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War and cold have depleted Armenia's only natural resource: trees

YEREVAN (AFP) - It is one of Armenia's most revered sites, but for the poor, the trees around the giant Genocide Memorial outside the capital make more than a pleasant setting for the monument, they are their only source of heat as a bitter winter approaches fast.

Ever since Armenia became locked in war over Nagorno-Karabakh, an enclave in neighboring Azerbaijan in the 1990s, it has been under an energy blockade from the oil-rich post Soviet republic as well as its historic foe to the south, Turkey.

As a result, when the war was in full swing much of the tiny land-locked nation's forests were cut to be used as fuel when the heat supply was cut by Azerbaijan.

The conflict with Azerbaijan frozen in an uneasy cease-fire, Armenia has a new gas pipeline linking it to Russia, but today the problem for many Armenians is the fuel's price, so the cutting continues.

"During the Soviet Union we had as much gas as we wanted," Vladimir Gregorian, a 75-year-old pensioner, said as he pulled a cart stuffed with brush and branches down a slope leading out of the woods around the Genocide Memorial.

He said his 20-dollar monthly pension was not enough for him to buy a new gas line for his house or even pay for the gas itself, so he heats water for baths with wood collected in the area.

But environmentalists warn that if wood cutting in Armenia continues in an unsustainable way, much of the country's harsh mountainous terrain could turn to desert, a process they say would be irreversible if left to itself.

"The winters of 1991 and 1992 were very severe, Armenians had no alternative but to cut trees and burn park benches," said Susan Yacubian Klein, the director of the Armenian Tree Project, a US donor-sponsored organization dedicated to reforestation and sustainability.

But today loggers continue to cut forests illegally, Yacubian Klein said, delivering their contraband goods to cities in covered trucks, "If forest cutting continues at the same rate in 20 years Armenia will face desertification."

Today deforestation is already causing erosion and landslides and is throwing dust that used to be held down by roots into the air of Armenia's cities, and according to the Armenian Tree Project the situation could get worse.

In some areas, roads have collapsed as a result of the powerful erosion forces that deforestation has unchained in rivers.

But there are ways to revitalize the forests. The ATP has launched a number of projects including one around the Genocide Memorial where workers use a technique called coppicing to rejuvenate tree stumps.

By cutting away excess shoots that grow out of a stump people can help one healthy branch utilize the tree's root system to grow into a tree. However the work "is just a drop in the bucket," Yacubian Klein admitted.

In 1900 forests covered 25 percent of Armenia, after 70 years of Soviet rule that figure dropped to 12 percent, but the decline of wooded areas in the last decade has been the most dramatic, bringing forest cover to just eight percent.

Armenia's energy crisis has had at least one benefit.

Its isolation and lack of hydrocarbon reserves has lead to some innovative ideas about alternative energy sources, in contrast to its two Caucasus neighbors, Georgia and Azerbaijan, whose policies have been dominated by a geopolitical tug-of-war for pipelines, electricity cables and global alliances.

A few years ago a small firm called SolarEn started up a project to explore solar energy in Armenia and has since branched out to wind power and hydrogen powered fuel cells.

Spurring companies like this on is legislation requiring the state electricity monopoly to buy electricity generated by alternative means at a higher price to encourage private investment in the sector.

SolarEn is not in the black yet but its sales of affordable solar powered water heating systems and alternative energy consultancy services have given it an annual turnover of nearly 100,000 dollars.

Its sister firm Zod Wind is involved in a 25 million dollar project to build a set of wind turbines in the east of Armenia next year and an Iranian firm has already begun construction of two wind turbines in the south as a 3.5 million dollar gift to the country.

"We don't have oil, we don't have gas, all we have is the sun and the wind," said SolarEn Executive Director Viktor Afyan, "we need to use it."

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