By Karine Kalantarian
Dozens of low-income tenants of a big fruit grove in the middle of Yerevan gathered outside President Robert Kocharian’s residence to protest against government plans to privatize it.
The decision to sell hundreds of hectares of lucrative land to real estate developers was made by the government on March 27. Ministers also decided to give the rest of the area, called the Dalma Gardens, to the state forestry agency Hayantar, meaning that they will not renew 10-year lease agreements signed with some 2,000 families in 1994. Many of them have lived off proceeds from the sale of fruit grown in the orchards.
“We have come to demand that the president invalidate the prime minister’s order and extend the lease agreements so that people can continue to earn bread for their children,” said Hambartsum Khachatrian, a middle-aged resident of the city’s Malatia-Sebastia district. “They are also destroying Yerevan’s green zone.”
“They have plundered the entire state and the people, and are now grabbing land,” said another furious man.
Also among the protesters was Harutiun Bleyan, an official from the Malatia-Sebastia government. “People cleaned up the area of stones and garbage to turn them into fantastic orchards,” he said.
Several representatives of the protesters were received by Garnik Isagulian, an aide to Kocharian. Isagulian said he will look into their case and respond on Wednesday.
Set up in the late 19th century, the Dalma Gardens had for decades been covered with vineyards and supplied grapes to a nearby brandy factory before falling into disuse during the late Soviet era. The post-Soviet lease arrangement breathed a new life into the land as thousands of newly planted trees turned it into one of the city’s greenest areas. The government has not yet publicly explained its rationale for auctioning off the land to what are likely to be wealthy people keen to own expensive houses near the city center.
The disappearance of the Dalma Gardens would follow the pattern of a rapid shrinkage of Yerevan’s green belt in recent years which increasingly prompts concern from local environmentalists. Most of them blame the inner-city deforestation on the dramatic proliferation of street cafes at the expense of public parks.
The Armenian Social-Ecological Association, a non-governmental organization, estimated earlier this year that more than 700 hectares of green areas have been lost in the construction boom. Only 300 hectares of land covered by trees were destroyed during the severe energy crisis of the early 1990s which forced many Yerevan residents to cut trees for heating purposes.
The environmentalists say that they have been powerless to stop the process because many of the lucrative roadside cafes are owned by senior government officials and their cronies or relatives.