Armenian Tree Project Celebrates 20th Anniversary


‘Green Is the New Black’

 

ATP2By Aram Arkun

Mirror-Spectator Staff

WATERTOWN — The Armenian Tree Project (ATP) is commemorating its 20th anniversary with a series of events in Boston, Los Angeles and Yerevan. In Boston, a volunteer committee has organized a banquet in an unusual urban setting for November 8 of this year.

Nina Festekjian and Nicole Babikian Hajjar are the co-chairs of this large and diverse committee. The venue, the John Joseph Moakley US Courthouse overlooking the Boston harbor, is a unique one for an Armenian event. Everything — music, food and art — in some way will have an Armenian “flavor.” The landscapes of Armenia will appear through a display of Arthur Hovhannisyan’s artworks. The Black Sea Salsa will perform jazz music with an Armenian twist. One of the guest speakers will be the actor David Alpay, the Canadian actor who played the leading role in Atom Egoyan’s film, “Ararat.” Festekjian said that elements of the event will remind the attendees of the connection between ATP and trying to remain environmentally “green.”

Hajjar said, “What is special about this banquet will be the scale. We are hoping to engage a large part of the community, and to have a very high turnout. ATP does not hold an annual banquet, unlike many other organizations, so this makes the event all the more exciting and important, especially since founder Carolyn Mugar is from Boston.”

Festekjian added that some six hundred attended the 10th anniversary event so “we hope to get around that number once more.”

The event will try to raise awareness of the importance of the environment and trees for Armenia, and raise money for ATP projects through tickets, donations and the auction. Hajjar stated: “It will be an inspirational event. We really are trying to make a fun, upbeat and young in spirit event. We want it very dynamic.” She stressed that ATP involves “no political, religious or any other factions. The only color it has is green — and green is the new black. It is just about the environment and the good of Armenia.”

Festekjian concluded: “ATP does so many things for Armenia — reforestation, the creation of jobs and education of the younger generation. And beyond that, when a tree is planted, it is like building a personal bridge between a sponsor outside of Armenia and Armenia itself.”

 

Origins of ATP

ATP’s focus has been tree planting and the environment, and its work in a broader perspective concerns the survivability of the Armenian people and state. Tom Garabedian, ATP’s managing director, puts it bluntly: “If you lose your trees and then your water supply, you will end up with a country that is a desert that cannot sustain its people. This will ultimately lead to the demise of the country. In a sense what we are doing is hoping to enable the country to remain free and independent, with a healthy environment and healthy people.”

Trees protect against erosion, and so allow soil for growing crops. They also can be used if regulated properly as a renewable fuel resource.

The philanthropist and activist Carolyn Mugar and her late husband John O’Connor, assisted by Regina Eddy, an expert in the development of NGOs, founded ATP in 1994. Mugar saw the desperation of the Armenian people as a result of the recent earthquake and the blockade by Azerbaijan and Turkey. Trees were being cut down everywhere for firewood. ATP was a first step in trying to rectify a growing environmental tragedy. It was established within the framework of the Armenian Assembly of America, of which it is still a subsidiary. The Assembly at present continues to administratively assist the Tree Project, and the Tree Project submits reports to the former. However, no funding is directly provided, and ATP carries out projects with all segments of the Armenian community.

ATP initially began planting trees in cities and villages, and extended this activity around ten years ago to also include large-scale reforestation efforts in the countryside. In Armenia, forests belong either to a community or the state, so ATP must obtain leases from the former or Hayantar (Armenian Forest), which is part of the Armenian Ministry of Agriculture. These leases are free, but ATP pays for everything else, while leaving the products behind. ATP does not sell the trees or make any money from their produce. For example, villagers benefit from the fruit produced by any fruit trees planted by ATP, as well as the wood — and from cleaner air and water. ATP estimates that over 300,000 pounds of fruit are harvested annually from trees it has planted.

Environmentalists are working hard to overcome the damage from the initial period of Armenian independence. Armenia’s forests covered at least somewhere over twenty percent of its landmass in the early Soviet period. According to a formal study published in 2005, Armenia’s forest cover was estimated to be 11.2 percent of its total land in 1988, while in 2000 it was estimated at 8.2 percent.

On the one hand, ATP estimates that over 4.5 million trees have been planted since 1994. Every year at present ATP is planting around 400,000 trees. The records from the first ten years on the rate of survival of trees are not that complete, but for the last five to ten years, Garabedian said that the expectation was that 85 percent of the trees planted in cities and villages, and 65 percent of those in large-scale reforestation in the countryside, could be expected to survive. The reason for the discrepancy between the two areas is that the trees in the countryside cannot be irrigated and depend fully on rainfall. They also cannot be maintained as carefully as in the villages or towns.

On the other hand, Garabedian confessed, “The country needs millions of trees to be planted each year to reach its historical level of forest cover. We are candid in admitting that we alone do not have the resources to do as much planting as needed. It really requires a commitment on the part of the government to devote more resources to the national forest agency Hayantar, as well as the work of other international organizations.”

 

Training the Next Generation

Partly in order to deal with the enormity of the task, ATP began to engage in more efforts on education in Armenia over the last 10 years. Garabedian said, “We have two environmental education centers in Armenia funded by Virginia and the late Michael Ohanian, and those centers, and the work that we have done to create an environmental curriculum for Armenia have exposed many thousands of children to studies on their own environment in Armenia.” ATP has worked with the Armenian Ministry of Education to get approval for the curriculum and train teachers and trainers for more teachers on the environment, generally in elementary schools. The curriculum is not mandatory. Its use depends on the forbearance of the principal, who must allow a science teacher to go through the ATP-provided training.

Garabedian further explained: “We do this because honestly there has been, historically, a general disregard for the Armenian environment. We can plant for the next 20 years and have some impact, but that impact won’t be as great as educating the young children for a greater awareness and respect for their environment. The hope is that there will be less of a need for the remediation that the tree plantings provide.” Meanwhile, the scale of the tree plantings will not diminish.

ATP attempts to call public attention to environmental problems in Armenia. It accepts that Armenians need firewood for heat and cooking, and trees can indeed be used as a sustainable resource. However, Garabedian points out, “Where we take issue is what we believe to be illegal logging that is not done sustainably. This amounts to private gain at the expense of the public environment. In turn, this carries over to mining, which can cause a lot of environmental damage, though it could be done in a less harmful manner. Teghut is a good example. We lost many hectors of old growth forest for mining.”

ATP is not in a position to intervene in specific instances of such activity. Instead, aside from calling attention to abuses in general, it hopes that education of young people will lead to a change in mentality. Garabedian said, “We are not an enforcement agency. All we can do is advocate for adherence to the law. And the law should not tolerate this illegal logging.”

In the US ATP has four full-time and three part-time associates. Its headquarters are in Watertown, Mass. But it has a full-time employee as development director on the West Coast, along with a part-time associate. In Armenia, its administrative office has about fifteen people. There it maintains three nurseries and these nurseries themselves employ about 45 people fulltime. Moreover, its forestry operations hire 75-100 seasonal workers involved in large-scale reforestation efforts. The local director in Armenia oversees everything there and in Karabagh.

The US office primarily plans and raises money for Armenia. However, Building Bridges, a program funded by the Thomas A. Kooyumjian family, does work to provide information on Armenian environmental issues to diasporan Armenian children. The children of various Armenian day schools and also Saturday and Sunday schools are given presentations, primarily in California, to create a greater connection with Armenia.

ATP has received some support from outside grants. For example, over the past three years the Norwegian government has provided assistance used for ATP’s planting operations. A German social development agency has been helpful, as have a variety of other European institutions.  The US government, however, does not do anything directly concerning forestry in Armenia.

ATP received a large bequest at the end of 2013 providing a half-year cushion in operating expenses, and it hopes through the 20th-anniversary celebratory events to raise $3 million in 2014. Garabedian said, “This would decrease our dependence on annual fundraising campaigns, so that we would not be forced to adjust the scope of the programs in Armenia each year.”

ATP’s immediate goals are to add a fourth nursery and an environmental education center, in the southern part of Armenia. Its present nurseries are in the north and center of the country, which adds costs and difficulties for working in the south or Artsakh. Nonetheless, ATP has recently managed to plant some fruit trees in locales where Syrian-Armenian refugees were relocated.

For more information on ATP and its banquet, see www.armeniatree.org.