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Farmers Holding Out In Yerevan’s Last Untouched Green Zone

By Emil Danielyan
Kima Hayrapetian proudly shows visitors the fruits of her decade-long work at an orchard just outside the center of Yerevan. Once a barren patch neglected by Soviet Armenian authorities, it is now densely covered with vineyards and trees thanks to this elderly woman and her husband Vazgen. The grapes, apples, apricots and other fruit grown here and sold in the market have helped the couple as well as their five children and 11 grandchildren survive Armenia’s painful transition to the market economy.

“We will spill blood to hold on to our land,” Hayrapetian says of the 3,500 square-meter plot. “We’ve put so much effort into it. Look at these trees: we’ve nurtured them for 12 years.”

The Hayrapetians have reason to be worried about losing their small share of the Dalma Gardens, the city’s last untouched green area. They are among some 1,800 low-income families that have leased the land since the early 1990s but are now facing eviction due to the Armenian government’s decision last March to give it to real estate developers and the Hayantar state forestry agency. The tenants, enraged by the move, have staged a series of protests outside the main government building in Yerevan in recent months.

“We are going to fight to the end. They risk provoking a civil war,” says Aramayis Papian whose extended family also lives off proceeds from the sale of the fruit grown there.

Environment protection groups and prominent public figures have rallied around in support of the fruit-growers. They warn the authorities against not only depriving thousands of people of their main source of income but also inflicting further damage on the Armenian capital’s dangerously shrinking green belt.

The outcry has forced the government to make concessions. Officials said on Thursday that 580 families cultivating nearly half of the 530 hectares (1,325 acres) occupied by the Dalma Gardens will be allowed to continue to do so for ten more years. But that means the vast majority of the tenants will still have to vacate the remaining 280 hectares of the property.

It has already been sold to private firms and wealthy individuals at a still unknown price. The government has held no auctions for the extremely lucrative land, suggesting that government connections were instrumental in the choice of the buyers.

According to government documents publicized in the Armenian press, one of the biggest beneficiaries of the land allocation is Armenian-American businessman Vahakn Hovnanian who plans to build a golf course and a “diplomatic club” in the southern section of the orchards.

Foreign diplomats, presumably the main clientele of the future golf course, will also be offered accommodation in a nearby “diplomatic town” to be built by Renco Construzione, an Italian firm and another land buyer. The residential complex could pale in comparison with locally owned plush villas that are certain to spring up in place of the trees and vineyards.

The Dalma Gardens were set up in the late 19th century 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, with the new private users planting thousands of new trees. The planned break-up of the Dalma Gardens would accelerate the ongoing shrinkage of Yerevan's green areas which environmentalists say is already increasing air pollution and reducing oxygen supply to its one million residents.

“If things go on like this, Yerevan will turn into a desert” says Nazeli Vartanian, an environmental activist and lawyer.

Much of the damage has been caused by a relentless construction of cafes and restaurants inside the main public parks that began in the late 1990s. The Armenian Social-Ecological Association, a non-governmental organization, estimated earlier this year that the café boom has destroyed more than 700 hectares of public parks -- twice the size of the green areas lost during the severe energy crisis of the early 1990s when many residents had to cut trees to heat their homes.

Evidence of the huge damage is visible in downtown Yerevan. At its sprawling Circle Park, for example, there is hardly any space not occupied by an entertainment site. The owners of such businesses are mostly senior government, law-enforcement and military officials or their cronies. Even Environment Minister Vartan Ayvazian has a cafe there.

Another famous park around the city’s imposing Opera House has thinned even more dramatically in the last few years to make room for cafes, restaurants and a two-story night club. Its owners are reportedly linked to even more powerful individuals: Defense Minister Serzh Sarkisian, National Security Service chief Karlos Petrosian and leaders of the governing Armenian Revolutionary Federation (Dashnaktsutyun).

“If you want to write a textbook on corruption in Armenia it will suffice to examine the Opera park. You will find all possible manifestations of corruption there,” says Edik Baghdasarian, an investigative reporter whose Hetq.am online publication has extensively covered the problem.

The cafe boom and dubious land allocations that accompanied it reached their climax under Yerevan’s former government-appointed Mayor Robert Nazarian. Speaking at a news conference shortly after his dismissal last year, Nazarian admitted that almost all downtown café owners grabbed more land than was allocated to them and built premises illegally. He indicated that he could not stop them doing that because of orders from above.

Nazarian appeared to point the finger at President Robert Kocharian’s staff. Many decisions on the municipal land are believed to follow specific instructions from presidential aides, notably the most influential of them, Armen Gevorgian. The Kocharian family itself is rumored to be behind the ongoing construction of a luxury hotel inside the Victory Park surrounding a memorial to the Armenian victims of the World War Two.

Baghdasarian, who was appointed to an anti-corruption government commission recently, views the issue as a litmus test for the seriousness of the Armenian authorities’ declared fight against corruption. A test which he believes they are failing. Earlier this month, Baghdasarian attempted unsuccessfully to have the commission investigate the allocation of several thousand square meters of land near the city’s 1915 Genocide Memorial to an obscure non-governmental “anti-terrorist center.”

The destruction of the Yerevan parks is symptomatic of a broader deforestation of Armenia that has been going on for more than a decade. Only 11 percent of the tiny country’s mountainous territory was covered with forests in 1991. That proportion has since fallen to below 8 percent, mainly due to massive commercial logging banned in Soviet times. It is greatly facilitated by lax government controls and corruption.

Jeffrey Tufenkian, who runs a reforestation project funded by the U.S.-Armenian Tufenkian Foundation, warns that if the current trends continue Armenia could be left without any forests by 2024. “There has been a tremendous deforestation and unfortunately it continues to this day,” he says. “There are thousands of hectares worth of trees being cut per year and only a few hundred being planted.”

“The biggest cutting is happening by organized illegal business operations,” he adds, calling for a complete ban on the growing exports of wood from Armenia.

Martun Matevosian, the recently appointed head of Hayantar, the government’s forest protection department, is also in favor of the ban. But remains to be seen whether he can ensure a corresponding decision by the government.

Another Diaspora organization, the Armenian Assembly of America, has for years been sponsoring a similar tree project. Incidentally, the Assembly’s board of trustees is headed by Hirair Hovnanian, Vahakn’s brother.

Tufenkian believes that the Diaspora is unlikely make a difference without pressing the Armenian government to address the problem in earnest. “I would love to see much more emphasis on stopping the illegal cutting come from the Diaspora. That’s even more important than planting trees,” he says.

Meanwhile, the mood in the Dalma Gardens remains defiant. Vanush Sargsian, 72, speaks for many of the fellow farmers when he says, “We will not leave this land. We are staying here day and night. We won’t give up easily after so much hard work.”

(RFE/RL photo: The new luxuty hotel constructed in Yerevan's Victory Park.)