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Review & Outlook - 09/12/2005

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NEW FOREST CODE & RELATED LEGISLATION

Armenian News Network / Groong
September 12, 2005

by Jeffrey Tufenkian


Armenia's Endangered Forests

This spring a series of discussions began in Yerevan and several regions ("marzes") of Armenia focusing on the draft new forest code. These discussions, organized by Armenian Forests NGO with the support of an Open Society Institute public policy formation grant, have sought to engage key NGOs and others in the realization of this proposed Code and related implementation. These discussions were aimed to inform and prepare people for the introduction of the draft code in Parliament. In fact, the code has already been introduced and is expected to be discussed in September. The destruction of the forests in Armenia has reached critical levels. Although forests historically covered approximately 40-45% of current territory of Armenia and in the early 19th century it was about 25%, forests now only cover approximately about 8-9% of the Republic of Armenia. Loss of forests brings problems of soil erosion, landslides, loss of springs and rivers, loss of fruits and other forest products, greater weather damage, loss of productive soil, loss of biodiversity, loss of sensitive animal habitat and additional problems. Although some of the greatest loss occurred during the energy crisis in the early 1990's, the cutting and devastation still continue at alarming rates. According to expert estimates, at current rates of destruction Armenian forests would be eradicated within 20 years. During Soviet Times and since then, at least officially, Armenia's forests have had protected status in that there is no legal cutting except sanitary cutting intended only to get dead trees out of the forests, and care cutting (select thinning) to improve the health of the forest. However, under the guise of "sanitary cutting" mass cutting is carried out mostly by illegal business operations supplying wood for internal fuel needs, furniture, construction and sending the best, most valuable trees to other countries. Mass deforestation in Armenia is driven by a combination of factors including poverty, lack of affordable alternative energy, corruption and shortsighted mentality. These are significant issues that feed on each other and exacerbate the destruction of forests. Gains in these areas due to other efforts, - such as improving the economy, implementing the rule of law and cracking down on corruption, - will pay off for the forest sector as well. During Soviet Times, the government planted up to 7,000 hectares of forests each year and imported wood (from Russia and other places) to meet needs within Armenia. Unfortunately, there has been almost no reforestation since 1991 and there is very little import of wood while cutting has increased dramatically.

Why A New Forest Code?

The current code is not bad, but needs some updating to reflect the current situation and that is significant enough that it made more sense to develop a whole new code. This has been a long process managed by FISP (Forest Institutional Support Program), a group funded by the Swedish SIDA, under the World Bank Natural Resources Management and Poverty Reduction Program. Nazeli Vardanyan, an environmental attorney and director of Armenian Forests NGO has been one of the lead people in facilitating this in-depth process and developing the code with other local and foreign experts over the last 18 months. The forests should remain under public ownership of Armenia's people. Among one of the key provisions that should remain in the code through the Parliamentary process is the provision of ownership. Armenia's forests are for the benefit of current and future generations. To that end, Armenia's forests have been and should always remain the property of the state as guardians for the people, and never be privatized. The Minister of Agriculture, David Lokyan, who is the lead minister for this code and the World Bank, which is responsible for the project that has developed this draft code, are adamant that privatization of Armenia's forests should not be allowed; however, there are others who would love to buy forest land, cut the trees, build their mansions and fence it off for their own use. Armenia's forests are in a precarious position; If we expect the forests to be here for the next generation of Armenia's children, Parliament should maintain the provision that maintains forests as state property. What Will Our Grandchildren Say? "We have inherited the nature from our ancestors to preserve and pass on to our future generations." --Armenian proverb Is this the framework by which Armenia is treating its forests? When illegal business operations cut 80-100 year old trees and leave bare hillsides behind to erode, like so many areas in Armenia, are they acting in the best interest of their grandchildren's generation, or even their son's and daughter's? Hardly.

Exporting Our Valuable Forests

A key example of shortsightedness and pure greed in the forest sector is the situation of mass export of large, valuable trees to other countries. In Soviet times (and technically still on paper, although not in practice) Armenian forests were considered under "protected" status and there was no productive cutting for internal uses let alone external uses. That has all changed now; not only are people over-cutting Armenia's forests to meet internal demand and make furniture for export, but a few wealthy people are taking advantage of the corrupt, non-existent enforcement of laws to line their pockets by cutting and selling Armenia's most valuable trees as whole logs to Iran, Spain, Italy, Germany and even Turkey. One may rationalize destruction of forests for internal needs based on a poor economic situation and the lack of affordable alternative fuels, but such destruction purely for the gain of a few is inexcusable. These people are in essence stealing the next generation's wealth and opportunity. Unfortunately besides corruption and greed, there is also a policy that supports destruction. Namely that for import of wood, something that Armenia needs, in order to protect the remaining forests, there are both taxes and customs fees that make it prohibitively more expensive. Adding to the imbalance, exports of wood are charged neither taxes nor customs fees. This increases the incentive to cut more forests for export. At the very least, this must be reversed to allow more incentives for import and disincentives for export. If Armenia really does have sufficient forest resources to allow for export, one related positive step that could be taken is to develop properly managed "certified" forests. In this way the products could be "certified" by a recognized third party as harvested in a sustainable manner. This would not only support the protection of our forests, but enable Armenia's trees to command much higher prices on the world market. Armenian Forests NGO is among the organizations seeking to include an amendment to the tax law and customs code to provide for wood import incentives, and export disincentives, as part of the forest code package. And while these measures should be adopted by Parliament and enacted by law, it will take the concerted will and effort of all levels of society to carry them out. From the President to Parliament, to marzpets and village mayors, to villagers and Yerevan residents; the commitment must be borne by everyone.

Parliament's Responsibility

A tremendous amount of work has gone into developing the current new draft forest code (and related legislation on exports and imports of wood) aimed at helping improve the forests of Armenia. However, the best draft code will not have a chance of bringing any positive change to forest problems unless its provisions are maintained through the Parliamentary process and signed into law. There are likely to be pressures within the Parliament to gut or change certain key provisions of the code before it becomes law. The important next steps must include local citizens, NGOs, international organizations, and donor organizations (not the least of which are the World Bank and Swedish SIDA which is funding the project dealing with this new code). We must convey to members of Parliament and the President the need to pass this new code and related legislation intact. We hope they will take this responsibility seriously and do the right thing for current and future generations.

The Critical Details

Although the current forest code was adopted in 1994, the vast majority of the regulations (also referred to here as "bylaws") were never adopted. These regulations, which describe how the law will be carried out and by whom, are required to implement the law. Without them, there are no directions for enforcement agencies to carry out the law. It is like a car that has a destination but no driver and no road to get there. Once the new code is adopted as law, the regulations must be finalized and also adopted as quickly as reasonably possible. We should not accept excuses that aim to needlessly delay this critical step.

Enforcement Is The Key

Many officials point to the poor economic situation of villagers and point to villagers as the ones to blame for cutting the forests. In fact, villagers pulling branches and small trees from the forest by hand or donkey, although certainly a factor, - are a fairly small fraction of the whole problem. In this case, the real culprits are the businessmen who bribe local officials to look the other way while they take out large, valuable trees by the truckloads for sale in and out of Armenia. In some cases they are even making new roads to access the more remote forests. It is no secret that Armenia's laws are not generally well enforced, but steps must be taken to immediately curb the corruption and rampant theft of forests if we expect forests to remain a national resource. Enforcement of laws is key. For proper enforcement to happen several factors must be in place. First there must be the political will among officials at all levels to make sure the law is followed. Second, the public, NGOs, international organizations, media, and others must be engaged and help create the political will for enforcement to take place. Steps must be taken to develop effective means of enforcement and to weed out corruption. The regulations should make it easy to do the right thing and difficult to do the wrong thing-not the other way around.

In Conclusion

Armenia's forests are at a critical juncture. Forests now cover less than 10% of the country, and those that remain are in relatively poor condition. As a result, great areas of Armenia are beginning to suffer due to erosion, drying of springs and rivers, loss of biodiversity, loss of animal habitat, desertification and other problems. Given the fragile state of the forests here and the immense destruction that is currently underway, this situation demands to be resolved. The new forest code and related regulations could be an effective tool to protect and restore the forests, but the commitment to follow and enforce the law must be there. This is a commitment that must be borne by all sectors of society from local villagers, to NGOs, to businesses, to local officials, to the highest levels of government. We must act quickly and resolutely to get the new code enacted, adopt effective regulations and to make sure it is effectively enforced. Only then will our grandchildren have a chance of inheriting any forests. For more information please email Armenian Forests NGO at info@ArmenianForests.am or visit www.ArmenianForests.am -- Jeffrey Tufenkian is co-founder and president of Armenian Forests NGO focusing on actions to restore and protect Armenia's forests for current and future generations. See www.ArmenianForests.am. He also is co-founder of Kanach Foundation, publisher of the Adventure Armenia: Hiking and Rock Climbing book (www.kanach.org).

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