The Armenian state forestry agency claimed on Thursday to have made significant strides in combating illegal logging and reversing the country’s serious post-Soviet deforestation.
Some environmentalists disputed this claim, saying that forests across Armenia remain under grave threat.
The total area of Armenian territory covered by woods has shrunk considerably since a severe energy crisis in the early 1990s which left the country’s population without electricity and central heating. Although the power shortages ended by 1996, many people, especially in rural areas, continued to use firewood to heat their homes.
Commercial logging by local firms producing construction materials and furniture has been another contributing factor.
According to the Armenian government’s Hayantar forestry agency, the number of trees illegally cut down each year has fallen more than tenfold since 2004, to about 2,500 in 2010. The Hayantar director, Martun Matevosian, attributed that to the restoration of the national natural gas distribution network, which gained momentum in the early 2000s and is now largely complete.
“Pressure on the forests from big cities like, Yerevan, Gyumri and Vanadzor has decreased substantially since 2004,” he told journalists.
Matevosian also said Hayantar has since planted 12 million new trees and recreated 30,000 hectares of forest in previously wooded areas. “A very serious restoration work has been carried out,” he claimed.
“The overall number [of trees felled by loggers] has certainly decreased, and we can’t deny that,” said Inga Zarafian, chairwoman of the Ecolur environment protection organization.
But Zarafian contended that the real scale of illegal logging has been much higher than the one reported by the government. “We know for sure that the official figures for illegal logging absolutely do not correspond to reality,” she told RFE/RL’s Armenian service.
Zarafian also dismissed the Hayantar data on reforestation. “You don’t get a new forest by simply planting trees,” she said. “You need decades for that.”
Matevosian insisted, however, that large swathes of land across Armenia are now again covered by forests. He said environmentalists and journalists will be able to see that with their owns on a helicopter tour to be organized by his agency this summer.
Zarafian and other environmentalists are now particularly concerned about the Armenian government’s decision to allow open-pit mining operations in the Teghut forest in the northern Lori region that lies atop massive copper and molybdenum deposits. The Teghut project, if implemented, will lead to the destruction of 357 hectares of rich forest, including 128,000 trees.