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(HYE-TECH) Using Drones to Reforest Armenia & Artsakh

Drone Reforestation

“For the land to be yours, it’s not enough just to have a signpost. You have to cultivate the land. You have to plant trees.” Edik Stepanyan.

What do you see when you think of Armenia? I think of high mountains, deep canyons, and rolling hills. What we do not think of are the deep magical forests that once covered the Armenian highlands.

According to Alissa Greenberg of Nova, the archaeological record has shown that over the last 6,000 years, Armenia has gone from approximately 35% forest cover, to 11% by the 1980s, and reaching a peak in 1995 at only 7%. Armenia was in an energy crisis, just escaped the Soviet Union, and was reeling from a war with Azerbaijan. Trees were being cut even in the middle of the capital city, as people struggled to find fuel to cook and keep warm. The Armenian-American activist Carolyn Mugar described the situation, “It was like the arms and legs of the city were being amputated” (Greenberg, 2020).

At the conference last fall, Melikyan stressed that the government’s 50-year goal is “not about doubling forest cover by planting one billion pines.” His vision, he says, includes forests with hundreds of species, in some places emphasizing landslide prevention, in others tourism or wood production. Still, by spring of this year, Sona Kalantaryan, of the Foundation for the Preservation of Wildlife and Cultural assets (FPWC), had heard that the administration was maintaining plans to import 90% of its first 10 million trees, and that most of them would be pines. And not long after that, the administration delayed its 10 million tree goal entirely!

“To me this is kind of catastrophic, because this could be very damaging to the ecosystem,” she says. “Yes, it’s simple: We know pine grows easily, and we know how to grow it. But this is not the way we should go.” She had hoped to see the government working with more endemic species, perhaps juniper, to replace the native juniper forests lost in 2017’s calamitous forest fires.

Kalantaryan feels the government’s goals are admirable but misplaced. “I don’t think it’s a good approach to talk about numbers in this case,” she says, wondering if Armenia even has the capacity to care for that much forest as it matures. “And before doubling these forested areas, we need to know what we want to double.”

University of New Hampshire forestry professor, Anthony Davis, sees the new forestry goals as an opportunity for self-reflection. “Do we double down and scale everything we’ve done for the last 25 or 50 years, or are we going to take the time to figure out what we want the future condition to be?” he asks. When Armenia looks to the future, does it want tree cover, more trees of whatever kind, probably pines, or forest cover full of oaks, birches, native plants, and all the ecological complexity that entails?

The Hrant Dink Memorial Forest in northern Armenia, is made up of 53,000 pines, 1,000 for each year the journalist and free speech activist Hrant Dink lived, before his assassination on a Turkish street in 2007. In traditional Soviet style, its trees march in dense, careful lines over the crest of an otherwise bare green hillside, above a two-lane road crisscrossed by the occasional wandering cow.

Considering the forest from the road, Davis looks concerned. He cranes his neck to look at their scraggly, browning tops and declares them "much worse" than when he saw them three years ago, victims of a disease affecting many of Armenia’s monoculture plantations. Planted this close together, the pines will crowd each other out, he notes. This forest, one of Armenia Tree Project’s earliest projects, will need to be thinned, even as the organization shifts away from monoculture.

Down the hill from Hrant Dink, in the village of Margahovit, those shifting priorities are on display. The nursery still shelters lines of furry spiky baby pines, set out in the chilly fall air to get used to the climate, as well as rows of infant apples, pears, and cedars, their leaves a blinding green. Students from nearby schools often visit to learn about ecology and agriculture, peering at the cedar saplings in the greenhouse, and learning about tree anatomy in a series of bright classrooms, overlooking hills draped in polygons and triangles of pine.

James Conca is a scientist who specializes in environmental sciences for the last 33 years, and he has published an article for Forbes Magazine highlighting advancements in this area. According to Conca, since the last glaciation period, less than 1/5th of the original forests on Earth have survived the rise of humans. Forests are home to a wide range of species, that not only protects against climate change, but loss of biodiversity. Plants, animals, and countless microorganisms inhabit a forested area, seeking protection from humans, and carrying with them millions of years of genetic diversity.

While there have been numerous attempts to reverse the trend, these have all fallen short of expectations, and the ledge of no return is quickly approaching. One of the most endearing treasures of Armenia has always been its natural beauty, but we have entered a new age, one where we can use technology to solve our environmental issues.

Flash Forest is a company based in Canada, that specializes in reforestation using drone technology. Drones can do the hard labour for humans, at a pace ten times faster. Currently, the company is working with NGOs, universities, forestry companies, and government agencies, to refine their technology. They don’t just plant seeds, “they plant a variety of species that are native to each location to maximize biodiversity. They prioritize planting permanent diverse forests, instead of managed forests and monocultures” (Conca, 2020). This is accomplished using specialized seed pods, that are pre-germinated, and designed for each location. This company is looking to expand internationally, cutting costs to 55 cents a tree, and distribute 100,000 seed pods a day, with two drone operators.

Former NASA engineer Lauren Fletcher has proposed to plant 1 billion trees a year, a truly industrial program with robotic drones. Fletcher has stated the cost of planting can be cut to 15% of the original cost using technology. The drones begin by mapping out the terrain, and gather information on local fauna, which creates a report on the “restoration potential” of an area. Once this has been approved, “a planting route is mapped for the drones to follow. The drones then fire the ground with germinated seed pellets at a rate of 10 seeds per minute” (Fletcher, 2015). After the seeds are planted, the drones will continue to monitor the ecosystem over time, using the process of “precision planting” to adjust for the future.

After the recent wildfires that ravaged Australia, AirSeed’s specialized drones have been helping to regenerate the environment. AirSeed Technologies, is an Australian start-up, looking to speed up the process of regeneration in the back country. AirSeed has claimed to have developed a data-driven intelligence system, which can plant 40,000 seeds a day, or about 2 seeds per second. Those seeds are encased in a carbon pod, to act as a barrier for birds, rodents, and insects, and are delivered below the top layer of soil. This is to protect against high winds, or water erosion. Inside each pod, is a “specific, nutrient-rich biotech solution that helps stimulate early stage growth of seeds” (Newton, 2020). After teaming up with the University of Technology Sydney, the company plans to expand across the globe by 2023.

These start ups are just one of many around the globe today, and represent a bright light at the end of the tunnel for Armenia’s ecological needs. On October 16, 2019, Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan announced that 10 million trees are planned to be planted in Armenia. This is meant to symbolize the 10 million Armenians united worldwide, in the creation of the new Armenian state. The Deputy Minister of Nature Protection Vardan Melikyan has stated, “We are studying various possibilities for implementing the program, including developing our own Armenian drone, which will participate in the landing.”

Ariel Bardi is a journalist who has worked with many popular publications, she decided to visit Armenia for herself, to see what sort of progress has been made. Since 1994, the Armenian Tree Project (ATP), has led the way in reforestation programs within Armenia. “In 2001, A.T.P. planted the popular and fruit trees skirting the roads around the 13th-century Noravank monastery, to honor Armenia’s 1,700-year anniversary as the world’s first Christian nation” (Bardi, 2020). In the last 25 years, A.T.P. has planted just over 6 million trees using traditional methods. However, while the organization has made great progress, there has been criticisms. “How can you compare these plantations to real forests, which we have and which we are losing now?” Karen Manvelyan, the director of the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) Armenia, told Ariel Bardi. “It’s PR!”

Bardi states, “Armenia’s new reformist government, led by the former journalist Nikol Pashinyan, has pledged to double the country’s tree cover by 2050, as part of Armenia’s commitment to the Paris Climate Agreement goals.” However, there has been concerns that this is not only unrealistic, but it also drives for quantity over quality, and does not address the main driver of deforestation: mineral mining.

According to Manvelyan, “On the one hand, you say that we take a green direction,” but “on the other hand, you are giving licenses to new mines.” Manvelyan sees the reforestation announcement plans as a “kind of compensation,” which deflects attention from unchecked mining policies. Until now, Armenia has been forced to choose between economic development, and preserving the environment, but technology has allowed our abilities to create to catch up with our abilities to destroy.

Artur Grigorian is an environmental lawyer, who was hired by the Pashinyan administration to inspect mine sites. After a month-long investigation in 2019, he found the mining operations in Jermuk and Kajaran to be criminally illegal, based on environmental concerns. After presenting those concerns to the prime minister, he was promptly fired, as Pashinyan was attending the 2019 World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. Grigorian was shocked to hear Pashinyan make bold environmental proclamations in Switzerland, while ignoring the evidence he provided to him back home.

The environment belongs to the people, and it is everyone’s duty to demand it be upheld by governments. The time has come for a new way to approach the problems of the old, and advancements in technology, allow us to turn previous weaknesses into strengths. Those captivating rolling hills of Armenia provide a clean slate, to plant the future environment of our children, but we must do it properly. Drone technology provides a cheap and efficient way, to do what we could not have hoped to accomplish just 10 years ago. With the tourism industry providing such lucrative jobs, in the development of the Armenian economy, we no longer need to make the tough choice between industry and preservation. What used to be a competitive disadvantage in rural communities, can become a competitive advantage, and it all starts with you!

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