By Ani Melkonian
YEREVAN and WATERTOWN — Environmental education has been one of the strategic priorities of the Armenia Tree Project (ATP) since 2005, with trainings and workshops conducted all over Armenia. Thousands of schoolchildren visit ATP’s two education centers sponsored by the Ohanian Family of Boston. The centers — one located on the grounds of the Karin Nursery and another in Margahovit Village — provide interactive lessons focused on all aspects of the environment.
The year 2015 was a record-breaking year as more students visited the centers than ever before. Sixty four school groups (1,646 students) from Yerevan, Kotayk and Armavir attended classes at the Michael and Virginia Ohanian Environmental Education Center in Karin, which significantly exceeds the number from previous years. In Margahovit, 74 school groups (1,971 students) visited the Michael and Virginia Ohanian Center for Environmental Studies from Lori, Tavush, Gegharkunik and Shirak.
“Our approach is that planting trees is not enough when there is limited awareness about environmental issues in the country,” explains education manager Alla Sahakyan. “Through our environmental education program, ATP aims to raise a responsible generation of Armenians that will take on their roles as caretakers and protectors of the environment. To support that goal, our team works hard to instill respect, care and understanding towards nature in the youth.”
Melanya Sarukhanyan is a 13-year-old schoolgirl from Margahovit and a regular at the Ohanian Center. She’s a member of ATP’s eco-club, the inauguration of which in 2012 was cause for great excitement in the village. Sarukhanyan was introduced to the club at school by her biology teacher Gayane Markaryan, who also happens to be the eco-club trainer. The club has 35 members in two age groups — middle and high school students — and they meet three times a week. “Making the extra effort after school is no inconvenience for the students because they enjoy learning new things in a stimulating and peaceful environment,” says Sahakyan.
The Ohanian Center is like an illustration straight out of a children’s book. The building itself is camouflaged to reflect the surrounding green rolling mountains, with the Hrant Dink Memorial Forest in the background and the Mirak Family Reforestation Nursery within sight of the gardens. The front yard is a beautifully laid out garden and an exhibition of the children’s projects. The delicate flowers, plants and vegetables are a result of all that the children are learning in the eco-club.
Here Melanya Sarukhanyan has learned how to make compost, how to graft fruit trees and how to plant and care for trees. She’s also learned about organic insect control and growing organic vegetables. ATP has introduced broccoli and Brussels sprouts to the village, where only cabbage and potatoes were grown in the past.
Students also study the importance of bees in an ecosystem, the damage of pesticides and herbicides to bee colonies, bee care and honey production.
“The goal is to connect children with the environment. We want them to value their natural heritage,” adds Sahakyan.
When asked what she likes about the eco-club, Sarukhanyan says they put into practice things they learn in theory. “We use modern and at the same time eco-friendly technology, which we don’t have at school,” she says. “We watch slideshows and videos together…It’s more fun that way. I’ve learned that nature gives us life, so we must care for it.”
A vital part of ATP’s education program is for students to make a connection between what they learn and what occurs in their daily lives. They apply their knowledge by making compost in their gardens and by recycling paper and plastic bottles. “I get a lot of phone calls from parents complaining because their kids won’t allow them to throw trash away,” jokes Sahakyan. “That’s how I know our work is paying off.”
In addition to hosting local students, ATP hosts diasporan youth as part of the Building Bridges program in the USA. Students from Armenia meet their peers from the diaspora and together learn about their natural heritage and a little bit about each other. In 2015, ATP hosted six school visits from the diaspora which included tree plantings at historical locations like Sardarabad. The environmental education program also includes the training of teachers to use the “Plant an Idea, Plant a Tree” manual published by ATP and approved by the Ministry of Education, and conducting lessons at a number of workshops and summer camps.
Since its inception in 1994, ATP has planted more than 4.9 million trees, established three nurseries and two environmental education centers, and has greened villages, churches, parks, and open spaces throughout Armenia. In the process, the organization has provided employment for hundreds of people and provided vital resources to thousands of villagers. For more information, visit www.armeniatree.org.