A Green Island Amid the Mines

Arshaluys Barseghyan

Fifty-year-old Armen Kazaryan is well known among the residents of Kapan, a city of 43,000 in Armenia’s Syunik region. Armen may be nearly blind, but says that his vision problem does not obstruct him from working all day, every day, every week.

In fact, Armen has proven far sighted in recognizing Syunik’s untapped potential in sustainable ecotourism. In 2015 he founded Ark Armenia, a non-governmental organization focusing on ecological issues, with 47-year-old Siranush Vardanyan, who serves as the environmental NGO’s chairwoman. That same year, the husband and wife team launched a project to promote sustainable ecotourism in Kapan.

When she met Armen in 2008, Siranush had been an English lecturer at Gyumri State Pedagogical college for 14 years. The following year, they moved to Sochi together.

The couple intended to found an open air fitness club in their garden where Armen could practice his therapy system which he calls “mechanics of happiness.”

The problem isn’t that Syunik is short of tourists. Armenia’s southernmost region is famed for its mountain scenery; visitors flock to the medieval Tatev Monastery, which can be accessed by the world’s longest reversible aerial tramway (which runs for 5.7 kilometers). Syunik is a hotspot for Armenia’s mining industry; some ecologists warn that mining brings environmental damage and extensive pollution. But it also brings money and jobs to a region: according to data from Armenia’s State Revenue Committee for the first quarter of 2019, the Zangezur Molybdenum Combine and Armenian Mining Constructor LLC, both of which operate in the nearby city of Kajaran are among the country’s top 20 taxpayers.

Recent experience suggests that it might be hard for a thriving mining sector to easily coexist with ecotourism. For example, the results of inspections carried out by the Inspectorate for Nature Protection and Mineral Resources in 2018 show that there have been wastewater leakage from Zangezur Copper and Molybdenum Combine. The results of Soil and Water Testing of Center for Responsible Mining of American University of Armenia show that  due to regular pipeline leaks, wastewater from the Zangezur copper and molybdenum combine directly percolates into water sources, polluting rivers and agricultural land. In the neighboring Vayots Dzor region, a dispute still simmers between protesters and the mining company Lydian International over a planned gold mine at Amulsar mountain. The former argue that the mine could have a negative impact on the nearby resort town of Jermuk, which is famous for its mineral water; the latter insists that the mine poses no such threat.

Its proponents also see ecotourism as an alternative to large luxury hotels and expensive tour packages. Environmental activist Anna Shahnazaryan, 34, who wrote her master’s dissertation at Lund University, Sweden about the development of ecotourism in Syunik, explained that ecotourism is all about finding a business model which helps conserve nature. Shahnazaryan added that ecotourism is implemented on a far smaller scale than traditional tourism and seeks to engage local people in the process.

“There are currently destroyed areas of the ecosystem in Syunik, but there are also untouched parts too, which have to be conserved,” explained the environmental activist in a telephone interview. “My research shows that for the development of ecotourism, we in Armenia only have one competitive advantage, and that is our nature. But [that] alone is not enough; we also need an ecotourism strategy, and that requires [improved] local infrastructure and the political will to implement it to high standards,” concluded Shahnazaryan.

But just like more commercial tour operators, Armen’s first step was to entice visitors to Kapan. Armen suggests that task is easier said than done, saying that many people associate its name with mining and are not aware that its surroundings also include pristine alpine scenery which could attract tourism.

Much like other locals, Armen initially doubted that Kapan had any tourist potential worth mentioning. But when he moved back home after four years living in the Russian city of Sochi, Kazaryan learned of a trend which soon changed his mind.

“Most tourists visit Tatev [in northern Syunik], but there is also a big flow of travellers following the Silk Road, who continue their journey further south, and pass through Kapan on their way to Iran. Usually they are low budget travellers, and most of them also want to volunteer,” added Siranush, who is originally from the city of Gyumri in north-western Armenia.

Some of these travellers can be found at the Ark Eco-camp, located about half an hour’s walk from the center of Kapan.

The couple founded the camp shortly after Armen returned from Sochi in 2015, with the help of crowdfunding, foreign volunteers, and their own savings. A local mine even donated recycled materials which were used to construct a “therapy garden,” where Armen conducts sessions based on a method he calls the “mechanics of happiness.”

As an alumnus of Moscow State University, Armen had high hopes in starting a career as an economist. However, deteriorating eyesight, and a changed worldview gradually pushed him to adopt a new lifestyle.

People perceive their accommodation in all sorts of ways: some see it as a two-story coffin, others as a lovingly tended bird’s nest. For people like Armen, it’s a way to be as close to nature as possible.

On the Ark Bridge trail, little red signs like this one on the left show which way not to go.

Heartened by the success of the eco-camp, Armen and Siranush have now embarked on their second project: Ark Bridge, a 93 kilometer long hiking trail which is partly open to cyclists.

“More and more tourists now reach Tatev, but there is not always the infrastructure to allow them to reach other beautiful places,” explained Armen. “So I quickly came up with this project to connect Tatev to Khustup Mountain, a symbol of Kapan.”

Armen hiked along several trails until he finally mapped the proposed route of Ark Bridge in 2018. While the route he chose is not the shortest, he says it was selected due to its safety and access to beautiful scenery and several historical sights. Ecologically friendly campsites are also located along the trail which, importantly for any ecotourism project, also puts tourists in contact with locals. Villagers run small guesthouses, sell local produce, and allow hikers to help out with agricultural work.

The Ark eco-camp is currently abuzz with foreign volunteers who are helping to fully mark the trail and remove litter from the surrounding countryside. One of them is 28-year-old Florian Erbschwendtner, an Austrian who came to Armenia with his girlfriend, 30-year-old Isabel Waltl. They had chosen to volunteer in Kapan due to its affordability, Isabel’s love of mountain scenery, and their shared passion for environmental activism.

“We take our paints and paintbrushes and go out into the forest to fight the mining industry with colours and love. There is almost no economy here besides the mining company. So it’s like a blank piece of paper where you can create something completely new,” said Florian.

The Austrian volunteer is convinced that in time, there will be no need to fight against the mining industry anymore. “Just use your energy to create this new economy and mining will disappear by itself,” he explained.

Since 2015 Armen and Sirush have welcomed more than 120 volunteers from 35 countries. For this reason Armen says: “When I was young, I wanted to travel all around the world, now the whole world is coming to me.”

The couple wants to share their allergy towards the metropolis, whose consumerism they regard as a major cause of environmental problems.

Roxene Levallois is a volunteer from France. She helps to clean the hiking trails from garbage.

This is the amount of garbage that volunteers collected from just one location over three days.

Isabel Waltl paints the next marker. There is still a long way to go.

Local authorities in Syunik seem optimistic about the success of this grassroots experiment in ecotourism. For example, the marking of the Ark Bridge trail is being carried out as part of EU4Tourism’s “Outdoor Adventures on Historic Trails in Syunik” project. Edgar Martirosyan, Head of the Development Programs and Analysis Department at Syunik Regional Administration, told Chai Khana in a telephone interview that the program is a significant investment in developing tourism throughout the region. Martirosyan conceded that while the mining industry might disturb tourism, he and his colleagues know examples of other countries which have succeeded in developing mining and tourism alongside each other. However, Martirosyan did not state exactly which countries.

“If we look at the last few years, new mines have not been opened and new land has not been allocated to the development of the mining industry. The region’s development strategy clearly stipulates that Syunik will develop the non-mining sector and those parts of the economy which do not directly depend on the mining industry,” added Martirosyan.

Nevertheless, the expansion of the region’s mines is not ancient history. As recently as 2015, the Armenian government recognized the Kajaran copper and molybdenum mine’s eminent domain over around 4.92 square km of land within the administrative borders of five villages.

“We understand that it’s impossible to close the mines. We’re just asking at least that they are not expanded, and that they do not pollute areas which are still clean,” remarked Armen, whose commitment to the region’s environment does not end at ecotourism.

In 2017, Armen, Siranush, and their friends developed a sustainable development strategy for Kapan for the next 25 years. One of their proposals is to introduce ecological taxes that mines and factories must to pay to compensate for any environmental damages they causes. The money raised would then be used to open alternative workplaces for locals with safer working conditions. The strategy was submitted to Kapan Community Council and Syunik Regional Administration; Armen noted that some of his ecotourism development strategies have been included in Kapan’s official community development program for 2019-2023, which was adopted in October 2018.

Despite these successes, Armen and Siranush still have only a few supporters in Kapan. According to Armen, the city’s rapid industrial development over the course of a century has negatively impacted locals’ willingness to try something new and change their daily routine of working in the mines. Starting any new business brings risks, particularly in an unfamiliar field. Nevertheless, they are not disheartened; Armen and Siranush are dedicated to make ecotourism alternative to mining and they are sure that their number of supporters will grow.

“Tourists find out about us with the help of our volunteers’ network, or by chance. But this isn’t enough for [our ecotourism project] to be called a business. We plan to have all the infrastructure set up in 2020 and then we can work on tourism as a social business,” concluded Siranush.

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