Wednesday, June 27, 2007

An Interview with Jeffrey Tufenkian

‘For Current and Future Generations’
An Interview with Jeffrey Tufenkian
By Khatchig Mouradian

The Armenian Weekly
March 10, 2007

Jeffrey Tufenkian is co-founder and president of Armenian Forests NGO (, which focuses on restoring and protecting Armenia’s forests for the current and future generations. According to the website, “Armenian Forests NGO is the outgrowth of his concern and determination to do what is needed to protect and restore Armenia’s threatened forests while helping to create jobs and build the economy.”

Tufenkian is also co-founder of the Kanach Foundation, publisher of the book Adventure Armenia: Hiking and Rock Climbing (

In this interview, conducted on March 7, Tufenkian talks about the challenges facing the environment in Armenia today, be they deforestation, illegal logging or the absence of sufficient support for environmental NGOs.

Armenian Weekly—How is the Armenian government dealing with the problem of deforestation? Does it provide support to NGO’s like Armenian Forests NGO?

Jeffrey Tufenkian—The government voices concern about the deforestation problems and pledges to plant millions of trees and thousands of hectares of forests, but very little actually happens. Unfortunately given the current situation of powerful people involved in the cutting, there is not the political will to really stop deforestation from the highest levels of government. Having said that, we have decent relationships with the key ministries and there has been some progress. In recent years, there has been a small amount of money from the state budget put into reforestation and some reduction of cutting, but much more needs to be done.

A.W.—Talk about the problem of illegal logging.

J.T.—Of much greater importance than reforestation—as critical and difficult as that is—is stopping the mass deforestation. Armenia’s forests are being systematically destroyed; unless drastic improvements are made soon, Armenia’s forests won’t have a future. And with the loss of the forests comes the downfall of the fragile ecosystem of which it is the cornerstone—loss of springs, streams and rivers, loss of habitat for endangered animals, loss of biodiversity, increasingly severe weather, landslides, erosion and desertification.

Once covering 35 percent of Armenia’s current territory, forest coverage is at a historical low, covering only 7-8 percent. It has already lost many springs and even rivers due to deforestation, and according to the government, over 80 percent of the land is under some level of desertification.

Despite this bleak and worsening situation, oligarchs and other powerful people in Armenia cut trees not only to sell in Yerevan and elsewhere as fuel and other internal uses (construction, furniture, etc.), but actually export wood to countries including Spain, Italy, Iran and even Turkey. This is an outrage that should not be tolerated. In fact, there is still no process for legal productive cutting of forest trees in Armenia. Trees being cut now are done by permission as “sanitary” or other cutting aimed at protecting the health of the forests. Under the guise of this, they are taking many times more trees and healthy ones rather than getting the sick trees out of the forests. Almost by definition, any valuable wood cut in Armenia is illegal.

Export of wood from Armenia is something that would have been unthinkable in Soviet times. In the last half of the Soviet period, there was mass reforestation (up to 7,000 hectares per year) and proper care of the forests as they imported wood for domestic use and would never have cut for export. The limited forest territory Armenia had was recognized as critically important and therefore given a “protected” status.

Although Armenia needs to import wood and does not have supplies internally to justify export, there are both customs fees and taxes to import wood, but to export it there are neither. Armenia should immediately stop exporting wood and change the laws to provide incentives for import of wood such as at least eliminating the fees and taxes charged to bring it in.

A.W.—How does Armenian Forests NGO coordinate with other environmental NGOs. Is duplication a problem?

J.T.—I must say that one of our priority approaches—one we put a lot of time and effort into—is cooperating with and forming coalitions with others including local NGOs—and it has been paying off. When we arrived on the scene in 2002, it was difficult to get more than two NGOs in a room at the same time and have constructive results working together, but there has been a real shift, and I think that the environmental sector is now a place where such cooperation among NGOs is really working and bringing good results. It is not surprising that in this individual-oriented society where everyone has his own organization rather than join someone else’s and there is fierce competition for limited funding, NGOs would be suspicious and fearful about cooperating. In this context, our first attempts at establishing a coalition was nearly a complete failure. But we and others kept at it and things really shifted in 2005 when the local WWF organization sounded the alarm about Shikahogh. We jumped in with about 40 local organizations to help lead a successful campaign to stop the government’s decision to put a major highway through the flagship nature reserve called Shikahogh—the last unspoiled forest of Armenia. This was not only a great win for the environment of Armenia, but an unprecedented win for civil society as these groups really set aside their individual egos and cooperated in an excellent way to bring this success.

We have been monitoring another situation and just this month publicly launched a new campaign—with many of the same NGOs from Shikahogh—to attempt to get a proposed mining operation at Teghut near Aleverdi in Lori Marz to stop until it complies with national laws and international conventions, and does not pose an undue danger to the environment and people. The current exploration violates 11 national laws and 7 international conventions; if approved, it would poison the water basin for this whole area, and destroy over 1,200 hectares (2,964 acres) of forests and its natural ecosystem as they would remove an entire small mountain and fill a valley with the unused rock and soil. Increased pollution from the smelter would further impact the already toxic zone of Aleverdi where birth defects and respiratory diseases are rampant.

A.W.—The mining issue has attracted a lot of attention in the past year. Mining also provides a lot of jobs. How are the environment NGOs planning to deal with that? Are there models providing a better alternative?

J.T.—Yes, there’s been lots of attention on mining in Armenia and lots of mining activity recently. I personally am still in a learning curve to get a grasp on the details of this industry and what alternatives are possible to allow for this industry without poisoning the water, air and devastating the natural environment for decades to come. Armenia is a small country with limited, threatened natural resources. Any major mining operation can potentially have a huge negative impact on current and future generations.

Armenia clearly needs more jobs and opportunities for income generation, and of course, the mining interests like other industries are promising lots of jobs. Unfortunately, as with much hype, the picture may not be as rosy as they try to paint it. The high paying jobs will likely be filled by people from Yerevan or from out of the country, the majority of the jobs will be low-paid, and many of the local villagers will have to gamble by sacrificing their land—which now provides consistent income and food—for a chance of a low-paying job. Unfortunately, even if they get one, it may not make up for the loss of productive fruit trees and land, and they’ll have less money, polluted water and a devastated environment, as well.

I personally am hoping that a couple of the more responsible international mining outfits can be models of an environmentally and socially responsible approach. Unfortunately, the current prevailing mode here is a “least common denominator” approach of paying off officials, paying lip service to health and environmental concerns, grabbing as much as possible and getting out, leaving destruction and little if any remaining benefit for the country and its people.

A.W.—What do you say to those in the Diaspora who ask: What can I do to help?

J.T.—There are things Diasporans can do. I believe starting and investing in businesses—especially those that pay off not only in profits and improved social wellbeing through more jobs, but have a positive payoff for the environment—could be the most important and helpful approach for Armenia now. Armenians are smart and creative, and they can use their expertise and financial investment to take advantage of business opportunities. It’s also great to donate to a good organization, and I realize easier for most than starting or running a business in Armenia. To that end, I can say we are happy to accept contributions. Armenian Forests NGO is doing outreach in the U.S. this spring with the other Tufenkian Foundation branches to raise support for some of our key projects aimed at protecting forests of the homeland.

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