Armenia: Deforestation Plans Ditched

Public pressure forces Armenian government to back down on plans to build a highway through nature reserve.

Armenia: Deforestation Plans Ditched

Public pressure forces Armenian government to back down on plans to build a highway through nature reserve.

The Armenian government has abandoned plans to build a new highway through a nature reserve after an unusual public outcry, led by local environmental groups.

In June, the government approved a road route linking Armenia and Iran, to the south, via the Shikahogh reserve.

Instead, the road will now circumvent Shikahogh and the Mtnadzor forests, home to unique trees, plants and even a small number of rare panthers.

The government was forced to bypass the park by adopting an alternate route that will add seven kilometres to the original 89-km projected length. Armenian environmentalists say avoiding Shikahogh will save 14,000 rare trees and hailed the climb down by the government as a major victory.

But Transport and Communications Minister Andranik Manukian said the plan to build the road through Shikahogh had been reconsidered not because of pressure from NGOs, but due to so-called “strategic problems”. Some observers said the government was merely reluctant to admit a defeat.

“True, the government does not accept it in any way, but public opinion was the reason for the change of a decision,” said Sona Ayvazian, environmental policy expert with the Centre for Regional Development/Transparency International Armenia.

Vladik Matirosian of the local non-governmental organisation Khustup said deforestation would have caused four billion drams (8.8 million US dollars) in damage to the environment, and endangered many animals in the area.

“Because of land explosions and the construction machinery, the forest’s fauna would at best have fled the territory which is an impregnable, irreplaceable habitat,” said Martirosian.

Many species in Shikahogh - like the Bezoarian Goat and the Armenian moufflon (a species of wild sheep) - are indigenous to Armenia. The reserve is also home to between five and eight Asian Panthers - an endangered species of which there are only 20 in the greater Caucasus.

The name Shikahogh (orange earth) comes from the orangey, fiery red colour of soil in the area. Scientists say the ten thousand hectares of forest help to moderate hot winds blowing from desert plains in Iran to the south. The vegetation is also influenced by air from the Caspian Sea to the east. These climatic conditions have created a mix of flora and fauna unique to the region, they say.

The oldest parts of the forest in Shikahogh are 1,000 years old. The growth is so thick in places it block out almost all sunlight, meaning that deep in the forest even the brightest days can seem dark here. Experts say the local ecosystem has been kept intact largely because of the region’s remoteness.

Shikahogh’s director, Ruben Mkrtchian, said the government dispatched construction machinery towards the reserve this spring. But Mkrtchian says that following appeals by him, his colleagues and the local office of the World Wildlife Fund, the government did not press ahead with delivery of the equipment.

Opponents of the plan then appealed to the president of Armenia, the chairman of the National Assembly and the prosecutor general, demanding the project through Shikahogh be scrapped. Some in Armenia say influential Diaspora figures lobbied extensively and met with President Robert Kocharian in an effort to overturn the decision to build the road.

The president of the Armenian Forests NGO, Jeffrey Tufenkian, told IWPR, “Yes, we believe this is a great precedent. We would like to see the continuation of this kind of involvement by NGOs, international organisations, the Diaspora and the general public. If this kind of public participation continues, Armenia will have a great future.”

But Tufenkian said it remained to be seen whether the decision to cancel the road project through the reserve was part of a larger trend.

“We are certainly glad that the highway will avoid the major part of the reserve, but we are still concerned that the processes seem to be happening in an illegal manner,” said Tufenkian. “For such major projects the government is required by Armenian law to carry out proper environmental impact assessments. They are also required to analyse different possible routes, and they are also required to hold public hearings. When they took the decision about this new route, they seemed to be doing none of this.”

Arevhat Grigorian is a correspondent for the newspaper website Hetq in Yerevan.

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