A Monday morning at 6 am in front of the Mariott Hotel, I am waiting for Ani and Arman, the Armenia Tree Project (ATP) staff members. The streets of Yerevan are dark and empty. The hustle and bustle of the city hasn’t begun yet. ATP invited me to join a part of its staff on their trip to Tashir for one of their last tree plantings of autumn. A second of reflection and an excited « yes ! » later, here I am at the heart of Yerevan with only the lights of street lamps for company. Ani, the Communication associate is the first to show up lumbered with her laptop, camera and…jackets : « It’s going to be cold out there », she says. Arman, the Geographic Information Systems Specialist, arrives behind the wheel of the ATP pick-up, « get in the car and please talk to me, I still feel a little bit drowsy ».
During planting season in autumn and spring, the ATP team organizes and manages tree planting in every corner of the country. This time, our destination is Tashir, in the North of Armenia, close to the border with Georgia. Arman’s playlist is looping in the car and the huge, reddish, beautiful supermoon is guiding us on the road. That moment is magic, the kind of scene you see in the movies. The hours are passing, the green meadows and the rocky landscapes are rolling by. We are crossing Ashtarak, Aparan, Spitak, Vanadzor, Stepanavan and three hours later we finally arrive to Tashir, more precisely at the foot of the hill where the trees are going to be planted.
The wind is blowing hard. Ani was right, it’s going to be hella cold out here !
The holes are already slightly dug and the workers are waiting for the shovels. A part of the ATP staff is present : Ando, Navasard, Vahe and Garik. Ando, the Forestry Program Monitor, a giant with a deep voice and a big heart calls the workers : « People, come take your gloves and shovels and let’s start working. It’s going to be a long day ! » The project in Tashir will last for a whole week and the objective is to plant as many trees as possible. Wild apple, pear, maple, oak, mountain ash trees, those trees will resist the harsh climate of Tashir. According to Vahe, our forester, « the weather conditions during fall and winter in the region are bad. The high level of humidity, the harsh winter and the plants' short bud stage make the job tougher. Also, some plants do not grow in the long run. Choosing the right trees is fundamental. »
Almost 60 workers came for this tree planting week. Women, men, from 20 to 70 year old, all from different villages of the Region : Mikhailovka, Petrovka and Dsoramut. Most of them are unemployed or do not have a stable job. The tree planting season is the opportunity to make some money for them. And according to the ATP staff members, they are all hard workers.
Before arriving to Tashir I read some lines on the web about the region. Throughout history those lands were one of the prominent centres of the Armenian culture and scholars, mainly during the period of the Zakarid princes of Armenia (between 1201 and 1360). Standing at the foot of the hill and scanning the old small villages and the sad town of Tashir, it is almost hard for me to believe it…
I catch up with Arman at the top of the hill. He is standing on a rock gazing at the landscape surrounding us : « The ground you are standing on is a part of the Lori plateau. From this hill to the Mikhailovka village we occupy 33 hectares of field. They will be used for the tree planting. Here, he says pointing his finger at North East, is the Virahayodz mountain and what you see in North West is the Javakheti Range, a volcanic range that runs alongside Georgia and Armenia. In the South, there is the Dzoraget river that dug the plateau and created a beautiful canyon. » Then we both keep silent, enjoying the beauty spreading out in front of us. Only the wind is blowing.
While running down the hill, I meet Hayastan, a woman in her fifties, focused on digging the cold and rocky soil. She’s from Mikhailovka and lives alone. Her husband died many years ago and she raised her only son by herself. Her son left Armenia to go to work in Moscow, as many others did and will do due to the financial situation within the country. « I don’t want to leave Armenia. What would I do in Russia ? Here I have my house, my cattle, my piece of land. But there is not much to do here, so I get bored. I can’t sit in the cafes every day. So the tree planting season is the best way to be busy, earn money and also do something good for Tashir and its environment », she explains.
Suddenly we hear the thunderous voice of Ando crying : « It’s lunch time ! » The shovels are left behind and the 60 workers gather in small groups on the grass to eat cheese, eggs and lavash (of course !). They laugh, make jokes, talk loudly… it almost reminds me of a holiday camp.
During the rest of the afternoon those hard workers plant the trees, some silently, some babbling loudly. Vahe, the forester confides to me that he really enjoys those trips out of Yerevan with villagers : « They are more than strangers or workers for me. Most of them have come for the second or third year. We spend a lot of time with them. Each person that you meet during the planting season becomes likea relative or a good friend. » Then he introduces me to Raman Adamian, a taciturn 49 year old man with blue eyes. Raman fled from Bakou in 1988, at the age of 21. Since then he's been living in Mikhailovka, where he set up his home. He’s a builder, but these last few months he hasn't been able to find a proper job. So when the ATP crew came offering work he didn't hesitate. he didn’t hesitate when the ATP crew came. He admits that the job is not easy but with a humble voice and a rough accents he says « but we are farmers, labourers, we are used to it. I want to work and at the same time I’m doing a good thing, so I am happy. »
I talked to many villagers and they all repeated this same speech. ATP is more than an environmental organization. It also works on a social scale : on one side the workers contribute to environmental protection and on the other side the NGO finds a solution, even temporary, to a financial issue caused by unemployment.
The end of the day is near, the gloves and the shovels are thrown in the truck. Time to go home. Well, regarding the ATP crew, home is the Margahovit Environmental Education Center, located an hour and a half away, in the South of the Lori Province, near Dilijan. The center provides interactive environmental lessons to the young generation. Navasard, the Forestry Manager, is waiting for us. The dinner is ready : buckwheat, brocolis, meat and lavash (of course !). At the table, the four men do not hesitate to tease Ani and I. Ani about her vegetarianism and me about the fact that I am old enough to get married : « Let me handle this, I will find a good villager for you », jokes Navasard with a big smile.
Second and last day for Ani and I in Tashir. It is 7 am and our minds are still befuddled by sleep. We are welcomed at the hill by the frozen soil of the morning and by two wild dogs, jumping all around us. The rest of the day is looking like the day before. While strolling on the hill, one of the villagers calls out to us : « Hey ladies, I can answer your question, just ask me ! » So we ask him the same usual question : « Why did you come to the tree planting ? » To this usual question, we expect the usual answer, but not this time : « Do you see the other hill in front of us full of trees ? They were planted during the Soviet Union period, 50 years ago maybe. Those who planted might be dead now but they left us a beautiful forest. Now you see, I’m 50 years old and it is my turn to plant trees. I will never see them tall and majestic, embellishing our landscape but I have a son and in some way this is my heritage to him. So it is worth working hard for that. »
At the end of the week, the workers of Tashir planted precisely 64 777 trees. On my way home I thought again about the words I had read / written on the web : « those lands were one of the prominent centres of the Armenian culture. » If at the beginning of the trip I was very sceptical, now I see the greatness of the Region : its landscapes and its people. I owe them deep respect and admiration.