By Shakeh Avoyan
Fourteen environment protection groups and other non-governmental organizations urged President Robert Kocharian on Friday to block a government decision putting Armenia’s endangered forests under the Agriculture Ministry’s control.
In a joint open letter, they warned that the move could have “dangerous consequences” for the country’s shrinking green areas, saying that the ministry lacks the expertise and commitment to protect them.
The decision, made by ministers last week, removed the Hayantar forestry agency from the jurisdiction of the Environment Ministry shortly after it was criticized by Kocharian for not doing enough to prevent the endemic illegal logging. The ministry will now have only the authority to oversee the agency’s work, but not manage it on a day-to-day basis.
The signatories of the letter, among them two Diaspora-funded charities, welcome that, but said Hayantar should have instead become an independent government agency. “We are concerned that the planned change would further aggravate the already catastrophic state of our forests,” they said.
“Hayantar and the Agriculture Ministry have different goals and functions; there might arise a direct conflict of forest and agricultural interests,” they added, warning that “forest protection could be relegated to the background.”
The issue was discussed on Friday at a meeting between Environment Minister Vartan Ayvazian and the country’s leading environmentalists. One of them, Karine Danielian, said that she always had difficulty cooperating with the Agriculture Ministry on forest protection when she worked as environment minister in the early 1990s. Ayvazian also signaled his disagreement with the change of jurisdiction.
However, Kocharian is unlikely to reconsider the controversial decision, having strongly defended it at a news conference last week. He argued that in many European countries forests are run and protected by agriculture ministries.
The total area of lands covered by woods in Armenia has shrunk considerably since the onset of a severe energy crisis in the early 1990s which forced many people to use wood for heating their homes in the winter. Wood is also heavily used by local firms producing construction materials and furniture. Environmentalists say the deforestation is causing soil erosion and having other negative effects on the country’s ecological system.
The Environment Ministry periodically bans commercial logging and tried to overhaul Hayantar two years ago. The reputedly corrupt agency was banned from cutting and selling trees and transformed into a regulatory body at the time.
However, the measure appears to have not had desired effects, with deforestation remaining a serious problem in Armenia. It was discussed earlier this month at an extraordinary meeting of senior government officials chaired by Kocharian.