Mobsters and Lumberjacks: How Illegal Logging Threatens Armenia’s Wildlife and Fuels Corruption4 min read
In Armenia and neighboring Azerbaijan and Georgia, it is common to take a car, truck, or donkey to the forests to collect firewood for the season. Gas is available but it is too expensive for many. Numbers from the Asian Development Bank from 2017 show that around 26% of the Armenian population live below the national poverty line; for inhabitants in rural regions, it is better to pay €9-15 per cubic meter to the local department of the environmental protection agency. With the licenses they receive it is possible to collect up to eight cubic meters of wood per household.
From an economic perspective, it is easy to understand why so many Armenians take lumber directly from the woods. But from an ecological perspective, this practice is problematic. Not many outsiders realise that the Caucasus are home to tremendous biological diversity. There are only 24 other places in the world that have such enormous variety. The Armenian forest ecosystem is important not only for many different plants and trees, but and especially for endangered animals, such as the Persian leopard and the Armenian mouflon.
Armenians have already begun to live with the consequences of deforestation. Mountain slopes have started to slide, fertile soil has been washed into the valleys, and villages have been flooded by water and mud.
Since the Velvet Revolution in Armenia in 2018, the Minister of Environment Erik Grigoryan and his team have proposed new laws against illegal logging. The National Assembly of Armenia has already agreed with the bill. When loggers cause damage in the Armenian forests that is greater than ֏100,000 (€186), they can be punished by a prison sentence of up to two years. Grigoryan has also increased surveillance of the nation’s forests, promising that the use of firewood as a source of energy will become far more expensive and unattractive for the Armenian population.
Nazeli Vartanian, head of the NGO Forests of Armenia, is not convinced. In the past, fines for illegal logging have rarely been enforced; higher fines and penalties, she believes, will not stop locals from taking timber out of the forests. Vartanian has even predicted that the rural population will demonstrate against the new laws. In the northern Tavush region that is also called ‘The Little Switzerland of Armenia’ local inhabitants have already blocked a street and protested against the new laws, leading to a number of arrests.
It is worth noting that not everyone heading into the forest is a poor villager. Throughout Armenia there operate local mafia clans who extract and sell timber for profit. For one tree a wood mafia clan can make as much as €3,650. (The mean salary in Armenia is €300 per month). Much of the timber is exported to Russia, where it is used for retail carpentry.
The wood mafia of Dilijan National Park are opposed by political scientist Gor Hovhannisyan and his team, the subject of a recent documentary by Arte. With the help of drones that include a camera, a navigation system, and motocross machines, they search for the wood mafia in the forest. Hovhannisyan’s small NGO, EcoHouse, reports the tree thieves to the local police departments, the federal environmental authorities, and the director of the Dilijan National Park. After officials failed to take action, Hovhannisyan started posting videos and photographs of illegal logging on his Facebook and YouTube pages.
Hovhannisyan’s videos have earned him as many 100,000 likes, but also threats from local villagers. He has hired a security firm to protect his family.
Since the Velvet Revolution, officials deny that corruption still exists in Armenia. The case of illegal logging suggests otherwise. It has been alleged that the wood mafia of Dilijan pay off the park’s director who, in turn, orders his rangers not to disturb their loggers. Hovhannisyan has made it his mission to expose that corruption. If he is not successful, according to the Armenian Environmental Network, “Armenia’s forests will completely disappear in 20-30 years if current logging rates continue.”
Armenia’s forests are threatened not only by illegal logging but also by climate change. That is why it is essential that civil society, municipalities, and the federal government work together. Their goal should be to prevent further destruction of their country’s forests.
The featured image for this article is adapted from a photo by Ayser Ghazaryan.