“Helping reforestation has an eminently social dimension.”
Jirair Tcholakian’s interview with André Gumuchdjian, founder of My Forest Armenia
NH – You launched the tree planting program “My forest Armenia”, whose main objective is to make people responsible for ecological damage. How does the program you developed work, how does your website work? How can people contribute to reforestation and tree planting?
A.G. – The idea is that individuals, companies, everyone in fact, can plant trees to mitigate the effects of greenhouse gases. Our website www.myforestarmenia.org contains a very easy to use carbon calculator that allows everyone to introduce different parameters of their lifestyle and calculate their carbon emissions. Then the person can offset the result obtained by planting the corresponding number of trees.
NH – When did your sensitivity to nature awaken, how did it express itself in the field of nature conservation?
A.G. – It started gradually but the trigger came at the end of 2018 when I realized how much CO2 was emitted when burning fossil fuels.
Something had to be done so I decided to create an association to plant trees. It is by no means the only one. There are many organizations that propose to offset carbon emissions and some of them have been around for over 10 years. Our difference is geographical; instead of planting in Africa or Asia, why not plant in Armenia?
NH – When and how did you get the idea to create My Forest Armenia? What is the state of environmental awareness in Armenia, at the society level and at the state level?
A.G. – The idea really took shape in April 2019. My Forest Armenia was officially registered on 18 June 2019.
At the level of Armenia, we are like in most countries, probably at the beginning. At the state level, there has been a real change since Nikol Pashinyan came to power. This issue is considered to be of paramount importance. However, the economic situation in the country prevents us from making even more courageous choices, which I think is a mistake. Applying the strictest environmental criteria will always pay off in the long term for the citizens and for the country.
NH – How much does a person have to pay for a kilogram of CO2?
A.G. – Wherever you are you can offset your carbon dioxide emissions with My Forest Armenia. The price is $25 per ton of CO2 absorbed. However, each organization uses its own criteria. For us, a ton of CO2 will be absorbed in eight years, after the tree has grown, so you have to add another 10 to 20 years. Finally, the carbon emissions that you offset today will not be completely absorbed until 28 years later. That’s a long time, but it’s better than doing nothing. On the other hand, a tree will live on average for 200 years, so the benefits to the environment continue for a very long time.
“Later … I realized how important forests are for life on our planet.”
NH – How many kilos of CO2 does a tree “clean” per day?
A.G. – Unfortunately, this is not calculated in days but in years! A tree absorbs about 15 to 25kg of CO2 per year. We have taken as a basis for calculation that a tree absorbs 200kg in eight years.
People should be aware that compensating CO2 emissions is all well and good, but in reality, you have to stop producing it.
Later, after doing some research, I realized how important forests are for life on our planet. So much so that the absorption of CO2 is really only a small part of the many benefits that forests provide. For each country, having a large forest cover is paramount.
NH – For one month, how many dollars do you have to pay as an environmental tax to keep your conscience clear?
A.G. – The average person in our society consumes or rather emits on average 10 to 30 tons of CO2 per year. If the person travels by air frequently, the figure can quickly double. If you take, for example, 24 tons of emissions per year, that’s 2 tons per month, or $50 per month, so it’s not a large sum.
NH – Armenia Tree Project has been working for more than 20 years, planting about 200,000 trees a year. How many square meters are 200,000 trees?
A.G. – Experts recommend planting between 2500 and 2800 trees per hectare. 200,000 trees would represent about 80 hectares, however ATP does a lot of community planting projects i.e. around schools or monasteries, reforestation is only part of their activity. My Forest Armenia will only deal with reforestation or afforestation i.e. planting in areas that were not recently covered by forests.
NH – What is the objective of planting for “My Forest Armenia”? How much will this program cost each year?
A.G. – Our goal is to plant 400,000 per year. To reach this goal, the budget will be around $1 million per year. At that level the price per planted tree should drop to around $2.50 or less. It should be noted that 75% of the cost goes to maintenance after the trees are planted. This maintenance and follow-up must be done during 6 years. I insist that what we plant must live and grow. There is no point in planting trees and let them die a few years later. We must make sure that the plants become trees that will create forests.
NH – Do you grow the seeds locally or are they imported?
A.G. – Everything is done locally. It is important to know that in order to carry out a major reforestation program, you must first make sure that you have a large supply of young plants. To do this, you have to collect the seeds in the forests, sow them in nurseries and then plant them in the areas to be reforested. The length of time a plant must remain in the nursery varies between one and three years, depending on the species.
“The fight against global warming is inseparable from the preservation of biodiversity.”
NH – What kind of trees are you planning to plant? Are there any specificities to be taken into consideration given the nature of Armenia?
A.G. – This is a very important question. The fight against global warming is inseparable from the preservation of biodiversity. Armenia is fortunate to have one of the greatest biodiversities in the Caucasus. In order to preserve this biodiversity, it is essential to use only local species endemic to the regions we are going to reforest. Many are tempted to use foreign species that grow quickly.
The danger is that these species are invasive to the detriment of the existing trees in our forests and this represents an additional risk because if a disease should occur, the whole forest would disappear.
We will use mainly oak, beech, pine, elm, ash, birch, etc., all local varieties, for example the noblest, Quercus Macranthera, which is a variety of oak tree found in Armenia and Persia; but also fruit trees such as wild pear, hazelnut, walnut, etc.. Experts also recommend planting 30% shrubs. Why? Because their berries attract insects, birds, etc., and all this creates a complex ecosystem that makes the forest sustainable.
NH – It is all well and good to plant new trees, but what about saving the forest in Armenia? Does the Republic of Armenia have a well-defined policy in this area?
A.G. – You are quite right, the first priority is absolutely to safeguard our existing forests. The government of Nikol Pashinyan gave a strong signal last summer. So strong, in fact, that there were demonstrations. That said, many villagers also understand the importance of forests.
Armenia officially has a forest cover of 11.2%, it is estimated that in reality this figure could be between 8 and 9%, Turkey has 27%, Georgia 41%. The US has 34%. It is therefore urgent to safeguard what remains and to increase Armenia’s forest area.
I invite each reader to participate in this national effort with as many trees as possible, I even invite other associations to start reforestation projects in Armenia, we will gladly help them. Armenia needs it.
To give you a sober assessment that will help you understand the scale of the problem, here it is: Armenia has an area of 30.000 km², 1% represents 300km² or 30.000 hectares. If we manage to reach our goal of planting 400,000 trees per year, we will cover an area of 160 ha per year, which means that it will take us 187 years to increase Armenia’s forest coverage by… 1%!
Finally, here is an important consideration. Engaging in reforestation has an eminently social dimension. Because at the end of the day, it is villagers in rural areas who do the real work: harvesting seeds, looking after nurseries, planting in mountain meadows, etc. all this gives work to many people and supports the economic development of villages. So much so, that I sometimes wonder if this is not the most important dimension of our activity? Because after all, all the money we collect goes to pay many people in villages but for an activity that is environmental. In fact the two are linked: by helping people we help forests, by increasing forests areas, we help people.
I invite your readers to plant big numbers of trees with My Forest Armenia!
You can read the full interview in French in Nor Haratch n° 198, Thursday May 7, 2020.