By Nane Atshemian
Leading environment protection groups are ringing alarm bells over the planned construction of a new highway which they say would wreak havoc on one of Armenia’s last remaining virgin forests.
Tens of thousands of trees in the Shikahogh forest reserve in southeastern Armenia are to be cut down under government plans to build a second, 90-kilometer road leading to the Iranian border. Work on the $16 million project was expected to get underway this spring.
But it was apparently delayed by a growing uproar from local environmentalists who warn of serious irreversible consequences for the country’s ecological system. A joint working group formed by the Armenian ministries of environment and transport is currently assessing the potential environmental impact of the project seen as strategically important by the government.
However, Transport Minister Andranik Manukian indicated last month that the government will make a “political” decision to press ahead with its implementation regardless of the group’s findings. Manukian declined a comment on Friday.
Official says the currently sole highway running from the mountainous Syunik region’s capital Kapan to the Iranian frontier is too narrow and often impassable in winter months, complicating Armenia’s vital commercial ties with Iran.
“Let it be strategic but not cut across the reserve,” said Karen Manvelian, the head of the Yerevan office of World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF). He said the WWF and other environment groups suggested that the planned road bypass the Shikahogh woods but the government rejected the idea on the grounds that the alternative route would be 20 kilometers longer and run at a higher altitude.
Manvelian countered that this will not make much difference as the main highway linking Yerevan to Kapan is much longer and already runs through three tortuous mountain passes. He claimed that the authorities are opposed to the road bypass also because senior government officials stand to financially gain from massive logging that would accompany the road construction.
Adding its voice to the environmentalists’ concerns was the Armenian Assembly of America, an influential Washington-based organization. In an extraordinary move, its chairman Hirair Hovnanian wrote to President Robert Kocharian on May 25, calling for the project to be scrapped.
“The construction of the proposed road through the preserve will introduce pollution from passing vehicles into this almost pristine forest, destroy the habitat for rare wildlife and migratory paths, and attract illegal logging, depriving future generations of Armenians of a non-renewable resource,” the letter read.
Hovnanian also warned that the Armenian government’s international reputation would also suffer as a result. “The national and international communities will perceive the Armenian government as having no respect for its own environmental laws or the international conventions and treaties it has ratified,” he said. “Moreover, if Armenia does not demonstrate responsible management of its natural and historical heritage, it weakens its ability to protect Armenia from the impact of destructive policies in neighboring countries.”
Shikahogh is Armenia’s second largest forest reserve, occupying some 10,000 hectares of land. According to Manvelian, it has been largely unaffected by Armenia’s massive post-Soviet deforestation due to its remote location and care shown by residents of nearby villages.
Only 11 percent of the country’s mountainous territory was covered with forests in 1991. That proportion now stands at below 8 percent, mainly due to commercial and mostly illegal logging. The process has been greatly facilitated by lax government controls and corruption. Some environmentalists warn that if the current trends continue Armenia could be left without any major forests by 2024.
(Photo courtesy of Hetq.am)