By Mariam Harutiunian, Agence France Presse
Waking one cold winter morning, Yerevan resident Susanna Poghosian drew back the curtains and got a shock: workmen had razed the trees opposite her home, literally overnight.
"Trees that had stood there for decades were lying on the ground. We were all in shock. It happened right in front of the eyes of the police, who didn't lift a finger," said Poghosian, recalling the day last month when the trees in the nearby playground were cut down.
Residents of this ex-Soviet republic are finding that after the dire economic straits they experienced in the 1990s, the runaway growth they now enjoy also has a downside: destruction of greenery and creeping desertification.
The Soviet Union's 1991 collapse brought this country a war with neighboring Azerbaijan and the shut-down of factories, but also the destruction of thousands of trees as energy supplies failed and people scoured the hills for fuel. The war has since been replaced by an uneasy ceasefire and despite closed borders with both Azerbaijan and Turkey, the economy is on the rise, thanks partly to investment by émigrés from Russia and the United States.
Economic growth in Armenia has averaged 10 percent annually for the last 10 years, according to the World Bank, and last year's growth rate was 13.4 percent, according to official statistics. But this upswing has not been matched by improved governance in the Armenian capital, where poor oversight means that the land is drying up in and around this city of some 1.2 million people.
Yerevan, famous for the pink coloring of city centre buildings, dates from before the eighth century BC and, like many Soviet urban centers, has since seen a sprawl of high-rise apartment blocks on the outskirts. Residents take pride in the lush city centre parks and in Yerevan's unique position, within sight of nearby Mount Ararat, a revered national symbol that actually lies in Turkey. But now they find desert animals such as snakes and scorpions increasingly turning up in their apartment blocks located in the valley in which Yerevan was built.
Poghosian says she and others fought a legal battle to prevent the development near her house, but to no avail and the foundations are now being dug. "A well-known businessman caught sight of the land, and wants to build a hotel complex... Eventually, as he had a permit from the ministry for nature protection, they decided to carry out their barbaric plans at night," she said.
Ecologist Karine Danielian, of Yerevan's State University, says the city has lost 12 percent of its green space in recent years. "Big businesses have built on any large or small space between buildings," said Danielian.
"The capital is reverting to semi-desert with all the climatic characteristics, flora and fauna that implies.... The tall buildings appearing in the centre reduce air circulation. The city is being suffocated," she said.
The head of the city's environmental protection department, Avet Martirosian, says he is concerned by the loss of green space and developers are now required to plant additional trees and grass when they build. City authorities also plan an ambitious "re-greening" program.
This will include planting 50,000 trees and 30,000 shrubs, with special attention paid to restoring vines and creepers that once covered many buildings, shielding them from noise, dust and the sun, says Martirosian. He says 150,000 dollars (114,000 euros) has been allocated to growing saplings at a nearby nursery, including varieties that can cope with pollution. Under the plans, the amount of green territory in the city will increase by 4,500 hectares (11,000 acres) by 2020, he says.
This does not satisfy ecologists or skeptical local residents in a country where corruption and poor governance are serious problems, however. Danielian says that the new saplings will be no replacement for the mature trees that are being lost. "Why should we repeat the mistakes other cities have made?" she queried.
Local resident Hayk Barsegian, a 60-year-old mechanic, is also distrustful: "These plans only exist on paper. The authorities adopted a law on protecting the environment but themselves don't respect it. It's happening in front of our eyes."