Seedlings yield honey and hope for devastated Armenian families

For Armenians who lost their homes in political upheaval an innovative tree-planting scheme to restore orchards and forests is a way to earn some money while helping their country create a more comfortable environment, reports a volunteer for the Armenia Tree Project. Nat Geo News Watch profiled the project last year: How trees are restoring hope to Armenia.

By Adrineh Der-Boghossian

Aygut, Armenia–Thirty-nine-year-old Vatchakan Tsakanyan remembers coming to Aygut Village in 1989 as a young man–a common experience since just about all the residents came here from Chardakhlu and other villages in Azerbaijan when the two states swapped non-nationals during the Karabagh conflict.

Vatchakan lives with his sister and her two kids, as well as his wife and their four children. The tree seeds they received from Armenia Tree Project (ATP) are cared for by Vatchakan’s sister, 35-year-old Nvart, who fills buckets from the nearby Getik River a few times a day and carries them to water the plants.

ATP Backyard Nursery Owner 2010.JPG

ATP partners with families in the Getik River Valley to grow tree seedlings as part of its Backyard Nursery Micro-Enterprise Program; families grow seedlings in backyard plots and ATP purchases the seedlings when they are ready to be planted in the forest.

Photo by Adrineh Der-Boghossian

Though it’s hard work, Nvart and Vatchakan are happy to use part of their land to raise tree seedlings for ATP. With the money they will receive from ATP for their backyard tree nursery, Vatchakan and Nvart hope to increase their three beehives to 15. Like many other families who raise honeybees, the Tsakanyan family aims to earn a bit of an income from the sale of honey.

ATP partners with families in the Getik River Valley to grow tree seedlings as part of its Backyard Nursery Micro-Enterprise Program. Families grow seedlings in backyard plots and ATP purchases the seedlings when they are ready to be planted in the forest.

Tree involvement doubles family income 

After the first seedlings were planted in 2004, the organization expanded the program and began working with hundreds of families, many of whom have doubled their annual income through their involvement. This innovative program was selected as a National Winner of the Energy Globe Award for Sustainability at the European Parliament in 2008.

Rima Vanyan is another resident who keeps bees and sells the honey. When she began participating in ATP’s backyard nursery program seven years ago, 66-year-old Rima had her husband to help her with growing the crops. However, since he passed away Rima’s been planting the seeds herself and taking care of her small plot of land.

Rima recalls the time when they had to leave their village in Azerbaijan. “We weren’t expecting to leave. But we lost hope when we saw the neighboring villages empty out,” said Rima, whose mother died in Armenia and whose father is buried in Azerbaijan.

Rima remembers her village in Azerbaijan as being quite beautiful and big. There were two schools, a pharmacy, a kindergarten, and a hospital. “Even the poorest family had everything,” she said, shrugging her shoulders.

However, 84-year-old Mushegh Poghosyan recalls memories of a different kind. According to him, the lines between who was Armenian and who was Azerbaijani were clearly drawn, and it was after Marshal Hovhannes Baghramyan and Marshal Hamazasp Babajanyan (both born in Chardakhlu) died that “the [Azerbaijani] Turks began to kick us out since we no longer had anyone to defend us.”

Mushegh lives with his wife and says that in 1988, there were 900 families living in Chardakhlu and about 13 villages in Azerbaijan populated only by Armenians. “You live 70 years in a place then you pick up and move with nothing,” recalls Mushegh.

Mushegh’s son, Rafik Poghosyan, also lives in Aygut with his family. Though they live in separate homes, father and son plant their crops side by side and sow the seeds given by ATP in the same plot. Thanks to an irrigation system used to water the trees and other crops, the 1,000 seeds given to father and son have yielded rows upon rows of healthy seedlings.

Further up the road from the Poghosyan family lives Marine Arakelyan with her husband Arkadi and their six children. Acknowledged by other residents as being one of the poorer families in Aygut, the Arakelyan family keeps some bees, a single cow, and grows potatoes for food. When Marine speaks, one can hear her catch her breath. When asked if she has trouble breathing, Marine says yes.

“It comes from fear. My mom died young, when I was 16 years old,” she says.

One of her sons seems to have the same breathing problem. In addition, Marine’s daughter has epilepsy and her husband has a wounded leg. In short, Marine has her hands full.

Luckily, earlier this year, a Christian charitable organization selected her 9-year-old daughter along with five other children from Aygut to go to the Netherlands for a month-long respite. Marine talks proudly of her daughter being chosen in this select group–it’s one of the rare moments when her face lights up and she is happy for what she has.

Whereas Marine celebrates the daughter she has, neighbor Susanna Margosyan mourns for the daughter she lost. A photo of her 26-year-old daughter who passed away five years ago from heart failure can be found on a sort of altar between vases of artificial flowers in her house, right below a huge crack which, she says, is a result of the landslides that started to come down on Aygut about three years ago.

Losing homes and family members is an all too familiar story for many in Aygut. Ophelia Manukyan, a 50-year-old mother of four, lost her husband in 2002 and, as a result of a landslide, her home a few years ago. She received money from the government to rebuild her house in a different location; however, she says this one too is cracking and falling apart.

Ophelia’s mother-in-law, Grafinia Karapetyan, recalls her own story of survival since her family members came from Van and Mush. From Western Armenia, they moved to Azerbaijan and she recounts how Armenians and Azerbaijanis used to live side by side and participate in each other’s life celebrations.

“Weddings, happiness, sadness–there was no difference [between us and them]. It’s good that we’ve come to our homeland. However, first we escaped from Mush, then Chardakhlu, and now we have to deal with the landslides,” she said.

Ophelia is very happy with ATP and is one of the few people in the village who also has job as a janitor at the school. Ophelia preferred working in the cafeteria, but she’s happy to have a job that earns her a bit of income. In fact, as a survivor of the 1988 earthquake in Spitak where she lived prior to moving to Aygut, Ophelia’s happy to be alive–she and her father spent a month in the hospital after being pulled out from under the rubble.

Ophelia’s 14-year-old daughter Gohar, however, is spared such harsh memories. She lives in the present and talks fondly of the US Peace Corps volunteers that have lived in the village during their two-year terms. One such volunteer even taught environmental education to children and Gohar eagerly absorbed the lessons–it can be said that Gohar is part of a new generation of environmentalists in Armenia.

ATP Backyard Nursery in Aygut 2010.JPG

The money received from ATP for young tree seedlings will allow families in Aygut to maintain their homes, expand small businesses, and support their children; the seeds from ATP give people hope as they tend their nurseries and watch their seedlings grow.

Photo by Adrineh Der-Boghossian

Aygut is a village inhabited by Armenians who, for the most part, had to relocate here from villages in Azerbaijan where they had spent most of their lives. Many lost family members and homes more than once, but the community and the seeds from ATP give them hope. The money they receive from ATP for the tree seedlings they have raised will support them in securing materials for their homes, expanding their small businesses, and supporting their children. It is a chance to build again–community, home, harvest. To plant seeds and watch them grow.

Since 1994, Armenia Tree Project has planted and restored more than 3,500,000 trees at over 800 sites around the country and created hundreds of jobs for impoverished Armenians in tree-regeneration programs. The organization’s three tiered initiatives are tree planting, community development, and environmental education. For additional information and to support ATP’s mission, visit the web site

Adrineh Der-Boghossian is an Armenia Tree Project volunteer. The views expressed in this article are hers or those of the Armenia Tree Project and not necessarily those of the National Geographic Society.

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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