By Emil Danielyan
Responding to growing protests from environment protection groups, the government has decided to reroute a planned new highway to Iran which would pass through one of Armenia’s last remaining virgin forests.
Transport and Communications Minister Andranik Manukian announced at the weekend that changes to what the government sees as a strategically important project have been approved by President Robert Kocharian. He said the 96-kilometer-long road will bypass the Shikahogh forest reserve in the southeastern Syunik region bordering Iran.
Its initial route would cut across the wooded area and result in the cutting of tens of thousands of trees. Environmentalists have warned that the damage to the forest and wildlife would be immense. They have for weeks lobbied the authorities to opt for a bypass.
Their demands were backed by some prominent members of the Armenian Diaspora in the United States, notably Hirair Hovnanian, chairman of the Armenian Assembly of America. “The construction of the proposed road through the preserve will introduce pollution from passing vehicles into this almost pristine forest, destroy the habitat for rare wildlife and migratory paths, and attract illegal logging, depriving future generations of Armenians of a non-renewable resource,” Hovnanian said in May 25 letter to Kocharian.
The government first reacted to the protests by setting up an ad hoc group of experts from the ministries of transport and environment that was tasked with assessing the project’s environmental impact. The Environment Ministry is thought to have shared critics’ concerns. The latter did not immediately comment on the announced changes.
According to Manukian, the new highway will be 7 kilometers longer than was originally planned. A bypass route suggested by some ecological organizations would mean an extra 20 kilometers and was rejected by officials as too costly. It is therefore not clear how significant the change in plans is.
Manukian told reporters that work on the road is now estimated to cost 9.3 billion drams ($21 million). Officials earlier spoke of $16 million. The construction will be financed from the Armenian state budget and is due for completion by the summer of 2006.
Shikahogh is Armenia’s second largest forest reserve, covering some 10,000 hectares (25,000 acres) of land. Environmentalists say it has been largely unaffected by Armenia’s massive post-Soviet deforestation due to its remote location and care shown by residents of nearby villages.
At present there is only road running from Syunik’s capital Kapan to the Iranian border. It runs through Armenia’s highest mountain pass which is often impassable in winter, complicating the country’s important communication with the Islamic Republic. Officials say the second highway will run at a lower altitude and be able to carry heavier commercial trucks.