Working for Armenia with an eye on the future

Working for Armenia with an eye on the future

'"ArmenianSylvia Bourdjian ? Matta interviews John Antranig Kasbarian


John Antranig Kasbarian works as the Nagorno-Karabagh Program Director for the New York-based “Tufenkian Foundation“, supervising activities that focus on small business development, economic recovery programs, and the resettlement of strategic areas. He holds a PhD in geography from Rutgers University. He has been active in Armenian affairs for most of his life. Over the past 25 years, he has steadily widened the scope of his involvement, first as a lecturer, political activist, and community leader throughout the Eastern United States, and in recent years as a journalist, fieldworker, and administrator in Nagorno-Karabagh. He is a former editor of the Armenian Weekly and currently serves on the Board of Directors of the Armenian National Committee (Eastern US).


He generously provided me details about the Foundation?s projects and plans for 2007.


Please tell us how James Tufenkian established his foundation and about its different branches.
I?ve known James for a long time. He is an interesting character and a very smart man. He was born and raised in Oregon, and didn?t really have much exposure to things Armenian. Only when he moved to New York in the 70s did he discover his Armenian heritage. As a result, he brings a very interesting approach and blend of influences. His first working visit to Armenia was in the early 90s, and he decided to establish a carpet business there. The business steadily grew, and by the end of the decade James was providing needed employment to over 1000 people, most of them women, mainly in rural underdeveloped areas. By the late '90s, however, James realised that there?s more to do! He wanted to focus on rebuilding Armenia in a more direct way. So he set up the “Tufenkian Foundation” to accomplish this. The foundation was officially established in 1998 and began its activities in Yerevan a year later.


The primary focus of the “Tufenkian Foundation” has been on the socially vulnerable side of Armenia?s society:  underprivileged children and those of fallen fighters from the Karabagh war, the elderly, people living in remote and under-developed areas etc. In a few years? time the foundation grew to the point of helping people in the long run on various ongoing projects. It started also developing environmental programs. One of the successful programs we initiated in 2000 was “Makur Yerevan” (Clean Yerevan), which started as a volunteer network to  clean up the litter in residential neighbourhoods. During the early post-Soviet era, the environment has been neglected and the government has not really focused on environmental issues.


“Makur Yerevan” has now turned into a small scale Non-Governmental Organization (NGO), and is very aggressively cleaning the surroundings and campaigning against improper waste disposal.


Soon afterwards “Armenian Forests” was established in 2002 and evolved into the second major branch of the Foundation. It is headed by Jeffrey Tufenkian, James?s nephew. He became involved in Armenian public life very late, similar to James. He spent much of the '80s and '90s as an activist, in public interest research groups and worked in various environmental organizations. He moved to Armenia in the early 2000s and began the “Armenian Forests” project, which now enjoys a highly visible status. Today its activities include large scale reforestation efforts, as well as combating illegal deforestation in Armenia and protecting natural habitats and wildlife.


Armenia?s post-independence environmental record is very poor. In the early 90s Armenia experienced a severe energy crisis. Many people simply cut down trees for heating purposes. These were difficult times. Today, the energy crisis is basically over, and yet we see the deforestation rate increasing steadily. Industry monopolies are cutting down the wood and supplying industries in developed countries with valuable timbre from Armenia. For example, there are German and other car companies who make dash boards out of high quality hardwood coming from Armenia. We are not against cutting a tree for commercial uses but the mass cutting is alarming. “Armenian Forests” – while certainly interested in reforestation, has been focusing more on attacking the causes of deforestation, which is where the problem really lies.


Do you think that worldwide high gas rates lead to the deforestation in Armenia in the hands of the Armenians themselves?
I would say yes. That kind of deforestation still continues, and it is mainly carried on by corporate interests and not by individuals. We try to address this problem by developing sustainable forestry projects and getting villagers in forested areas to be involved in various projects. For example, in the Lori region in North Armenia we provide the locals with incentives to utilize the forest on a sustainable level, allowing enough time for reproduction of timbre. On the other hand we assist the inhabitants in making profit from non-wood resources, of which there are many – such as cultivating herbs and mushrooms or other forms of economic activities that do not harm the forests. We also work on developing legislation that protect the environment and make it punishable to do acts of environmental degradation.


Armenian ForestsRecently “Armenian Forests” joined with  other local and foreign environmental groups, such as the American University of Armenia, the Armenian Tree Project and the World Wildlife Fund (Caucasus office), to promote issues of common concern. Last year, for example, we teamed up against the government?s proposed assault on “Shikahogh,” a nature reserve in the south of Armenia. The area is the home of some endangered species and rare wildlife. The Ministry of Transportation was planning to open a highway straight through the natural reserve, thus forming a second vital road link with Iran, but we argued that there is no necessity to run the highway through the reserve. Eventually, the government retreated and decided on another route just around the reserve. Other joint activities include working on protecting Yerevan's green spaces. Most of the parks in Yerevan were shrunk in size or even eliminated and things got out of hands few years ago. It reached to the point where a licence was granted to build a caf? and a billiard hall right up to the steps of the Gomidas Chamber Music Hall. The arts community  mobilized and staged a protest and a press conference, in conjunction with us, which eventually made the mayor of Yerevan overturn the decision. So this kind of activism is part of what “Armenian Forests” does. We are not just about tree planting. We are about environmental consciousness and activismation. One of the largest, long-term objectives certainly is to promote “green” politics in Armenia.


The Foundation?s Yerevan office pursues a wide variety of activities. Thus far, I've only mentioned a few. They sponsor a wonderful organisation called “Manana“, which we hope will gain NGO status very soon. It basically aims to be a creative organisation for children and youth, promoting journalism, video and DVD production, creative writing and films. The Youth of “Manana” have participated in a number of international festivals presenting short films, and received international awards. They have recently produced a DVD on life in the town of Lachin and I hope to see that soon. The Foundation also promotes a number of projects in the earthquake zone, notably a project called “Our duty to live” (recently renamed “Zankagatun“). This project assists children of vulnerable families in education, skill development and career opportunities. Many other projects are in progress. This year the Yerevan office sponsored the development of the “Ararat centre for strategic international studies”. The Yerevan office is doing quite a bit of work with a small dedicated staff.


The third component of the foundation?s activity is in the Karabagh branch office which was established in 2003 under my supervision. Just a word about myself here; I spent a considerable time in the 1990s in Karabagh as a journalist. I stayed to cover the war in 1993 as a freelancer. That was a turning point in my life. Obviously when you go to a war zone and live amongst the people long enough, you see them live and die. It was a moving experience for me which resulted in my decision to remain engaged with Karabagh. So, I ended up writing a doctoral dissertation on Karabagh and when I concluded it, James Tufenkian told me “it is time to be practical. Why not move away from academia, and come check things out for me?”. I went to  Karabagh in the spring of 2003 for several months and I came back with a number of recommendations for the Foundation. I told James that in Karabagh people are still recovering from the war even 10 years later. I outlined 2 main priorities:


1- Rural development: today you see the signs of economic recovery in the capital Stepanakert and in nearby areas. Unfortunately in the border zones the situation is starkly underdeveloped. 20 year-old Soviet tractors are still used, public facilities are in dilapidated condition, children are often seen walking in the streets with nothing to do, unemployment is highest in rural areas due to the immigration of the population to other places such as Stepanakert, Yerevan or Moscow and the West. People are now seeing on TV the newest fashions and the latest Western cultural progress and see nothing resembling this where they live. But still they lacked the capability for developing themselves. We wanted to reverse the flow. The main focus of our effort is to assist in resettling Karabagh?s frontier zones, or providing shelter to refugees who permanently will stay in Karabagh. We have built a new village called “Arajamugh” near Hadrut heading to Araks river. In southern Lachin we have built and now operate aflour-mill. The population there can mill its own wheat rather than having to travel to regional centers at great cost. We have resurrected 38 hectares of grape vineyards providing employment to more than 50 people. We established also a health clinic. This year we will establish a mobile service centre that will enable the clinic to serve more than 20 villages in the surrounding areas. We do minor road maintenance and construction.


2- Some of our resettlers are refugees from Azerbaijan, who fled from Baku and Sumgayit in the late 1980s. They are those who were living in Karabagh these past 15 years but sort of living in-limbo without permanent housing, often staying with family or in hostels (hanragatzaran). Thousands of people lost their lives, others were displaced. They lost their homes, properties, everything. If Azerbaijan is not going to give anything back to this people, then we in Karabagh must stand up for their rights.


Are those young people, who left their homes for better future, now returning back home after what your foundation has done?
I don?t want to use big words because what we are doing has a small scale though very important in its nature. Part of the “Tufenkian Foundation” mission is to make a lot out of a little. Our annual budget runs into several hundred thousand dollars, which seems like a lot but is really a drop in the bucket. Still, we are able to carry on some important works. We built one village along the southern border line of Karabagh. We have done some significant work but what we?re hoping is to pave the way towards larger efforts. I am happy to highlight that other organizations have seen the work we have done and they are slowly starting to think about Lachin as a place to invest money. Of course, one of the concerns is that the Armenian government needs to do more to promote investment in strategic borderlands like Lachin. We need to resettle the borderland in such a way that Armenians become tied to their land and commit to it. We have built Arajamugh and it continues to grow. There?s a waiting list of dozens of families needing a place. People are willing to live there as long as they are given decent facilities. We have provided large, comfortable houses with very good facilities – heating and water. We are building a school there. Armenians place great emphasis and great priority on having their children well-schooled. We have tried to provide every necessary component so that people feel comfortable and we found that people are willing to take the risk and live in these frontier areas. And by the way, who are the people we settle in these areas? We worked with the government, and placed priority on refugees from Azerbaijan alongside military officers, retired  officers, who used to serve in these areas and who know the lay of the land. If hostilities were to resume, Their presence would be very important to raise the moral of that area.


'"ArmenianWe have a scholarship program for gifted and talented youth called “Taghandavor Yeridasardner“. Through this project, We cultivate the talents of those who might become leaders tomorrow in the fields of music, fine arts, sports and other fields.


The three abovementioned branches work in parallel, under the supervision of Margaret Hovhannisyan, Jeffrey Tufenkian and myself, respectively.


During this coming year the foundation will focus more on public relations and fund raising to help us expand. From 1999 until last year the foundation had little to do with fundraising. Jeffrey Tufenkian did get a few partnership grants from development agencies for his work with forests but other than that we did limited fundraising and there?s a reason for that; we don?t like to peddle projects until we test them ourselves. We want to be able to approach donors, sponsors and partners confidently, and tell them “Look, this thing works. We tried it and we know what we are doing. You can have confidence on our ability to deliver these things”. We don?t want to remain a secret and it?s good that people are getting to know about us and our foundation.


What is the secret of your success?
We have a dedicated staff in Armenia and Karabagh. They are Hayastantzis and Karabaghtzis who work close enough with us believing in our mission. Our success is that we devote a lot of time on the ground monitoring and supervising the work that we undertake. We don?t simply throw money at projects. We allocate time. I spend 4-5 months yearly in Karabagh, although that is changing lately as I am spending less time after the arrival of Mary Matosian to assist with the Karabagh program. This will enable me to do more PR and fundraising work here, but Jeffrey and Margaret spend a lot of time in the field and as a result we?re able to speak about the work that we can do and discuss the real problems.


Do you have any activities in the future related to Middle-East Armenian societies?
At  present we don?t. Our focus has always been Armenia and Karabagh. It has not been the Diaspora. At present we?ve got all we can handle with Armenia and Karabagh, but certainly there are new aspects that we need to look at in the future. One thing we discussed for example is the situation in Javagh ? southern Georgia, where deplorable and under-developed conditions prevail. We discussed also the situation of the Armenians in Russia. Today there is a sizeable Armenian Diaspora there. We need to think about ways to relate to them.


What about the Iraqi-Armenians who are suffering from the war and are in a very miserable situation?
This is certainly an important issue. We are not dealing with it in a practical way now, but it should be taken into consideration in the future.


Are you considering accepting volunteer applicants from outside Armenia to work in your different projects?
We will engage this coming year some kind of volunteer activity, but we will probably do it through established groups and organizations that are quick to handle volunteer enquiries.


In conclusion, Armenia still faces huge problems and it needs every helping hand. On the other hand, there are a lot of good things going on there and there are more opportunities now than before.



Photos from the “Armenian Forests” project.