Cheers for Conservation: NY Event Highlights Yerevan’s Acopian Center for the Environment


Acopian Center staff polled villagers as part of the White Stork Project.

By Aram Arkun

Mirror-Spectator Staff

NEW YORK — The Acopian family hosted a cocktail reception with presentations concerning the Acopian Center for the Environment, located in Yerevan, on the evening of July 15 at the W Hotel at Union Square in Manhattan. Appropriately called “Cheers for Conservation,” it was attended by close to 200 people, including some 30 Armenian General Benevolent Union (AGBU) summer interns, Armenian-American young professionals, prominent Armenians, many non-Armenians interested in conservation and members and friends of the Acopian family. The list of Armenian organizations which sent official representatives to attend the event is impressive: Armenia Tree Project, Fund for Armenian Relief, Diocese of the Armenian Church of American (Eastern), Armenia Fund USA, AGBU, American University of Armenia (AUA) and Armenian Youth Federation. The evening provided information about environmental issues in Armenia in a relaxed, social atmosphere and also raised some funds for future activities.

Alex Karapetian, 28-year-old nephew of Jeff Acopian, opened the evening with a few general comments: “Several years ago I had no idea, honestly, about the environmental issues plaguing Armenia. I learned from my uncle that forests are being destroyed, pollution and littering are common, wildlife is over hunted and plant life is over collected. In the US you couldn’t get away with this kind of stuff.”

The Acopian family with Archbishop Khajag Barsamian

Karapetian pointed out that at first, “I didn’t think the environment should be at the forefront of Armenian concerns, but I was wrong. … Ninety years after the Armenian Genocide, the people of Armenia are committing their own kind of genocide by killing off natural resources.” He called for educating the younger generations in Armenia about the environment and conservation: “This is the time. Ninety years later will be too late.”

Jeff Acopian then gave a synopsis of the Acopian family’s activities in Armenia. They began with earthquake relief and continued with the founding of a department and center devoted to environmental research and education at the AUA, later named the Acopian Center for the Environment, through the efforts of Jeff Acopian’s father, Sarkis Acopian: “We’ve been working in Armenia since 1992. Our first project was A Field Guild to Birds of Armenia. Working in Armenia is very rewarding, but can also be frustrating.” Acopian related a Nassreddin Hoja story as an illustration of the way people will criticize you no matter what you do: “The early 1990s was like that. People didn’t understand. They were barely staying alive and keeping warm — so why birds?” The Acopians found, however, that “bird watching was a way to get people interested in the environment.” They promoted this and many other educational projects. Recently, to their dismay, they discovered that DDT was still being stockpiled and used in Armenia.

Dr. Keith L. Bildstein, the Sarkis Acopian Director of Conservation Science at the Hawk Mountain Sanctuary in Pennsylvania and senior science and policy advisor to the Acopian Center for the Environment in Yerevan, spoke further about the work of the center in Armenia. Bildstein helped train three of the staff members in Armenia at the Hawk Mountain Sanctuary and usually visits the Center at least once a year. He happily exclaimed, “We have an amazing leader — Dr. Karen Aghababyan.”

He underlined the importance of the center’s work by pointing out the surprising fact that the greatest biological diversity in the world outside of the tropics today exists in the Caucasus region, including Armenia. In an effort to save this unique diversity, “we focus on birds, butterflies and plants as biological sentinels.” This focus has an additional benefit: “Birds are great ambassadors for environmental concerns.” One example of the center’s research, as opposed to educational work, is its attempt to learn more about a bird of prey called the Levant Sparrowhawk. It migrates from Armenia and other regions to Africa, but little is known about this. It costs $250 per tracking unit to collect information, so this is a quite expensive project.

The Acopian Center attempts to educate the new generations. It invites schoolchildren to visit the center on field trips. It hosts events such as “White Stork Day,” and it also enlists villagers as “nest neighbors” to help collect information on the storks. It organizes poster contests for children.

As Bildstein pointed out, “Saving one bird at a time is not the most practical way, so we try to give as much information as possible to Armenians about birds.” For this reason, the above-mentioned A Field Guide to the Birds of Armenia was published in Armenian, with Sarkis Acopian’s support, in 1999. The center uses the illustrations from the field guide for posters for children and in various publications. A field guide for butterflies is being planned.

The center offers courses to AUA students — all students there are required to take at least one course addressing environmental issues — and provides bird identification courses for the community at large.

Bildstein claimed that the Acopian Center has the best geographic information system (GIS) equipment — meaning systems capturing, analyzing and presenting data pertaining to geographic location — in Armenia: “Many government agencies come to us for maps. We’re teaching GIS to other Armenians.”

The Acopian Center partners with others with conservation concerns and is working on innovative programs in a number of fields. Some may help Armenia’s economy along the way. Bildstein explained: “Armenia is not all rocky and desolate. Valleys exist which are like the Garden of Eden. Fruits and nuts grow there. Southern Armenia in particular has great fruit, in places like Meghri.” Due to transportation difficulties, the fruit is preserved through drying. “The idea is to use the fruits from Armenia and put labels on them that they are coming from areas with organic farming where ecological importance is also protected. This helps the people of Armenia too.” Bildstein, like all the other speakers, concluded with a passionate appeal for action: “Armenia is waiting to be saved or ruined — which, is up to us.”

The final presentation of the evening was by Ani Acopian, Jeff’s 15-year-old daughter. She introduced a short film she had prepared in only a handful of days about the situation in Meghri, in southern Armenia. She went to the state park and found that the children litter without feeling any shame. The park manager said there was trash everywhere. She befriended a group of kids there: “I went on a hot day to a pool and became friends with them. I brought trash bags and told them I’d give ice cream if they cleaned the park up.” She called the kids the “trash police,” and filmed a video in order to educate them. It apparently already has had some effect. The mayor of Meghri has promised to install more trash cans, while the manager of the park adopted Ani’s strategy and began offering the children ice cream too if they kept things clean.

Karapetian later explained that all of the Acopians volunteer their own time while organizing activities on behalf of the environment. He and Jeff Acopian are fulltime employees of the Acopian Technical Company. Jeff Acopian is vice president and his brother, Greg Acopian, is the president. Alex Karapetian is director of sales and marketing. He also is in charge of the outreach work pertaining to the environment, while Keith Bildstein is the technical advisor on environmental issues. But everything began initially with the late Sarkis Acopian. Founder of the Acopian Technical Company, a power supply company, it was his passion for the environment and desire to help Armenia that eventually drew the rest of his family into action. Karapetian declared: “Family is very important for us. Sarkis created all these things for us to carry out. He set everything up for his dream to be carried on. …Our concern at these events is education. We wanted to fund this event because we thought it was a great platform for people to listen and learn about the issues. It is my generation that will have to make these changes  [environmentally].”

He added that the evening “wasn’t a financial event. The cause was the main focus. And it also was a tribute to the great things that Sarkis Acopian had done in the past. He was the one who really started the environmental movement in Armenia in the early 1990s.”

For the event, the Acopians “invited the non- Armenians because this is a global issue. Armenians can’t help every organization and this isn’t just an Armenian issue.” Interestingly, most donations for the Acopian Center’s work have come from non-Armenians so far in general. At this particular event, it approximately broke down as 60-percent Armenian, 40-percent non-Armenian. Karapetian speculated that this was perhaps “because non-Armenians are more familiar with environmental issues around the world.”

However, many books and maps were sold at the event to Armenians and non-Armenians alike. This was the second such event organized by the Acopians in the US. Karapetian explained, “I would like to host smaller-scale events throughout the year geared towards young professionals in the tri-state area and maybe something on the West Coast too. There would be one formal event and the rest would be get-togethers.” The next major event in the US will probably be another “Cheers to Conservation” reception and presentation about the Acopian Center in the Lehigh Valley, where the Acopians are from, predominantly for non-Armenians.

Alex feels that the best way for diasporan Armenians to help the situation in Armenia is by donating money, while the Acopian Center in Yerevan asks for Armenians there to volunteer their time to help clean up the streets and environment. Of course, Diasporan Armenians can also do environmental work in their local American communities.

There are several important things that should be changed in Armenia: “Armenia needs to stop cutting down trees for profit. This started from necessity, but now it is just a source of money. It is difficult to tell this to people when members of government are doing it to increase their personal wealth. People are often scared to talk about it. But if enough people get together, it will change.” Litterers in Armenia should be fined and bins set up for garbage. Parks should not be torn down for apartment complexes. “Over the last 10 to 15 years, 60 percent of green space has gone. Armenia used to consist of a majority of forests and green space in the Soviet period.” These changes have to be made domestically: “We can’t just go to Armenia and make our own rules. They have to make laws for their own country.” Solar energy and new technology can be used more.

Notwithstanding all the problems in Armenia, Alex Karapetian concluded, “We are all optimistic. We are working at the grassroots level. One person can make a difference.”

Acopian Center Director Karen Aghababyan receives the Whitley Award from HRH Princess Anne. The Whitley is the world’s most prestigious award in conservation.