Faces of the ECF | Armen Shahbazyan
Armen Shahbazyan ECF National Coordinator Armenia
Faces of the Eco-Corridors Fund is a series of stories that provides insight into the people behind the programme. It gives a face to the work ECF is doing in the Caucasus - from office buildings to remote villages and everywhere in between. These are the stories of the people who are implementing the ECF’s unique approach to nature conservation, where local land-use and traditional practices overlap with connecting protected areas and enhancing ecological sustainability. A partnership for living landscapes.
Education: I have a Masters of Science (MSc) from the American University of Armenia in Yerevan.
Hometown: I currently live in Yerevan, but my hometown is Stepanavan, Armenia, located approximately 150 km north of Yerevan - basically halfway between Yeravan and Tbilisi.
Professional Experience: Over the course of the last 20 years I have worked in the consulting sector assisting donor organizations with the implementation of development projects in the fields of environmental, economic, sustainable development, and project management.
I strongly believe that sustainable and lasting development starts from the transformation in the way people think and consulting becomes successful when it helps the beneficiaries think in a new way and motivates them to take steps to change their lives. Only then the resources provided by development projects become seeds that bear fruits of success and prosperity to local communities.
The development field has always been exciting for me as it offers opportunities to impact lives of people living in underdeveloped conditions in rural areas but it also gives a chance to learn from them. Indigenous people living the traditional way who have limited access to material resources have a lot to share about how to manage resources economically and pursue educational goals in the environment with limited opportunities unlike us who live in comfortable cities with developed infrastructure and services. They also have a lot to offer about how to build strong communities based on everyday communication with people, traditions and culture. I spend my spare time on spiritual issues such as Bible studies that motivates me in my work through verses such as: “Love your neighbor as yourself”.
In your eyes, what does the landscape in Armenia look like? Armenia has diverse landscapes and ecosystems with distinct flora and fauna, including many regionally endemic, relict, and rare species. While encompassing only five percent of the Caucasus area, Armenia incorporates nearly all types of terrestrial ecosystems found in the southern Caucasus, reflecting the great altitudinal variation and consequent juxtaposition of distinct ecosystems within a limited area.
“The vision of the ECF project is balancing the natural and anthropogenic perspectives. There is no separation of the community and the land. In order for locals to buy into conservation ideas and use these ideas, they have to own the ideas – they have to generate the ideas.” - Armen Shahbazyan
As an ECF National Coordinator, what are some of your duties and responsibilities? We really have to wear many hats when working with different stakeholders, partners and the local population. On one hand, we help motivate local people to invest their time and energy into nature conservation. And on the other hand, we work with national governments to encourage and support them in paying more attention to conservation. And then we work with municipalities encouraging them to delegate some of their resources for conservation - something they have never done before. And we also help local conservation partners build new partnerships with other organizations that can assist with local community development. Wearing this many hats requires a lot of focus and takes energy, but is very rewarding.
What is the current status of the ECF Project in Armenia? The community conservation approach first launched by ECF in Armenia in 2015 now incorporates over 37,000 hectares of land used for biodiversity conservation and sustainable development in partnership with local communities. In Armenia we have 12 wildlife caretakers who are fully equipped and trained, implementing a wide range of activities from wildlife monitoring to awareness-raising and capacity-building for local youth in the conservation field.
The ECF is now implementing a capacity-building initiative called the Financial Participatory Approach (FPA), to build long-term partnerships with 16 more village settlements in the Lory, Tavush, Vayots Dzor, and Syunik regions. It will help to expand ecological corridors to include an additional 30-40 thousand hectares of land that serve as key habitat for endangered species such as Caucasian leopard and Caspian red deer. These partner communities receive support for biodiversity conservation but also for the improvement of the social and economic well-being of their population. With this effort, the total number of ECF partner villages in Armenia that form community conservation is expected to reach 26 within the period of ECF II activities (2022-2026).
How many Conservation Agreements have been signed in Armenia? We have seven Conservation Agreements signed and at least six more are anticipated to be signed by 2026.
What are some of the upcoming ECF Armenia events? In December 2022 I had a chance to participate in the formation of three Regional Working Groups in new areas in the northern regions of Armenia (Tavush and Lori), that are expected to become long-term ECF partners. These Working Groups are formed to lead local stakeholders in the implementation of the FPA in 16 communities. It was very rewarding to see how interested they are in the ECF project and how willing they are to invest their time in this initiative. Eight years ago, when ECF just started getting the attention of the local people, it was a real challenge to get locals excited about the issue of nature conservation and eco-corridors. This progress and the changes in mindset are very encouraging.
What does ECF look like on the ground in Armenia - are there any exciting developments or new accomplishments? There are several exciting stories that can describe ECF in Armenia. Among them is a story of a young officer of a local administration of Artavan village, Garnik Gevorgyan, who was planning to migrate to the Russian Federation. He was seeking a better paid job, to improve his well-being and to take better care of his family’s needs. After ECF launched its activities, Garnik was hired to work as a wildlife caretaker and very soon became an important part of the project. He carries out the monitoring of wild animals, provides information to the locals about the project, escorts hiking groups, and manages a touristic camp.
The most exciting part of the ECF is, in my opinion, the success in biodiversity conservation. Since 2018, when we signed the first conservation agreement in Armenia with the Khachik community, the number of Bezoar goats in the ECF supported areas has increased from 195 to 535. Leopards returned and two are permanently living in the area. The number of brown bears has increased from 14 to 56. This is a great success and creates a lot of excitement among the local communities.
In your opinion, why is ECF effective? How does it work towards the conservation of nature and also economic improvements?
With a modest budget, ECF helped start conservation activities on over 37,000 hectares of community land in Armenia. For the first time, a whole new method of community nature conservation on a local level was launched, which created unprecedented excitement among the local population who suddenly realized that conservation on the community level is possible. It is a very pleasant activity to be involved in and is rewarding at the same time. Almost all the indicators of biodiversity conservation for the protected species have been delivered with higher results than expected. Several communities have fast-growing eco-tourism industries that bring tangible income to the local population and they realize that biodiversity is an important asset for the community to build its future.
The success of ECF is based on an approach where the needs and concerns of the local communities are heard and considered while planning for long-term conservation activities. The local communities are not punished by having limited access to the core zone of priority habitat areas of target species, therefore losing out on economic benefits of their land. They do however, receive assistance to improve their wellbeing through better utilization of community resources. For example, they receive financial compensation for the “lost pastures” that are put aside for wildlife, and can use that money to launch new economic activities in the community, while at the same time they protect their biodiversity that creates a very positive feeling and sense of pride.
Armen has been working on the ECF project since 2017. His knowledge of the many regions of Armenia and his relationships with locals on national, municipal and local levels add greatly to ECF’s strength by building effective, meaningful and lasting relationships and partnerships.