World Bank Survey Highlights Shrinkage Of Armenian Forests

Radio Free Europe, Czech republic
March 25 2004

World Bank Survey Highlights Shrinkage Of Armenian Forests

By Gevorg Stamboltsian

Armenians’ continuing use of firewood as a source of heating remains
a serious threat to the country’s endangered mountainous forests, new
research funded by the World Bank concludes.
The study conducted recently by a team of British and Swedish experts
found that 73 percent of people living near the Armenian forests
still resort to logging for keeping their homes warm in the winter.
`It’s a hard situation,’ said Andrew Mitchell, a British forestry
consultant involved in the effort.
`The total volume [of wood] that’s removed each year is approximately
750,000 cubic meters,’ he told RFE/RL. `And this is a very large
volume if you compare it with the officially planned volumes. So it
is likely to have an environmental impact.’

The total area of lands covered by woods in Armenia has already
shrunk considerably since the severe energy crisis in the early 1990s
which left the population without electricity and central heating.
Although the power shortages were eliminated by 1996 many people,
especially in rural areas, still prefer firewood to the more
expensive electricity, and the authorities have still not restored
natural gas supplies to the majority of households.

The authors of the World Bank study believe that poverty is the main
driving force of the continuing deforestation. But Armenian
environmentalists say there are also powerful commercial interests
involved, pointing to the fact that wood is heavily used by local
firms producing construction materials and furniture. They warn that
the deforestation is causing soil
erosion and having other negative effects on the country’s ecological

`It’s a devastating business,’ admitted Ruben Petrosian, the recently
appointed head of Hayantar, the government’s main forestry agency.

Petrosian complained that the state now spends less than $300,000 a
year on forest protection and restoration — a far cry from Soviet
times when an equivalent of $4 million was annually budgeted for that
purpose. `In 1985, for example, new trees were planted on 3,500
hectares of land, creating new forests,’ he said.

However, Hayantar itself is viewed by many as a major cause of the
problem. Its employees are thought to routinely sanction illegal
logging in exchange for kickbacks. Their modest salaries only
contribute to the corruption.

`The temptation for corruption must be very large,’ Mitchell said.
`If I was in that position and my family was sick and I needed to
send them to hospital, I would take a bribe.’

Mitchell added that tougher penalties alone would not remedy the
situation. Besides, he continued, the government’s existing logging
regulations are not clear enough. `It is difficult to say what is
legal and what is illegal,’ he said.

Hayantar, which was previously controlled by the Armenian Ministry of
Environment, was transferred to the Agriculture Ministry in January
amid protests from 14 environmental protection groups. In a joint
letter to President Robert Kocharian, they warned that the move could
have `dangerous consequences’ for the country’s shrinking green
areas. They claimed that the Agriculture Ministry lacks the expertise
and commitment to protect them.