ARMENIA – In Armenia, old-fashioned community engagement and modern satellite technology are putting illegal forest activities on the map, quite literally, and since January 2015, a new website has been exposing these once secret operations to the world.
Residents of Armenia’s forest communities have endured the negative effects of illegal logging and other activities for years. This new public forest monitoring effort is giving them the opportunity to push back. The program, organized by the Forest Law Enforcement and Governance Program (FLEG II) and funded by the European Union, has received significant support from Government forest managers at the national level and from local communities.
“I am very much concerned about the uncontrolled and often illegal use of forests, especially when it is a large-scale logging of trees,” said Sargis Poghosyan and engineer and member of local monitoring group in Ijevan, a regional hub the Tavush Region of Armenia. “With my personal involvement in this [public monitoring] work, I wish to make my own contribution in reducing the illegal activities that occur in the forest.” Costs of Illegal Forest Activities Forests are important resources for communities like Ijevan and others along the southern flanks of the Caucasus mountains. According to a recent FLEG II study completed by IUCN, in some forest villages in Armenia, the percentage of total household income derived from the forest is nearly equal to income derived from wages. Of this forest-derived income, 42 percent comes in the form of fuelwood to heat homes and cook meals, but illegal activities are putting these resources at risk. Illegal logging can have significant negative impacts to forests even beyond the individual trees cut and especially in the mountains where it can exacerbate erosion and lead to dangerous landslides. Since the public monitoring program began, every illegal logging site it has found has included trees cut on high-inclination slopes. In the forestlands around Ijevan, illegal tree cutting is thought to be responsible for a recent landslide where four hectares of earth moved downslope and partly blocked the local river. Other activities such as unpermitted hydropower and mining operations and illegal building construction are also having a notable negative impact on Armenia’s forest resources. Methods To expose these illegal operations, FLEG II and its consultants compare satellite images of forest cover over time, to see where forest cover is decreasing outside of legal harvest areas. They then send field teams to document the findings in the forest with GPS, photos and video. FLEG II and its consultants analyze the field data, and if the loss of forest cover is determined to be from illegal activities, they upload the information to the website (www.afpm.am) in both Armenian and English. The field teams are made up of local volunteers like Mr. Poghosyan who have been trained in identifying and documenting illegal forest activities and their impacts, including illegal logging operations, with courses such as “Identification of illegal forest activities” and “Detection of all illegalities using GIS.” Organizers have seen a substantial amount of public interest in participating as monitors and have trained 85 volunteers to date, nearly half women, in the Lori, Tavush, Syunik and Kotayk regions. “At the forest monitoring training sessions, I have seen people from the environmental department of the mayor's office of Kajaran town, members of Zangezur Biosphere Complex, activists, journalists and representatives of environmental NGOs,” said Aram Sargsyan, a member of the local forest monitoring group in Kapan town in the Syunik Region who is a veterinary scientist by training and currently unemployed. “This wide range of interest shows how important our forests are to our community.” There are currently seven volunteer public monitor teams in the program covering both forestlands under the administrative management of “Hayantar” SNCO (Hayantar), which operates under the RA Ministry of Agriculture, as well as forestlands within the network of Protected Areas managed by the RA Ministry of Nature Protection. The program’s website also encourages the public to submit observations of suspected illegal forest activities and natural changes to the forest like forest fires, landslides and erosion. The site provides instruction on how to document the location, activity and impacts in the field. Institutional Cooperation The extent of forests and diverse nature of those illegally cutting trees makes it difficult for any agency to police the crimes. From the inception of the public monitoring project, Hayantar has supported the public forest monitoring project in Armenia as a way to help the agency identify illegal operations that may otherwise go undetected or unreported. The public forest monitoring work complements the work done by the government-administered "Forest State Monitoring Center" SNCO. “This [public forest monitoring] activity is the most transparent way for us to learn about what is happening in the forest and receive independent information from forest monitoring,” said Ruben Petrosyan, Chief Forester at Ministry of Agriculture, “Hayantar” SNCO. “Instead of relying only on monitoring that is administered by the government, we now have reports from a group of people that are really independent which includes local communities, active environmentalists and other citizens.” The agency worked with FLEG and its GIS consultants to identify legal logging locations in the database, and it provided the program with contacts both within the agency and within the broader forestry sector for expert and professional support. With Hayantar’s help, FLEG included training to help volunteer monitors distinguish illegally harvested areas from legal operations to minimize false or misguided claims. This support is the latest example of Hayantar’s increasing willingness to work constructively with FLEG II and others outside the Government to improve forest governance in Armenia. “Just five years ago, this type of cooperation between a government agency, NGOs, and citizen watchdog groups would have been unthinkable,” said Luba Balyan, FLEG II Country Program Coordinator in Armenia for IUCN. “Now, everyone recognizes we must work together to solve a problem as large, complex and important as forest crime.” Going Forward Organizers intend to continue the program not only to help Hayantar and other forest managers keep track of what is going on in Armenia’s forests, but to improve forest governance and increase public participation in the forest sector. They say engaging the public in monitoring its forests can make forest management and activities more transparent and generate a direct interest in local communities for protecting the forests which support them. “The monitoring program is off to a great start, but there is more work to do,” said Balyan. “By increasing public participation in forest activities, programs like the public forest monitoring will do more than just help combat illegal logging, they will help bring about better, more transparent forest management and build a mutually beneficial relationship between forests, forest managers and forest communities.”