedian, managing director of the Armenia Tree Project

Tom Garabedian, managing director of the Armenia Tree Project

That used to be the rule here in the village of Karin, too. But now things are changing, thanks to the efforts of environmental activists who have established a nursery nearby.

The nursery, filled with saplings, is a sprawling knee-high forest of its own. It grows some 60,000 tree and shrub seedlings a year, enough for a major reforestation project in the denuded northern province of Lori.

Tom Garabedian, the managing director of the Armenia Tree Project (ATP), says this nursery and sister operations are part of an 18-year-old effort that so far has planted some 3.5 million trees in Armenia.

The replanting effort began, he says, at a time when Armenia was economically isolated due to the 1988-94 war in the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh region. Trees and even furniture were being burned for fuel to survive bitterly cold winters and severe power rationing. The idea of trees as something to conserve was disappearing.

Inspired By Kenya

An Armenian-American, Carolyn Mugar, visited Yerevan and was horrified by what she saw. She fought back by founding ATP and mobilizing funds in the United States and elsewhere to begin replanting.

Samvel Ghandilyan is the manager of the Armenia Tree Project's nursery in the village of Karin in western Armenia

Samvel Ghandilyan is the manager of the Armenia Tree Project's nursery in the village of Karin in western Armenia

Garabedian says Mugar was partly influenced by similar tree-planting efforts in other countries, particularly in Kenya, where activist Wangari Maathai would win the 2004 Nobel Peace Prize for championing reforestation and resisting land grabs by timber companies.

"I know that we have followed what Wangari Maathai had done in Africa and Carolyn was certainly very familiar with her work in Africa in that regard," Garabedian said.

"But I believe that her inspiration was really from seeing the effects of what had being going on within Armenia itself and the tree cutting that had been going on here. And that was what inspired her to begin to devote her time and her money to this effort.”

Since then, tree planting in Armenia has become a vehicle not just for reforesting barren lands but also changing people's attitudes about trees in general.

At the nursery in Karin, a group of schoolchildren from Yerevan seem struck by the beauty of the forest of saplings spreading out around them like a living green carpet.

Several say they have a new feeling about conservation from their visit.

"Cutting trees is necessary for paper, furniture, but one has to do it sparingly and with knowledge, cutting only the branches while leaving the trees undamaged," one of the children says. "We have promised to collect scrap paper for recycling in order to help save trees."

It's a good place to make such resolutions.

On the horizon tower the peaks of three mountains: Mount Ara, Mount Ararat, and Mount Aragats.

They are a reminder of how beautiful nature can be for its own sake -- and a reminder of how much it is a treasure to be kept safe by each generation.

Written by Charles Recknagel, based on reporting by RFE/RL's Armenian Service correspondent Elina Chilingaryan.

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