Toward a New Ethic

Sustainable Development and Armenia’s Environment

“The moral argument is that we have a duty to preserve irreplaceable gifts of creation, whereas we have no comparable duty toward transient commercial goods. The economic argument is that any society that depletes its natural capital is bound to become impoverished over time.”
Peter Barnes (Capitalism 3.0)

The journalist and entrepreneur Peter Barnes rightfully notes that each generation has a contract with the next to pass on the gifts it has jointly inherited, and that these gifts fall into three categories: nature, community, and culture. He points out that the United Nations Millennium Ecosystem Assessment of 2005 warns of unsustainable use of the ecosystems that support life on earth, which will increase the likelihood that abrupt changes such as floods, drought, heat waves, fishery collapse, and new diseases will seriously affect human well-being.

In Capitalism 3.0: A Guide to Reclaiming the Commons, Mr. Barnes concludes that trustees of common property should be legally accountable to future generations, and when faced with a conflict between short-term gain and long-term preservation, they should be required to choose the latter.

The Current Situation

Reports in recent years by the Association of Investigative Journalists and others about destructive mining and logging operations in Armenia raise serious concerns about these industries and practices since they pose a threat to the environment and affect the well-being of the most vulnerable segments of the population. It is especially problematic when these commercial projects lead to deforestation or other negative impacts on water supplies and wildlife habitats—or have an effect on public health.

Conservationists have organized public hearings and participated in site visits with some of the companies operating in Armenia to urge them to prepare environmental impact statements in accordance with Armenian law and present them in an honest and sincere manner to the government and especially the communities where they are planning to invest.

It must then be expected that the government and other stakeholders consider the long-term environmental costs of resource use and deforestation, which will eventually have to be paid by the government and future generations of Armenians. The remediation costs and financial losses caused by environmental degradation must be factored into any assessment, and any licenses or fees must take into account the economic value of the “environmental services” provided by natural resources such as forests and watersheds.

The Value of Environmental Services

To put the value of forests in perspective, a new study commissioned by the European Union and headed by Pavan Sukhdev of Deutsche Bank has documented that the economy is losing more money worldwide from the disappearance of forests than from the current banking crisis. “Whereas Wall Street by various calculations has to date lost $1 trillion to $1.5 trillion within the financial sector, the reality is that we are losing natural capital at a rate of between $2 trillion to $5 trillion every year,” Mr. Sukhdev told the BBC on the sidelines of the IUCN World Conservation Congress in October.

The figure comes from adding the value of the various services performed by the world’s forests, such as groundwater recharge and carbon sequestration. The report, “The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity,” highlights that the costs of deforestation fall disproportionately on the poor since a greater part of their livelihood depends directly on forests, and this reality is observed in rural Armenia and other developing nations.

What is Sustainable Development?

In 1987, the United Nations expressed concern about the accelerating deterioration of the human environment and natural resources and the consequences of that deterioration for economic and social development. The report of the World Commission on Environment and Development—also known as the Brundtland Commission—stated that sustainable development, which implies “meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs,” should become a central guiding principle.

Practitioners in the field of sustainable development have pointed to three integral components: an economic approach that maximizes income while maintaining constant or increasing stock of capital, an ecological approach that maintains the resilience and robustness of biological and physical systems, and a socio-cultural approach that maintains the stability of social and cultural systems (Peter P. Rogers et al, An Introduction to Sustainable Development, 2007).

Land Degradation in Armenia

Armenia has 1.2 million acres (486,000 hectares) of available arable land, or about 16 percent of the country’s total area, according to data cited by the Library of Congress. With an estimated population of three million, this amounts to a critically low figure of 0.4 acres per capita (0.16 hectares per capita) of arable land. For a landlocked nation such as Armenia, a shortage of farmland can threaten livelihoods and survival itself as competition can intensify for limited resources.

This strategic land resource can be protected by forests and their natural ability to recharge groundwater supplies and protect topsoil from desertification, flooding, and erosion. Desertification is of great concern since it includes all the processes that degrade productive land, writes James Gustave Speth in The Bridge at the End of the World: Capitalism, the Environment, and Crossing from Crisis to Sustainability.

Speth is dean of the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies, and he points out that among the many consequences of desertification are large losses in food production, greater vulnerability to drought and famine, loss of biodiversity, the creation of ecological refuges, and social unrest.

Yet Armenia’s forest cover is currently only 8 percent of the country’s total area, down from 18 percent in the 18th century, according to a 2005 study published in “International Forestry Review” by Rafael Moreno-Sanchez from the University of Colorado and Hovik Sayadyan of Armenia’s Agricultural Academy.

Investing in Armenia’s Future

To counter this trend, diasporan Armenians have invested development funds in the Getik River Valley and other regions of the country where the population lives on the fringes of society and have few opportunities to work in fields that improve the lives of their communities and the nation as a whole. These programs are implemented with the understanding that “sustainability” has an economic, an environmental, and a social component.

Planting programs initiated by Armenia Tree Project (ATP), for example, have provided jobs that have a measurable positive impact on Armenia’s future. The organization’s backyard nursery micro-enterprise program employs hundreds of rural families annually, who have cultivated hundreds of thousands of seedlings for planting in the degraded hillsides around their villages.

These new forests are adding value to the economy and to the local ecosystem, since the trees will offset the impacts of landslides, drought, and erosion that were having a detrimental on life in these villages. They are also enhancing wildlife habitats that will protect Armenia’s unique biodiversity.

International Recognition

In May 2008, ATP’s backyard nursery micro-enterprise program was selected as the National Winner for Armenia of the Energy Globe Award for Sustainability at the European Parliament in Brussels. An international jury selected ATP along with innovative programs from over 100 countries, from alternative energy projects in Bangladesh, Georgia, and Kenya to forestry projects in Argentina and Honduras.

ATP is planning to expand these programs with the support of others in the private and public sector in an endeavor to create a sustainable society and a sustainable economy in Armenia. To cite another example, the United Nations Global Compact has been operating in Armenia since 2006, and it has already enlisted more than 30 business and organizations committed to aligning their operations and strategies with universally accepted principles in the areas of environmental protection and other social issues.

Companies doing business in Armenia such as HSBC Bank, Synopsys, and Viva Cell have been acknowledged recently for their investment in Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) programs that have positive environmental and social impacts. In fact, all three have partnered with ATP to support the urban tree-planting program as part of their CSR initiatives.

Toward a New Ethic?

We can only hope the people of Armenia and the Diaspora will continue to support these principles and defend what remains of our historic lands from any further exploitation. It may require a shift in our consciousness, toward a new ethic about sustainable development, but we are at a critical crossroad and the situation has an urgency that cannot be avoided.

There are always institutions and individuals who try to portray development as an issue of “the economy versus the environment,” but in Armenia’s case this view cannot sustain the country into the future. Those who claim we can’t afford to make environmental issues a high priority in the country’s strategic development agenda are sacrificing the well-being of present and especially future generations of Armenians.

Why Does It All Matter?

To conclude, the following are some of the key issues identified relative to sustainable development, Armenia’s environment, and the very future of the nation itself. First, the preservation of what little remains of our existing lands must be a major priority. The protection of agricultural lands from loss of topsoil caused by deforestation and erosion must be prevented. The preservation of land quality for subsistence farming must be ensured, especially given Armenia’s geographic isolation.

Desertification must be avoided because it is irreversible and fatal. This was documented by Pulitzer Prize winning writer Jared Diamond in his landmark book, Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed, where he described several ancient civilizations that exploited their land beyond its carrying capacity. In most cases the demise of these civilizations began when people decimated their own forests. “Deforestation was a or the major factor in all the collapses of past societies described in this book,” warns Diamond.

Finally, positive and proactive strategic decisions and actions taken today can prevent potential resource wars both within Armenia and with Armenia’s neighbors. These are just some of the reasons why we must take extra care to ensure that “sustainable development” is not only about the economy, but it also includes protection of the environment for future generations of Armenians.

In short, we need to find a more sustainable path to development and it must be an intentional and fully integrated part of all of our organizational and political strategies. In order to optimize the contribution of a program to Armenia’s long-term development, it will need to have a positive impact on the three interrelated components—economic, environmental, and socio-cultural–that contribute to the new triple-bottom line.

The Armenian Weekly
Dec. 27, 2008


Jason Sohigian

Jason Sohigian is the former deputy director of Armenia Tree Project. He has a master’s in Sustainability and Environmental Management from Harvard. His undergraduate degree is from the Environment, Technology, and Society Program at Clark University with a concentration in Physics. From 1999 to 2004, Jason was editor of the Armenian Weekly.

Be the first to comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.