Disappearing forests: Illegal trade in lumber at root of Armenia’s tree loss

Armenia's forests and urban green spaces barely survived the energy crisis of the early 1990s. Fifteen years later the nation’s forests are again under threat, this time from illegal logging, corruption and the lucrative trade in lumber.

Non Governmental Organizations engaged in environmental problems say that while focus was centered on damage from the energy crisis (1992-93), greater damage has been done to the forests of Armenia since a market for lumber emerged afterwards.

“The forest cuttings started spontaneously in the 90s,” says Hakob Sanasaranyan chairman of Armenia’s Union of Greens. “Then they became systemized and then powerful statesmen took the monopoly of cutting forests in their hands. From provinces that had abundant trees, firewood began being imported to the Ararat valley for sale. That is how the inhuman exploitation of forest began.”

Today, trees in the republic’s three most heavily forested areas – the Tavush and Lori regions in the northeast, and south-eastern Syunik – are being cut at such a brisk pace that World Bank and environmentalists predict the landscape will be denuded in 20 to 30 years.

According to the “Hyeantar” SCJSC (State-run closed joint stock company) the last records of the forests in Armenia were done in 1993, when the massive illegal cuttings were still ahead. (“Illegal” is defined as cutting trees without a license, or over-cutting, in the case of commercial use.)

According to the latest data -- which is 13 years old – Armenia has 334,100 hectares of trees – 11.2 percent of total coverage.

Environmental NGO Armenian Forests’ research shows that Armenia is losing some 1 million cubic meters of trees annually from illegal logging – equivalent to about 8,000 hectares of forests.

According to Zhirayr Vardanyan, head of Forestry Studies at Yerevan Agricultural Academy, 28 to 30 percent of Armenia should be covered in forests.

Chief Forest Supervisor of Armenia Ruben Petrosyan says the last forest-planting in Armenia took place in 1988-1989.

“In the 1980s seeding was significant; it is witnessed by the size of artificial forests – nearly 50,000 hectares,” Petrosyan says. “In those years there were almost no illegal cuttings. First, there was no energy problem. Trees were rotting. Besides, there was no demand for wood.”

Now, 47 percent of Armenian forests are considered “middle age”; 26.3 percent are mature. Only 10.6 percent are young trees.

Experts say the low percentage of young forests is evidence of unsatisfactory natural restoration, as certain types of types of trees have brought to the edge of extinction.

As a result, not only the density, but the makeup of the Armenian forest has changed.

Natural seed restoration is especially inadequate in oak forests, where undesirable changes of species are taking place. Oaks, for example, are being replaced by hornbeams, a type of beech. The phenomena is noticeable particularly in Syunik province. A former forestry supervisor there, Vladik Martirosyan, says diversity of the forests has been severely impacted.

“Trees that are very important for reproduction are cut today. That is, the cutting takes place not for sanitary purposes or occasionally, but selectively. That means they choose what is expensive,” says Sanasaryan.

Cutting of oak as well as Greek walnut is prohibited in Armenia (these two types are most expensive and the Greek walnut is registered in the Red Book as endangered). According to a law adopted last year, violators of the forestry code can be fined up to 50,000 drams (about $112) per illegal cutting.

The Head of World Wild Life Fund Armenian office Karen Manvelyan illustrates Sanasaryan’s claim with an example.

“Last year the pine-tree forests of Stepanavan – considered to be a preserve – were cut. The head of the village administration was charged, but he was backed, naturally, by officials – just as in all cases of large-scale logging. Besides it is beyond doubt that the greater part of illegal cutting cases is never disclosed,” says K. Manvelyan.

“The once verdant forests have either turned into brushwood or have totally been exterminated,” says Vladik Martirosyan, a former forestry official and ex-director of the Shikahogh Forest Reserve in southern Armenia. “A forest is a whole condominium – if there are no trees, the fauna and the water will be extinguished.”

Chief Supervisor Petrosyan does not deny that Armenian forests are damaged. But he insists the situation is not catastrophic.

“As in all countries, it is impossible to immediately stop the cuttings because they are directly connected with the social-economic condition of the country, employment and the living standards of people,” he says. “But today the illegal cuttings are not massive.”

Illicit trade

The demand for wood is driven by a multimillion-dollar lumber export business. According to the Republic of Armenia's Statistical Service, in 1999 slightly more than one ton of lumber was exported from Armenia. By 2003, wood exports topped 10 tons.

Armenia’s ties with furniture-producing countries, such as the United Arab Emirates, Italy, etc. have become stronger, the demand has grown, and Armenia has types of trees, oak and Greek walnut, for example, for which demand is high.

The appetite for lumber has led to corruption, according to current and former forestry officials interviewed by ArmeniaNow.

"As a rule the large-scale tree cuttings take place with the participation of the representatives of the forestry agencies," says Rafik Andreasyan, who was head of the republic's forestry agency in the Kapan region in 2003 and 2004, and also a former deputy mayor of Kapan.

"It is unambiguously that way, because you need either documents with false permission or you need to act secretly. In both cases the mediation of someone from inside is necessary. Those kind of things happened also during my administration and I have fired some officers myself and later criminal cases were brought to action against them."

Petrosyan says low salaries for forestry regulators make them vulnerable to bribery.

"There are many cases when the forest supervisors themselves take part in the illegal cuttings," Petrosyan says. "Before 2003 the monthly salary of the forest keepers was 6,000 drams (about $15) that of the forest supervisors and the director heading the forestry of 40,000 hectares was 13,000 (about $25) and 20,000 drams (about $40) respectively. In those conditions it was inevitable that the supervising people would be involved in the business of illegal cuttings."

Martirosyan, the former forestry official and ex-director of the Shikahogh Forest Reserve, says he resigned to protest corruption.

"I can recall the times of my incumbency I was told they will give me the keys for a BMW immediately if I permit cutting eight Greek walnut trees in the Kapan forests. I went mad. I spit upon my position, wrote a resignation letter and left," Martirosyan says.

The former Shiakhogh director says Greek walnut, an endangered tree, and oak are in demand and bring top dollar – about $800 or more per cubic meter for processed wood – in markets in Europe, the United Arab Emirates, Turkey and Iran.

Beech tree and hornbeam, abundant in trees in the forests of Tavush, Lori and Syunik regions, are also popular trees for lumber exports.

Authorities cite enforcement efforts

Authorities say new laws that impose penalties of up to 50,000 drams (about $112) per tree will help stop illegal logging. They also point to steps that are being taken to crack down on abuse.

According to the new Forest Code penalties are determined according to the diameters of the tree stumps. If the stump diameter of a rare or valuable tree exceeds 30 centimeters, penalty for each cm is 1500 drams ($3.50) for example cutting a 35 cm-stunk tree the penalty will make 52,500 drams (about $120), whereas up to 30 cm the penalties are fixed sums. For common trees the fine is 500 drams (about $1.20).

Several forestry workers have been forced to resign for alleged corruption, and the Ministry of Environmental Protection says it has brought 46 civil charges, and criminal charges against 10 violators, representing trees worth 1.2 million drams (about $2,730) in Kapan.

Lyova Gevorgyan, head of the Kapan Forestry Agency, says stronger supervision and enforcement have nearly eliminated industrial logging in the Kapan region, where tree stumps pockmark once-wooded hillsides and valleys. He attributes the brunt of the illegal logging to poor peovple who have no other sources to heat their homes or cook their meals.

"Socially unprotected people have been the main illegal cutters of the forests," Gevorgyan says. "It is impossible that people from outside come and cut trees in these distant forests."

Where the wood goes: Armenia’s exports to the world

(Exports include lumber and items made of wood):

Country

Tons

USD

Australia

2.2

24,400

Belgium

20.7

14,900

Belarus

31.7

26,300

France

120.1

221,700

Georgia

79.0

11,800

Iran

8,702.9

802,100

Italy

136.1

220,500

Latvia

0.1

800

Russia

198.9

240,400

Spain

61.9

33,400

Switzerland

4.5

22,400

United Arab Emirates

179.5

64,700

Turkey

1,094.5

23,600

Turkmenistan

5.8

6,700

USA

3.7

7,200

Total

10,641.6

1,720,900

Source: Republic of Armenia Statistical Service. 2003.

Meanwhile, the Prosecutor General's Office has filed criminal charges against the forest supervisor in the village of Dsegh, in Lori province, for illegally cutting about 220 trees in 2004-2005. Another case has been brought against the representatives of the 4th maintenance department of the forestry agency in Tumanyan region, also in Lori marz, for the illegal cutting of 333 trees. Though they face heavy fines, observers say the potential profit is considered worth the risks.

But Karen Manvelyan of the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) says illegal logging continues with the complicity of regulators, and that a few prosecutions will not resolve a corruption problem.

"No matter how many criminal cases the law-enforcers bring into action, the forest cuttings will continue as they are done with the mediation of the representatives of forestry agencies with the sponsorship of high-ranked officials," says Manvelyan, who heads the WWF office in Yerevan.

Brisk pace of logging

At the start of the last century, one-quarter of Armenia was forested, but today forests account for less than 10 percent of the country, according to Armenian Forests, a not-for-profit organization that seeks to reforest parts of the country.

Replanting efforts launched by the government and public organizations have not kept pace with the tree coverage lost to logging. “Our Armenian forests have undergone degradation and there is no proportionate spread,” explains Zhirayr Vardanyan, head of forestry studies at the Yerevan Agricultural Academy.

Mher Sharoyan of Armenian Forests paints a more dire picture of the future. “Even if the density of our trees drops only a few percent, the forest self-restoration function will be lost. Consequently, forests will be lost as an ecosytem.”