FLEG II crew of experts visited 20 forest-dependent Armenian communities to give voice to their needs and concerns
“What?! They did not receive the eight cubic meters of deadwood? I will find the responsible for this!” cried Martun Matevosyan, Director of Hayantar SNCO and FLEG II Focal Point in Armenia, at the phone with Nazeli Vardanyan, environmental attorney and Director of Armenian Forests NGO. The crowd of villagers that timidly gathered in Artavan mayor’s office, where the call happened, looked at each other in disbelief: they were in direct contact with the central authorities in Yerevan!
When the inhabitants of Artavan, a small village of the sparsely populated Vayots Dzor Province, sighted the car with the ENPI FLEG logo arriving on October 5, certainly did not expect all this to happen. “We invited everyone to the town hall so to introduce ourselves and explain the aim of our visit, but only a few followed” said Ms. Vardanyan, who coordinated the 2015 FLEG roadshow, “They were looking at us suspiciously, until someone recognised me from an interview on TV and reassured the others that they could trust us”.
Between August and October 2015, the same activity was repeated other 19 times by the FLEG team of experts who travelled from village to village in the Armenian marzes of Lori, Tavush, Vayots Dzor, and Syunik. The crew would drive to the selected forest-dependent community and try to talk directly with the residents and local authorities and collect their ideas and concerns regarding the management of forests and forest resources in that area.
This initiative follows a previous series of roadshows carried out in 2010, during the first phase of the Forest Law Enforcement and Governance Program (FLEG I). On that occasion, the itinerant team elaborated a package of detailed and concrete recommendations based on the issues raised by the locals, and submitted it to the central authorities in the capital. As highlighted by Ms. Vardanyan during a high level round table panel this past July, this document was taken into careful consideration by the Armenian government and stimulated a constructive debate, which led to the adoption of some of those proposals.
One problem of particular significance observed during the 2010 roadshow was the impossibility for many forest-dependent households to access fuel for heating. Some of them could not afford the costs of electricity, gas, and fossil fuels, and, in some cases, the infrastructure system was not developed enough to provide basic energy services. As a consequence, the only source of heating available to those villages was firewood.
In order to meet the demand of fuelwood and avoid illegal cutting of forests, the government – upon FLEG’s input – passed a decree which entitled residents of forest-dependent communities to receive eight cubic meters of deadwood free of charge per year.
The adoption of this measure represents a remarkable example of how the activities promoted within the frame of FLEG Program can exert tangible impacts on people’s lives. As stated in the Saint Petersburg Declaration, it is fundamental to recognize the rights of forest dependent communities to socio-economic development by protecting, at the same time, their natural resources.
Nevertheless, the complete implementation of the decree is far from being achieved, like the case of Artavan shows.
During the 2015 roadshow, FLEG crew found out that the families of this village received their 8 m3 of wood in 2014, but the head of the local forestry branch announced that this amount was no longer available, not even to the most disadvantaged households.
“The inhabitants explained us that deadwood can be gathered only in very distant areas, as the lower forest line retreated because of logging activities. They have no other choice but to hike uphill to collect the wood, but old people and women cannot do it” said Ms. Vardanyan, “After hearing all this, I decided to phone Mr. Matevosyan right away and ask for clarification”.
Mr. Matevosyan’s first reaction was of astonishment, as Hayantar had never given the instruction to interrupt the wood provision. After a quick investigation, it emerged that this decision was taken by the staff of the Regional Governor Office and the Head of the local forestry branch in Artavan. Therefore, Mr. Matevosyan ordered the responsible to reach the mayor’s room immediately.
“A half an hour later” continued Ms. Vardanyan, “the Head of the local forestry branch arrived and promised to deliver the required amount of fuelwood to the households. I insisted that they initiated the administrative process straight off, as winter is approaching. Moreover, I promised to the people that we would monitor the case”.
Similar problems concerning the implementation of the decree were found in other villages visited during the roadshow, but this was not the only issue encountered. Life in remote forest-dependent communities can be extremely challenging. The harsh conditions originated from critical social, economic, demographic, and environmental factors are often further worsened by inefficient administration, and forest management plays a crucial role.
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The team led by Ms. Vardanyan is currently analysing the data gathered during the roadshow. Like for the 2010 edition, the expert will compile a report which will include a set of proposals to present to the government by the end of the year. This document will hopefully contribute to the improvement of forest-dependent communities’ conditions. For now, one tangible result has been already obtained: people in Artavan received a prompt answer thanks to FLEG team’s intervention.
“Everyone was satisfied and grateful” said Ms. Vardanyan, “Both citizens and local authorities understood that they could trust us. The crowd that gathered at the town hall would not disperse, as people wanted to ask for advice on several other issues, hoping we could help them. It was almost night time when we got into the car…”.