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How trees are restoring hope to Armenia

Armenia has learned the hard way what it means for a country to lose its forests–and the huge backbreaking effort required to replant them. But in its struggle and determination to restore its trees, Armenia is an inspiration for the rest of the planet. The endeavor to bring trees back to Armenia–a Massachusetts-size nation on...

Armenia has learned the hard way what it means for a country to lose its forests–and the huge backbreaking effort required to replant them. But in its struggle and determination to restore its trees, Armenia is an inspiration for the rest of the planet.

The endeavor to bring trees back to Armenia–a Massachusetts-size nation on the borders of Iran and Turkey–is thanks mostly to an initiative called the Armenia Tree Project, a program supported by the international conservation charity WWF and BMU/KfW, the German Development Bank.


The Armenia Tree Project has been raising and planting trees throughout the country for almost 16 years. Last year one million trees were planted, a record that brings the total of trees planted over the life of the project to about 3.5 million.

Picture courtesy of Armenia Tree Project

A million plantings is perhaps a tiny portion of the hundreds of millions of trees that were lost during the great deforestation of Armenia of the last century–but think about it: A million trees required a million individual efforts, holes dug, backs bent, tender hands placing seedlings in the soil, careful nurturing of saplings to raise them to productivity.

All of this is done by individuals determined that their trees will become forests that will sustain livelihoods and restore a vibrant environment to Armenia.

What happened to Armenia and its trees, and what’s being done to reverse the devastation of its forests? Nat Geo News Watch interviewed Jason Sohigian, deputy director of the Armenia Tree Project, when he recently visited Washington, D.C.

Watch this 16-minute documentary (commissioned by the Armenia Tree Project) for the background to the crisis that led to the destruction of the country’s forests, what will happen if the nation can’t reverse the loss of its trees, and how ordinary people are pulling together to reinvent Armenia and its future through restoring its trees.

Armenia Tree Project video

Lack of alternate fuel sources caused the loss of Armenia’s forests, Sohigian said in the interview with Nat Geo News Watch, especially during the years after independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, when people had no other way to keep warm than to cut down trees for fuel.

Ideally, forest should cover 25 percent of Armenia, Sohigian said. But now, even after a big replanting effort, the country’s tree cover is in the range of only 7 or 8 percent.

Where the trees have been cut, the land is often degraded and desertification has set in as topsoil washes away.

To make matters worse, the changing global climate threatens the last fragments of forest, especially if rainfall declines.

“One of our goals is to try to tip the balance back to where forests can regenerate naturally, which we can do provided we don’t continue to lose trees,” Sohigian said.


Picture courtesy of Armenia Tree Project

“We’re trying to get young people involved in investing in Armenia’s future,” Sohigian said. “This program is also a way for Armenians outside the country to build the future of Armenia, especially this year, the 95th anniversary of the Armenian Genocide [1915-1917]. We encourage Armenians–and others–to support us with the future of the country in mind. It’s why we’re calling this initiative ‘Trees of Hope.’”

Trees of Hope is one way to get involved, by sponsoring the program to plant trees. Another way is to support the Armenia Tree Project’s focus on education.

“Education is a big focus for us this year,” Sohigian said. “We’re working with teachers to educate children about the environment, and we’ve partnered with the Yale University Global Institute of Sustainable Forestry to provide sustainable forestry training for adults.

“By asking the worldwide Armenian community to sponsor these activities, we’re telling them to put their roots back into Armenia in a tangible form. It helps Armenians everywhere create an emotional and physical connection to their ancestral country.”


Picture courtesy of Armenia Tree Project

The Armenia Tree Project works to afforest Armenia with natural forests, planting a mixture of native trees that should in time expand and regenerate forests naturally. “We are really trying to recreate natural forests, rather than plantations for harvesting,” Sohigian said. The partnership with Yale is focused on training foresters to plant, maintain and harvest such “natural” forests sustainably. Part of the training initiative is the production of a sustainable forestry manual.

“We are bringing the best practices in international forestry to Armenia,” Sohigian said. “The next step is to organize engagement meetings with the people who live in or near the forests to teach and encourage them to maximize their efforts to protect the forests around them.”

A more lofty goal is to win national protection for forests as wilderness sanctuaries, particularly where charismatic animals such as the Persian leopard live.

Fruit and nut trees are also provided by the Armenia Tree Project to people in urban areas, so that individuals may plant trees on the streets or in their yards. This provides food to eat and trade as well as a more pleasant, landscaped environment.


An example of how Armenia’s urban areas have become green again is this school, in pictures made ten years apart.

Picture courtesy of Armenia Tree Project

The massive tree planting program has also stimulated employment for Armenians, from the cultivation of seedlings to planting to protection of the nascent forests.

In many ways the effort to restore trees to Armenia is a restoration of the nation’s vitality.

Learn more and find out how you can support this intiative on the Armenia Tree Project Web site.

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Meet the Author

Author Photo David Max Braun
More than forty years in U.S., UK, and South African media gives David Max Braun global perspective and experience across multiple storytelling platforms. His coverage of science, nature, politics, and technology has been published/broadcast by the BBC, CNN, NPR, AP, UPI, National Geographic, TechWeb, De Telegraaf, Travel World, and Argus South African Newspapers. He has published two books and won several journalism awards. In his 22-year career at National Geographic he was VP and editor in chief of National Geographic Digital Media, and the founding editor of the National Geographic Society blog, hosting a global discussion on issues resonating with the Society's mission and initiatives. He also directed the Society side of the Fulbright-National Geographic Digital Storytelling Fellowship, awarded to Americans seeking the opportunity to spend nine months abroad, engaging local communities and sharing stories from the field with a global audience. A regular expert on National Geographic Expeditions, David also lectures on storytelling for impact. He has 120,000 followers on social media: Facebook  Twitter  LinkedIn