Posts Tagged With: Yerevan

Out to Pasture.

Traveling northeast out of Yerevan to lovely Tsaghkavan, you go first through the arid high mountains, then enter a tunnel and blast out the other side into an entirely different terrain – green, lush, wooded and cool. This is the “Little Switzerland” of Armenia: verdant forests of oak and beech and lush high pastures, where some of Heifer’s most important work is being done.

Remember the premise guiding Heifer’s new strategy? If you can double the productivity of the 650 million smallholder farmers around the world, they will feed themselves… and feed the world. Well, to double the productivity of Armenia’s farmers you need more cows. More healthy, fat cows. And cows like that come from a land with plentiful, fertile pastures.

The reality is, there are plenty of communal pastures in northeastern Armenia – they’re just inaccessible, overused or underused, and chronically mismanaged. So last year, Heifer teamed up with the World Bank and Armenia’s Ministry of Agriculture to start CARMAC (Community Agricultural Resource Management and Competitiveness Project) –and yes, these folks love acronyms as much as we do. CARMAC is a five-year, $23.3 million project that is designed to improve the lives of 24,000 people in 55 mountainous communities by increasing milk production by 17 million gallons/year and increasing meat production by 15 million pounds.

That math would really get Bill Clinton’s heart racing – but what it comes down to is giving rural communities like Tsaghkavan the tools, technology and training so the people can make the most of their animals and land assets and create a sustainable economy.

That’s what we’re talking about.

Each farmer needs about 120 bales of hay to feed each cow through the winter in barley, legumes and hay. In other words, they need productive pastures. Problem is, nobody’s paid much attention to the condition of the pastures, so in Tsaghkavan, the 80-hectare close ones are overused and unproductive, and the 570-hectare remote ones lack electricity, water and are impossible to get to. With CARMAC, each town works to build roads, shelters and watering points so the herders, animals and farm equipment can get to the rich, remote pastures. Trained vets and 10 new regional Ag Support offices improve animal health, provide artificial insemination, donate seeds and tractors and impart modern methods to grow better fodder, and loan coolers and cold storage to each village, so dairy products can be kept safe and fresh. It’s a soup-to-nuts approach and Heifer will provide links with large dairy processors and producers to support the marketing value chain – so all the extra milk being produced can get to market and be sold for a profit.

Tsaghkavan means City of Flowers….soon to be City of Dairy!

It’s a big, bold plan and it’s already is changing the way these towns work—where everything used to be done by hand, man by man. Now the farmers cooperatively employ technology, internet access, and mobile messaging to farm more efficiently. I must be evolving into a true Heifer geek because when I saw the Pasture Management Assessment maps, I was so excited I took about 15 photos of them.

It’s a beautiful, scientific thing …

I love when Heifer thinks big – and this plan is huge, complex and multi-faceted. I love that CARMAC moves far beyond giving a heifer – to planning how the communities can work together to develop a viable dairy business and charge up the economy of the whole region. And I love that it involves sustainably using the land so the pastures will be fertile and productive for years to come, without the use of toxins and pesticides.

Forever and ever …

If that makes me a geek (and I know it does), I’m happy to wear the pocket protector. Bring it!

Categories: Armenia, Farming, Food, Heifer International, Photography, Travel | Tags: , , , , , , | 15 Comments

In the Line of Fire.

Dangerously beautiful: Joghaz Lake & Berqaber Village on the border with Azerbaijan.

On my second day in Armenia, we went to the border town of Berqaber (which means “Bringing Fruit Harvest”). It was the end of a long day we’d spent visiting other youth groups and Heifer projects in regions northeast of Yerevan, but Vahe, my Heifer guide, was intent upon taking me to visit this one family before we made the 2-hour trek back to Yerevan.

The Gasparyans have been involved with Heifer for several years.  The father Gorik works in the border patrol, on a small lake that is half-owned by Armenia and half-owned by Azerbaijan (and yes, that is a recipe for disaster). The military is the only industry the town has, so Ella stays home with her three sweet children and mother-in-law, raising food and animals.

Valeria, Hrachya and Veronica Gasparyan

In late 2011, Ella received a heifer that gave birth to twins (a rarity); she’ll pass on the baby heifer to another needy family in a few months. Veronica, Ella’s beautiful daughter, received a turkey as part of her Heifer Animal Husbandry training – which she’s now parlayed into 6 turkeys, 17 turkey chicks, 10 chicken hens and 30 chicks.

The household is full of animals, the yard is laden with fruit and flowers, and the setting is beautiful – except that while we were sitting there having coffee, we heard gunfire (it sounded like firecrackers). Ella’s children told me that when the AK 47 guns start firing during the school day, they push their desks back from the window and keep studying. And then they showed me the bullets they’d pulled out of the walls of their house.I guess this is what it’s like to live in the Palestinian territories or the settlements. It was simultaneously frightening (not for myself, but for the beautiful children, whom I never wanted to let out of my sight) and totally surreal. You have to wonder how the heck it’s ever going to end and what could possibly be the point of prolonging this age-old conflict.

Across the lake and in sight: the Azerbaijan Border Station

Azerbaijan is a Muslim country, a former Soviet Republic like Armenia, and a big country with untold riches in oil and gas. Its conflict with Armenia is over Nagorno-Karabagh, the predominantly Armenian territory that was made a special autonomous administrative zone under Azerbaijan control by Stalin in the 1920’s, but then sought independence from Azerbaijan when the Soviet Union disintegrated in the 1990s. The resulting conflict was a bloodbath on both sides, with 30,000 killed and countless others displaced (most all the Azeris fled their homes in Karabagh and moved east). In 1994, the Armenians of Nagorno-Karabagh won the war and declared their independence (though the republic hasn’t been recognized by any other country in the world). Yet the Azeris have not forgiven, forgotten – or even accepted this secession, and troops are still dug in trenches on both sides.

Turkey, in solidarity with Azerbaijan, closed its borders with Armenia, effectively cutting it off from trade and commerce development – and yes, this whole saga is like listening to somebody telling you stories from a bad divorce. You just want it to stop already.

Veronica’s grandmother, who’s lived through the aftermath of the genocide, the Soviets, and the Azeri war.

But for Armenians like the Gasparyans, this is life. Their small village of 450 people has dozens of boarded-up houses, as neighbors flee the violence. Yura, Berqaber’s devoted community leader, is working with Heifer to try to stabilize and empower the village with income-producing animals, but it’s hard not to listen to the words of Veronica’s grandmother and feel some despair.

“My husband’s family came from Western Armenia (now Turkey). We went through the genocide and still they shoot at us. Why our government doesn’t let us shoot back?”

It’s a raw feeling. Two months ago, Heifer visitors were scheduled to come see Veronica’s thriving turkeys but it was too unsafe. She was heartbroken with disappointment. Today, she’s holding my hand and hugging me fiercely as we walk through the gates. I don’t want to let her go. As strong and competent as her mother is, I simply cannot imagine raising my children in this culture of war – and nothing seems destined to change.

I’m so happy Heifer is helping families in Berqabar survive, when no one else is coming to their aid. But until peace comes, I’ll be worried sick about Veronica. She’s in my heart now.

Categories: Heifer International | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , | 24 Comments

Barev, Armenia!

A beautiful land with a harsh history.

When I told people I was going to Armenia with Heifer, the most frequent response was, “Wow, um.. where is that?”

So – first the geography lesson: Armenia is just east of Turkey and bordered by Georgia to the North, Azerbaijan on the East and Iran to the South. Which basically means Armenia is a raft of Christianity in a sea of Muslim countries (Armenia was the first nation in the world to adopt Christianity as its state religion in 301 AD). And that has pretty much defined and shaped its turbulent history through the ages.

Armenia is a mystical place – filled with monasteries, pagan temples, prayer stones and churches, most tucked away in wildly remote places to protect them from destruction. (It didn’t.)

Noravank Monastery, in a gorgeous bedrock canyon that reminded me of Utah.

These Christian monuments are the pride of Armenia, as well as testament to a seemingly endless parade of invaders: conquering Persians, rampaging Mongols, invading Turks, totalitarian Soviets, as well as the ravages of devastating earthquakes. For over 600 years, Armenians knew themselves to be a distinct people, and yet were not a sovereign country. Faced with hostility from all sides, Armenians held fast to their identity and managed to survive into the modern era with a faith as deep and constant as the obsidian stone that is part of this beautiful landscape.

Even Armenia’s beloved Mt. Ararat, where Noah’s Ark supposedly landed, is now part of Turkey.

Although the Kardashians are undoubtedly the world’s most famous Armenians, they are not typical of the Armenian character (sorry, Kanye) – although I did see an awful lot of beautiful women in the modern capital of Yerevan. Actually, it’s a bit hard to get a firm grasp on the Armenian character because it’s full of such deep contradictions.

Armenians are enormously proud, highly educated (with a literacy rate of almost 100%), and hospitable beyond your wildest expectations. In centuries of life along the Silk Route, Armenians became known for their business savvy in commerce and trade, and they interacted easily with almost every European and Asian culture. But Armenia’s psyche is indelibly haunted by the memory of great loss (1.5 million annihilated in 1915 alone) and like all the Caucasus’s states, the people have experienced centuries of brutal conflict that staggers the imagination and continues today.

Woman deep in sorrow at the Genocide Memorial in Yerevan, Armenia’s capital.

Armenian people are tough; they’ve had to be to. But they are also joyful, sweet people who love to garden, to eat, to talk and to welcome visitors — particularly if you’re one of the 8 million Diaspora Armenians who’s coming back home.

An Armenian rule: If you walk by when someone’s baking bread, you have to eat some. (Oh, twist my arm!)

Armenia was a part of the Soviet Socialist Republics for more than 70 years, and has only been independent for 21 years. Like Romania, Armenia’s economy was far more robust and productive under Soviet rule, and the country is still struggling to establish a modern economy with almost no natural resources (and with its two borders with Turkey & Azerbaijan closed). While the capital of Yerevan is bustling, elegant and thriving,  in the countryside there is little besides subsistence farming to support the villagers, and the poverty rate approaches 35%. Many men have immigrated to take jobs in neighboring countries; in fact, three times as many Armenians now live outside the country as inhabit it.

But Armenia is hardly depressing. For one thing, the country is beautiful. The food is incredible ( a big fat blog on that later), and the people are totally endearing.

Even their blooming Christian cross never features a Christ, because Armenians believe in the rising.. not the suffering.

And that’s as good a prescription for moving forward as anything I can imagine!

Categories: Armenia, Heifer International, Photography, Travel | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 32 Comments

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