Armenian Volunteer Corps

Welcome to the Armenian Volunteer Corps (AVC) blog. Here our volunteers and alumni reflect on their experiences living and volunteering in Armenia. For more information about our programs, visit our website, follow us on Facebook or drop us an email: .

Monday, December 20, 2010

The Quest of an Environmentalist in Armenia

Serda Ozbenian

Ever since I heard about the opportunity to travel to Armenia and serve as an Armenian Volunteer Corps (AVC)/Birthright Armenia volunteer, I knew it was something I wanted to do…at some point. I put it on the back burner for years. A few months ago I, rather impulsively, decided it was the right time. I took a 2-month leave of absence from my job at an animal protection organization in Washington, D.C. and started preparing for my trip. No time like the present!

To be honest, before I heard about the opportunity to serve in Armenia as a volunteer, I hadn’t really had a desire to travel to Armenia. “My family is from Turkey so why would I want to go to Armenia?” Though I’m a full-blooded Armenian, I felt detached from Armenia. I couldn’t relate to those that referred to it as the “homeland”.

A few years ago I heard about Armenia’s many environmental problems from my friend and president of the Armenian Environmental Network (AEN), Ursula Kazarian. She had just launched AEN, an organization dedicated to raising public awareness among the Armenian Diaspora about environmental and energy concerns for Armenia’s development and how they relate to public health, democracy building, economic growth and security. I was shocked to hear of the multitude of environmental problems in Armenia and as a die-hard environmentalist, I was instantly interested in helping, and am now the executive director of AEN. After hearing about and researching Armenia’s environmental problems, I wanted to go to Armenia and see them for myself. I also wanted to see firsthand Armenia’s beautiful natural areas in need of protection.

Additionally I wanted to learn more about the culture and how it was similar or different to the Armenian culture I grew up with. I wanted to learn about the lives of everyday citizens in Armenia, their challenges, experiences, and dreams. And of course, I wanted to help and volunteer my time and knowledge.

Because of my experience and my interest in Armenia’s environment, AVC placed me with the Foundation for the Preservation of Wildlife and Cultural Assets (FPWC). As the name suggests, FPWC is a non-governmental organization aiming to raise local and international awareness for the preservation of Armenia’s unique natural heritage. Specifically, FPWC provides environmental and media education to youth, holds public events, produces nature documentaries, and implements various other projects.

I offered my assistance on a number of different initiatives but most notably, reaching out to US universities to locate potential partners interested in helping FPWC develop curriculum for an environmental college in Armenia. FPWC hopes to launch the college in 2012 and it will be the first such college dedicated to the environment in the entire Caucuses region. Additionally, I developed the framework for a conference on nature conservation in the Caucuses to be held in 2011.

FPWC has established a network of Eco-clubs throughout Armenia to foster a new generation of Armenians that are strong advocates for their country’s unique biodiversity. My second month with FPWC, I traveled to different regions in Armenia to work with their Eco-clubs on their SOS projects. SOS is an initiative to document the degradation of naturally and culturally significant sites in Armenia. I visited three towns, Urtsadzor, Sisian and Dilijan. What I encountered in these towns was both beautiful and devastating.

Before I begin to describe the environmental problems I witnessed in these towns, I want to mention that I stayed with different families in each village and each one was more welcoming than the other. I was so touched by each of these families and feel lucky that I had the opportunity to spend time with them and experience their way of life for a few days.

Armash and Urtsadzor

Before heading to Urtsadzor, I accompanied FPWC director, Ruben, to Armash in the Ararat Province. On the way to Armash, he pointed out a concrete mine and explained that the mercury dust produced by the mine contaminates plants and vegetables in the area, a fact which the local community is unaware of. He also pointed out a gold processing facility that uses cyanide in the extraction process. The radioactive chemical soup is then transported via pipes to an open outdoor tailings dam. The dam is built so close to neighboring villages that livestock often graze along the dam, consuming toxic chemicals that are then transferred to people through meat and dairy products. Millions of birds and other animals have even died as a result of drinking the toxic sludge. On several occasions, the pipes transporting the waste were damaged, flooding the villages with the toxic soup.

When we arrived at Armash, Ruben told me that Armash contains a series of artificial lakes used for eco-friendly fish farming. The lakes also serve as vitally important habitat for an astounding array of birdlife, including threatened species. Though I am a vegan, it was impressive to see a productive fish farming operation flourishing without the use of antibiotics, chemicals or any other environmentally destructive methods. Sadly, in the past, some of the operators of the fish farms set fire to the nests of the birds fearing competition for fish.

After leaving Armash, I continued with FPWC’s Urtsadzor Eco-club coordinator, Manuk, to Urtsadzor, a small town in the Ararat Province. Along with a few members from the regions eco-club, we visited a series of ruins of monasteries, prehistoric cave dwellings, and ancient graveyards, even one Arabic graveyard, all ignored and neglected. It was obvious that no one was taking care of these historic sites and locals were using them as grazing land for their livestock. It saddened me to see such history being lost. Manuk even told me that he found human remains at one church that was undergoing renovation and handed it over to those in charge and the skeleton was simply thrown aside. I was angered that some in Armenia, including (and especially) the government, do not recognize and value how vital these historical and archeological treasures are to Armenia’s personal identity. Manuk also took me to an area that is home for many species of rare reptiles. The area was directly next to a large quarry where mountains, and habitat for these wildlife, were being destroyed to make tiles for homes and buildings.


The next town I went to was Sisian, in the Syunik Province. In Sisian, we also documented the ruins of ancient, crumbling churches and gravesites. One of the gravesites we visited was cradled within the majestic mountains and…surrounded by a massive landfill! The size of the landfill was absolutely appalling. There were millions of pieces of electronic equipment, toys, dishes, tires, you name it. Plastic bags caught on trees were swaying in the wind, occasionally taking flight and soaring over the trash pile to pollute another area. I was already aware that Armenia lacked a proper waste processing plant (this is evident by the trash littering the streets just about everywhere in Armenia) but I couldn’t believe my eyes, or my nose, at just how bad it was. I kept wondering what kinds of toxic chemicals were seeping into the ground and how many such landfills there were in Armenia.


The next Eco-club I worked with was in Dilijan, in the Tavush Province. Dilijan is a popular resort town in Armenia, located in the beautiful and densely forested Dilijan National Park. Here, I set off with a group of Eco-club members to document a few old dilapidated buildings, including an old KGB hotel. I was also lucky enough to participate in a tree planting with local schoolchildren, organized by the Every Drop Matters Project which seeks to address the problem of water pollution in the Aghstev River in Dilijan through engaging local community. Dilijan has no sewage treatment plant so most of the town’s sewage flows directly into the river and its tributaries.

Though the act of documenting degraded and ignored sites was not exactly uplifting, I was very encouraged by and impressed with how knowledgeable and engaged the Eco-club members were. It gives me hope for the future and I’m thankful that FPWC has taken on the important task of educating and empowering these teens to speak up for their voiceless and priceless environmental and cultural assets.

Khosrov Nature Reserve

My first introduction to the majestic beauty of Armenia’s natural areas was on a trip with FPWC staff to a “buffer area” near the Khosrov Reserve. FPWC leased a significant portion (450 hectares) of formerly unprotected land in the vicinity of the reserve. The area is adorned with ancient and breathtaking juniper trees and is vital habitat for the endangered and endemic wildlife in the area. FPWC purchased the land and erected informational sign posts to inform the public that the area is protected. This area was popular for hunting but now under FPWC’s management and oversight, no hunting or other exploitation is allowed. This privately managed and monitored reserve is the first of its kind in the region. Sadly, laws are not properly enforced within the reserve (and other reserves throughout Armenia) so FPWC hopes the buffer area will serve as an example.

With the aid of binoculars and Manuk, I was fortunate enough to observe a group of endangered Armenian mouflon. Mouflon are threatened by hunting (even though it’s illegal) and habitat loss. I was overcome with emotion to not only see these beautiful animals, know the threats they face and know that thanks to FPWC, their habitat in the buffer area will be protected.


Aside from working with FPWC, I also had the opportunity to volunteer for other causes as well. Along with other AVC volunteers and many community members, we helped the Fuller Center for Housing pour the concrete for a family’s home in the Armavir village. It was an amazing experience to work with the community and other volunteers to provide this gift for a family in need.

Additionally, I worked with local activists to oppose the construction of a dolphinarium in Komitas Park in Yerevan. While in Armenia, using my connections in the U.S., I prepared a letter to government officials in Armenia that was signed by 50 organizations from around the world. We also held a pres conference with other activists to announce the letter. We were successful in engaging the media and are hopeful that the plans for the dolphinarium will be scrapped.

I also worked with local activists from the Save Teghut Forest Group to raise awareness of a copper mining project that involves the destruction of 882 acres of pristine forest. Teghut Forest is home to many endangered species of plants and animals and the copper mine would not only destroy vital habitat but toxic waste from the mine would pollute the land and water in the area and have disastrous effects on the health of local villages.

The opportunity to live and work in Armenia gave me the chance to see Armenia’s challenges firsthand and make connections and form relationships that I will maintain for years to come. I was also able to see firsthand the awe-inspiring natural and historical treasures in Armenia. I was so impressed with and inspired by the environmentalists I met fighting for environmental protection and sustainable development in the country under a government that does not value the wishes of its citizens and is more interested in selling off natural treasures than protecting them. I feel as though I gained a gift by visiting, living and working in Armenia. I gained an understanding of the true meaning of a “homeland” and I recognize that Armenia is truly another home for me. Through this experience I also gained the responsibility of caring for my homeland, a responsibility I am proud to have and I will do my best fulfill.

Labels: , , ,


Post a Comment

<< Home