A powerful hailstorm caused severe damage to Armenia’s southern Armavir province on Sunday, destroying crops in about three dozen local villages and leaving scores of debt-ridden farmers with virtually no source of income for this year.
Dozens of angry villagers briefly blocked a major highway leading to Yerevan for a second consecutive day on Monday as they demanded urgent government compensation for the loss of their livelihoods.
Most of them were residents of Mrgashat, one of the hardest hit villages in the fruit-growing region bordering Turkey. They will have very little to pick from their vineyards and orchards pummeled by hail. Many locals will struggle to not only support themselves but also repay high-interest agricultural loans provided by commercial banks.
“We invested all our money, all loans into this and all that is now gone,” Khachik, a Mrgashat farmer, told RFE/RL’s Armenian service (Azatutyun.am), pointing to his vineyard destroyed by the calamity.
“The crops are gone,” said another man. “Those who got loans to earn a living this year have lost any possibility of repaying them.”
The protesters demanded that the regional governor, Ashot Ghahramanian, and senior government officials from Yerevan visit their communities, assess the damage and compensate them for their losses. Some said that President Serzh Sarkisian should personally do that.
“Dear President, we stood by you. Where are you? Help us,” shouted one local farmer. “He got 80 percent of the vote here,” said another.
The farmers unblocked the road after receiving official assurances that Deputy Agriculture Minister and Governor Ghahramanian will visit their village later in the day.
The two officials were due to inspect Armavir villages after an emergency meeting held at the Agriculture Ministry in Yerevan. It was chaired by Agriculture Minister Sergo Karapetian. A ministry statement said a special task force was set up to clarify the damage caused by the hailstorm and give farmers “professional counseling.” But there was no word on financial compensation sought by the affected population.
Hailstorms regularly destroy a considerable part of agricultural production in Armenia. The government has tried to tackle the problem over the past decade by purchasing and installing hail cannons across the country. Most of the farming areas are still not covered by them, however.
According to the Armenian Ministry of Emergency Situations, there are currently 69 hail cannon stations in Armavir. Ministry officials estimate that the region needs another 200 or so such small facilities in order to be fully protected against hail.
There are no hail cannons in Mrgashat and nearby villages.