Expanding Armenia’s Tree Population with Jeanmarie Papelian

July 30, 2020

Jeanmarie has been ATP’s executive director for five years. She oversees a team of 80 in Armenia and a small team in the US. Before that she was a lawyer in private practice who frequently volunteered with organizations providing social and humanitarian assistance in Armenia. Today, her mission and passion to improve Armenia’s environment through tree-planting fuels ATP’s successful initiatives across Armenia.

John Shegerian: This edition of the Impact! podcast is brought to you by Engage. Engage is a digital booking engine revolutionizing the talent booking industry with hundreds of athletes, entrepreneurs, speakers, and business leaders. Engage is the go-to spot for booking talent for your next event. For more information, please visit www.letsengage.com.

John: Welcome to another edition of the Impact! podcast. I am John Shegerian, and I am so honored and privileged today to have Jeanmarie Papelian. She is the executive director of Armenia tree. Welcome to the Impact! podcast, Jeanmarie.

Jeanmarie Papelian: Thank you. I am so happy to be here to talk about Armenia Tree Project.

John: Well before we get into all the great things you are doing at the Armenia Tree Project. Can you please share a little bit of your biography and your background leading up to becoming the Executive Director of the Armenia Tree Project?

Jeanmarie: Well, sure. I grew up in Massachusetts and was connected to the Armenian Community growing up. When I was in law school in 1988, this earthquake happened in Armenia, and it was a terrible tragedy, and ever since then I started volunteering with organizations that were providing social and humanitarian assistance in Armenia and simultaneously, I developed a legal career in private practice, and I got to a point that I realized I was having more fun doing my volunteer work than I was doing my day-to-day law practice. Eventually I heard that Armenia Tree Project’s original executive director was retiring and this opportunity opened up; it was local, and I have always admired Armenia Tree Project, and here I am.

John: I just love always understanding the nuances, when you were practicing law as a sole practitioner, were you practicing litigation law or environmental law? Were you already a greeny and a tree hugger before this or was this something that was just born out of the crisis that existed in using the need?

Jeanmarie: Oh God. No, I was actually with a large firm and I was a trial lawyer. I did a lot of family law and so I was in my day-to-day work seeing people at their absolute worst. So you might imagine that the opportunity in my volunteer work to do something to help people who were going through genuinely hard times was very attractive.

John: Now, I see why you are here. Okay that makes total sense. So for our listeners out there who would like to find the Armenia Tree Project. Please go to www.armeniatree.org. So just as a little bit of background is– throughout the past 25 years Armenia Tree Project has mastered the art of growing and planting healthy trees in Armenia. Just for our listeners who do not really understand. Can you share a little bit about why your organization’s unique? The history over the last 25 years? What is your vision on where it should go, especially in these very unique times post-COVID.

Jeanmarie: Absolutely. So the way we got started was in the early 90s. People who are familiar with Armenia will recall that those are very dark times. Armenia had been a Soviet Republic, it suffered this terrible earthquake in December 1988. Then it got involved in a war with its neighboring Republic of Azerbaijan. Then the Soviet Union broke up. Those were really really dark times and Armenia was being blockaded by two of its neighbors. So in the early 90s, there was no heat, there was no water, there was no light. Carolyn Mugar who is an Armenian-American activist from the Boston area was in Armenia during those days and something that she saw that really struck her, was that people were cutting down the trees even in the city parks to burn them and heat their homes, and what Carolyn saw was that if Armenia survived all these other crises Armenia would be suffering from an environmental crisis. And so she started Armenia Tree Project which started on a very small scale in 1994. Just giving some trees to villagers– fruit trees and nut trees and what it has grown into is a big operation. Our mission is to use trees to help improve the standard of living for Armenians. We do that in a variety of ways. We still give trees to villagers– fruit and nut trees. We do community tree plantings where you might green a school yard or a churchyard something like that. We do environmental education. We run four nurseries and two environmental education centers. We are providing jobs. Year-round employees in Armenia– we have about 80, and then we hire seasonal workers during the Spring and Fall planting seasons– usually about a hundred and fifty to two hundred people each season. So it is a big operation and we are really making a difference on the ground.

John: There are so many questions I want to ask you. So being that you are a native of Massachusetts, how often do you go over to Armenia yourself?

Jeanmarie: Usually I go two or three times a year. Unfortunately this year, I have not been [laughter]. Nobody is traveling.

John: [Laughter] Everybody understands why so I understand that. So usually two or three times a year, that is fascinating. Armenia Tree project was doing this really important work, before sustainability became a thing here in America, before “An Inconvenient Truth” won an Academy Award and Al Gore won a Nobel Peace Prize, before the circular economy became a big deal here as well. Now that we are living through a fascinating time where our children are really sustainability-minded and green-minded and environmentally-minded, and young activists and legacy activists. Jane Fonda is still fighting the good fight and Greta Thunberg has brought in a whole another generation. Wow, this whole issue of climate change… How does that play a role in your mission and in your work?

Jeanmarie: Well, it is interesting. In Armenia, climate change is not a subject of debate. It is simply a fact. The farmers report their observations that they have seen, about how things have changed over the years. In the United States, it has become political. Many of our donors are in the United States. So when we teach environmental education to the children of the diaspora, this question comes up, about–is climate change real, and we can teach and give examples of how that works. But what we find…Let me talk for a second of our environmental education program. We have two environmental education centers in Armenia, and we invite children to come there and to learn and to do hands-on activities and even to plant trees and we also visit schools. We visit schools in the diaspora too, mostly in North America. Although we are expanding that and so we reach thousands of children every year. It is really important for us to do that because the next generation of Armenians, whether they are in Armenia or here, must be better stewards of the environment than their parents and grandparents were because if they are not, we are all in trouble. Now what we found is that children are very interested to know how they can be better stewards of the environment. They want to go home and teach their parents how to be better stewards of the environment. I have an amusing anecdote about a school that we were working with in Yerevan where we gave them a module on the water conservation for example, and the school then got some complaints from parents saying “What are you teaching my kid, they have become like the water police at home?”

John: [Laughter] That is a good thing. That is a good call that you get when you get some of those kind of complaints, that means, wow, the message is really getting through starting from the bottom, from the from the little ones, it is going in the reverse direction.

Jeanmarie: I love it. I love it. Yes…

John: That is awesome.

Jeanmarie: It is awesome. And so, you know, we go into the schools and we do that here and in Armenia. In Armenia, we started several dozen Eco clubs, which is sort of an after-school activity and the kids get together and decide what they want to do. In some instances, they have made benches out of reclaimed items for their school yard, that type of thing. Bunch of schools last year did this fun project where they made alternative Christmas trees rather than cutting down a live tree. They created trees out of found items and they were very creative, they were very artsy, they were very beautiful, and it was just a lot of fun for everybody.

John: That is wonderful and so beyond just trees, talk about the other environmental impacts that your organization makes.

Jeanmarie: Well, sure. Trees have environmental impact in so many ways. The work that we do is very important. So trees…We know that they clean the air, they reduce dust, forests create their own humidity. We have planted over a thousand hectares of new forest in Armenia. Forests create their own humidity, so they combat global warming. In Armenia, there are regions which are slowly undergoing a process of desertification. That is the groundwater is slowly drying up and we do not have good data post-soviet era, but there was data during the 20th century, during the Soviet era that was kept. And what we saw during the 20th century is that the rate at which the groundwater in the Ararat Valley was decreasing, was accelerating as we got towards the end of the 20th century. So maybe it is a leap to say that that was caused by human activity, but it was happening. And if you think about the Ararat Valley, any Armenian-American knows that that has been the breadbasket of that region for hundreds or thousands of years. So what would happen to the region if the Ararat valley became a desert? What would happen to Armenia, if it became dependent on its neighbors for water? Armenia is not in a great neighborhood. We do not have very friendly neighbors. So we want to strategically plant trees to preserve the groundwater, to preserve animal habitats, and to create food sources. So I have a couple of things to add to that. First, with respect to the animal habitats. I do not know if you followed this, but I would like people who are interested in Armenia to go on to Facebook and to follow WWF Armenia– World Wildlife Federation Armenia. There was a conservation project that happened in a forest reserve called the Khosrov Forest Preserve, named for an ancient king of Armenia called King Khosrov. King Khosrov liked to plant forests and one of the reasons he liked to plant forest was because he was a hunter, so he wanted to preserve the habitat of the animals that he liked to hunt. It had been twenty years since they had seen this leopard which is native to the region. It is called either a Caucasian leopard or a Persian leopard, depending on who you ask. Twenty years since they had seen a leopard in Armenia and two years ago he showed up in the Khosrov Nature Preserve, thanks to the conservation efforts.

John: Wow…

Jeanmarie: And so now they think there may be as many as a dozen leopards living there, and one was actually seen as far north as Yenokavan, which is up near Ijevan, you could see them very far north from there. It is a great conservation success story. So that is just one example, but preserving and planting forests help to preserve the habitats of animals that are native to the region. Armenia in 2016, I believe signed on to the Paris Accords and what Armenia committed to do as a country, was to double its forest cover by the year 2050.

John: Okay.

Jeanmarie: So that is a big undertaking. Right now, depending on who you ask, the forest cover in Armenia is somewhere around 10 percent. So to double the forest cover over the next thirty years, you would have to get to about 20 percent.

John: Right.

Jeanmarie: So it is… I do not know… 800 million trees. Let us call it a billion trees and–

John: So let me ask you this question. That is a brilliant point you just bring up. During your great work at the Armenia Tree Project and their history over the last 25 years, how has technology improved to the point where you could actually accomplish that goal? How is technology going to help you accomplish that goal now?

Jeanmarie: Well, so there is a lot of technology that Armenia does not have yet, but there is technology that is available. In fact, we were co-sponsor with the American University of our Armenia’s Acopian Center for the Environment last Fall of an International Forest Summit which was held in Armenia, and we brought in experts –regional and international experts– to talk about how do we tackle this problem of [inaudible] doubling Armenia’s forest cover over the next thirty years. One of the issues that came up was technology because you need to figure out where you are going to plant those trees. Are you going to plant the trees in a place where there used to be a forest, but now is farmland? Or you are going to plant a tree in a place where it has never been forest? And, what are the considerations you need to take into doing each of those things. What are the water sources? Where are you going to put irrigation? Where are you going to get the water? There are all sorts of mapping technology that exist now that did not exist when we started and also people… Every time somebody sees us on the internet–they forward it to me– people are talking about planting trees by using drones. So you have the drone drop a little package with the seed and it hits the ground. The truth is most of Armenia is so rocky that it would not work.

John: Ah, right.

Jeanmarie: But if, you know, the technology might develop to a point where it could work in certain parts of Armenia. I mean, those are things that we have to explore, and so there is technology and, I think over the next thirty years there will be greater technological advances which can help. When we first started doing what we were doing, for example, nobody was using drip irrigation, and one of our nursery managers went on a trip to Israel where he observed what JNF has done in reforesting Israel or creating forest in the desert. He came back with some ideas and we have been using drip irrigation, and it is a great tool and it is very simple. You can have a very high-tech system, but you can also have a very low-tech system which works really well to grow healthy trees. Growing healthy trees is no easy task, you know, sometimes they see these articles about–“this country is going to plant 30 million trees next year” and I always say that is great, but how many trees will there be three years after that? You can plant the trees but who is going to take care of them?

John: Great point. I always read the headline and think “Wow. How are they pulling that off? Can we pull that off at Armenia?” I am so glad you clarified that. You are saying if not done the right way and then cared for the right way. All of them do not survive, in fact a large percentage could die.

Jeanmarie: They could and in fact, I think Turkey had a big disaster where they had made some public pronouncement about planting millions of trees. A couple years later, most of those trees are dead. One of the reasons we have been successful, and of course, it has been through trial and error over twenty-five years. We were always successful.

John: Right

Jeanmarie: We have learned how to choose the site where you are going to plant trees. Is the soil suitable? Is there a sufficient source of water? Then we plant the trees and we take care of them. We have monitors who come and check them, at least monthly, sometimes more often than that. When we are doing a community tree planting which is in the school yard or the park or the churchyard in the community–the first thing we do is look not only at the soil and the water, but meet the members of the community and make sure they are bought into the concept. Are they going to help us care for these trees because we can not be there every day? Are they going to let us know if there is a breach in the fence or are they going to let their livestock munch on our baby tree? Right?

John: Right.

Jeanmarie: What we do is the first season we will only plant 30 percent of the trees and then see how they do, and if it goes well then we will plant the rest of the trees in the subsequent season. These community tree planting sites, and we have over 1,300 community tree planting sites all over Armenia and Artsakh. It is a very popular program. Just one example, there is a village in Armavir region called Aknashen and in Aknashen we have planted by the town hall, and so now there is a nice cool green space where you can come and sit. We planted in a couple other public places. We have given every household in the village which is over two hundred households– fruit and nut trees so that they can grow their own fruit and nuts and either use them to feed their family or to sell them. We have done environmental education for the kids in the local school. So it is a holistic approach and our goal is community revitalization.

John: I love that. For our listeners who just joined us. We have Jeanmarie Papelian. She is the executive director of the Armenia Tree Project. You could find her and her great organization, and get involved at www.armeniatree.org. For our listeners in Armenia [foreign word]. I am so glad to have you listening today. I love my homeland and I am so glad I was there last October and all of you treated me like a brother that I have missed for all these years. So thank you for listening to the Impact! podcast. Jeanmarie, talk a little bit about your backyard nursery program. I read about a little bit but I would love you to share with our listeners what it means to you, what it means to Armenia Tree Project?

Jeanmarie: Sure. This is one of our most popular programs with our supporters and you will understand why when I describe it. So what we do with the backyard nursery is we give seeds to a household in a village. We teach them how to plant and care for the seeds and when the seedlings are ready to be transplanted to one of our planting sites, we purchase the seedlings from that family.

John: That is so nice.

Jeanmarie: So the majority of these families are located in remote villages where there are not a lot of income opportunities and so they are able to earn some extra money and stay in their home village. A couple of years ago, around this time of year, I went to the Village of Hovhannavank [?] which is where many of our backyard nursery families are located. This is a village…It is remote, it is hard to get to and there are not a lot of job opportunities and we have got a couple dozen of these families there, and I met some of them. Just some of the things that people said to me “Well, I used to grow potatoes in my yard and then I would sell the potatoes, and this is easier and I make more money and now I can buy potatoes.” Well, it does not exactly look easy to me. Right? I mean you have to take care of the trees and also, it is more than a year before your seedlings are ready and you will earn any money on it. But once they get going, they love it. Another lady told me “Well this year when I get the money, I am going to use it to get my children and grandchildren dental care”, and “Last year, I used it for their school fees.” and then there is a couple of older ladies who I just adore who say “My kids want me to give up this place in the village and move with them to Yerevan or to Russia and I want to stay here, and earning this money helps me stay here.” Well, I love that right? It is just a great great program.

John: That is so nice… That is so nice.

Jeanmarie: We have been expanding it a little bit. We are in two other villages besides Margahovit now. It needs careful management and support, so we are cautious in how we expand it, but it is a great program and really helpful for the people who live in these remote areas where there is not a lot of income opportunity.

John: Jeanmarie, share with our listeners any of the other key initiatives that Armenia Tree Project’s working on that you already have not well described in. You have already blown me away with everything that you are doing over there in Armenia, and actually around the world in diaspora. What else are you working on that is important to you and the key missions that you are working on?

Jeanmarie: Sure. I will tell you some of the things were working on. I described the community tree planting program already, and I described backyard nursery. We have a forestry program, which has planted, to date, over 28 hectares of new mill[?]. Over a thousand hectares of new forest at 28 different sites, in Armenia. We are working on expanding that program so that we can support Armenia’s initiative to double its forest cover over the next thirty years. We know how to grow the healthy trees with the highest survival rate. We have a nursery in a village called Margahovit in Lori region, which is supported by the Mirak family out of the Boston area, that is the nursery that supports our forest tree plantings. We are expanding some of the operations and adding new technologies. We have got a new state-of-the-art greenhouse there, which was funded by the Bilezikian family from Cape Cod, Massachusetts, and we have got seed testing capacity there, so some new technology which will help us do even better as we provide, hopefully, hundreds of thousands of seedlings to the government for the new forest. There is the Forestry Department which is… It is just amazing. You plant a forest, you think, I think, you know the forests in New England [?]. Well, our baby forests do not really look like that, but they will.

John: Yeah. Exactly, exactly.

Jeanmarie: They will, they will. We also have the community planting program, I talked about that. One of the things we are doing within community tree planting is intensifying our production of fruit trees. The reason that we are doing that is so that we can help more farmers become self-sufficient, to have more healthy fruit trees and what we have done is we have been grafting the native fruit varieties onto dwarf rootstock and I get in trouble when I talk about the technology because my knowledge of it is superficial, but what happens is a dwarf tree will produce fruit in a shorter time than a regular tree. So, if it would take the regular apple tree five years before it produced fruit, it might take the dwarf tree three years. But it will produce the native fruit. So we are doing this grafting project where we are producing fruit trees that are grafted onto dwarf rootstock so we can distribute them in large quantities to farmers and villagers who can produce fruit and they can sell the fruit, they can consume the fruit, you know, Armenians loves their fruit [laughter].

John: [Laughter] That is for sure.

Jeanmarie: Yeah, that is for sure. So we have got several varieties of apples, pears, plums, cherries, quince, you name it. Lots of local fruits–apricots. Everybody always asks about the apricots. Yes, we have apricots. The fruit tree production is something that we are very proud of and we also acquired some new technology at our nursery in Kajaran Village, which is a cold room[?] which allows us to work year-round and grafting the the fruit trees so that we can ramp up the production. At our nursery in Kajaran and in Margahovit Village near where we have the Mirak forestry nursery. We have two environmental education centers and I mentioned before that is where the students come and they visit and they get to do a hands-on activity, something really fun that we have been doing is when schools from the diaspora have a trip to Armenia, often times [crosstalk] high school trip. We invite them to come and spend a day with us. They will come and have a tour of the nursery, we will pair them up with students their age from a local school that we are working with, and they will do some icebreaker activities to get to know each other, and then we will all plant trees together. It is a great bonding [crosstalk].

John: That is awesome. That is wonderful. They could take that experience back to wherever they came from in the diaspora. That is wonderful.

Jeanmarie: Yeah, it is really great and kids feel like they have done something meaningful when they plant the tree in their ancestral homeland.

John: That is great. Then we feel like we own a piece of the homeland. We feel really part of the soil. It is really fascinating what you are saying. I really felt that way when I was there as well. That is important, to give everybody that connection. You know, I heard the Prime Minister speak two or three times while I was there in very small groups and one of his messages that resonated the most and he kept making a call for action to, was for no longer to have an Armenia and to have a diaspora; for us to become one, and I have never heard. I am fifty-seven years old now and I always grew up in New York and New Jersey and now in California, knowing the diaspora, an Armenia and a homeland– and to think about a unified Armenian group of us, and we are all home, and to be unified like that. I loved his call to action to say let us not be separate anymore. Let us just consider us as one, and come here as much as you can and encourage others to come here as much as you can as well. I thought that was just a real wonderful spirit of unification and feeling of togetherness that I never felt before.

Jeanmarie: Well, it is a great message and that is where he came up with the number when he announced last year that in October 2020 that Armenia was going to plant ten million trees. There are ten million Armenians in the world, three million of them live in the Republic of Armenia, seven million of them live in the diaspora. His idea was that each Armenian can plant a tree or there will be a tree planted to represent each Armenian in the world. That is how they came up with the number. Those of us on the ground doing the work say, how are we going to do that? But we will figure it out. Because of COVID-19, it got postponed for another year, but everybody is going to figure it out somehow. That is a lot of trees. But Armenia does not have ten million seedlings. We have some concerns about importing seedlings, but we are working on it. I am sure between the ministry of the environment and organizations like ATP, we will figure something out.

John: You know, one of my most important questions that I ask great leaders like you, Jeanmarie, is action points. It is one thing to learn and to listen from great leadership like you, people who are doing great things and making important impacts in the world, making the world a better place. But there are a lot of people out there that are on the sidelines that want to know from where they sit, how they could be involved. Can you share with our listeners how they can help your very important efforts if they are so moved to be involved after listening today’s episode of Impact! podcast.

Jeanmarie: Well, absolutely. I think I mentioned that most of our support comes from Individual donors in North America. And so, the easiest way to help is to make a donation, to go to our website and click on donate and make a donation. We also have lots of volunteers who always want to help us, and we love that. We are a small team here in the US. We can not be in all the communities talking about Armenia Tree Project’s Mission, so people who approach us and say “I want to help”–we enlist as ambassadors. Go out in the community and talk about what Armenia Tree Project is doing yourself, to the people that you know. We do what we can to make it easy for people to do that. If you look on our website, you will actually see, we list some of the ambassadors and give examples of some of the things that they have done. There was a kid I met in Armenia last summer. He was there with his family, with his parents and his grandmother. He was thirteen years old and he had spent a day visiting our Kajaran nursery with his family and planted a tree. He said “I want to do something to help Armenia Tree Project”, and I spoke to him a little bit about what he could do. He went home and he approached his Parish priest and he asked if he could speak at the church picnic, and he spoke at the church picnic and he told the people there about the backyard nursery program that Armenia Tree Project has. He raised the funds at that church picnic to sponsor three backyard nursery families for a year [laughter].

John: Come on. I think he is aiming to be the next in line after you to take over as executive director. That is our kind of kid.

Jeanmarie: He is my kind of kid. I love this kid.

John: I love this kid.

Jeanmarie: Right? Then some other kid he knows who wants to be an eagle scout contacted them and said “Well I like to do something” “Well, I would love you to, I would love to have you do something”. We love people like that, who can help us spread the word. Honestly, we are doing this in Armenia because we love Armenia and we are…

John: Right.

Jeanmarie: …That is our heritage. But whenever you plant a tree anywhere in the world, we all benefit.

John: That is so important.

Jeanmarie: We were planting trees before planting trees was cool.

John: Right, right.

Jeanmarie: We all need to do this. It needs to happen. We have to preserve and protect the environment for future generations. So anyway that you can help, if you want us to come and talk to your community about the environmental impact and things that you can do in your own community. We would be happy to come and talk about it. We would be happy to talk come and talk to the kids. We have some great activities with children and lessons and hands-on things. So yeah, that is how people can help.

John: For our listeners out there, how can they find you beside your website on social? What is the best social places for them to find you, since so many people are on social media now.

Jeanmarie: We have a very active Facebook page, Armenia Tree Project. And if you are looking for up-to-date information or photos of what we are up to, following us on Facebook is a great way to do it, and we have great photos. Armenia is a beautiful place and we are planting these beautiful trees and beautiful places and we have always got great photos. So follow us for the photos if not for anything else.

[Laughter]

Jeanmarie: We also have an Instagram account. You can follow us on Instagram. Those are probably the two best places. We are not very active on Twitter, but we are working on that. So… [laughter].

John: For our listeners out there, get involved, help out any way you can, wherever you are. Every little bit counts now, whether it is money, whether it is being an ambassador, whether it is in diaspora or back in the homeland in Armenia. Get involved with the Armenia Tree Project and to find the Armenia Tree Project again, go to www.armeniatree.org. Jeanmarie Papelian. You are making an amazing impact both in Armenia and around the world. You are also making the world a better place, and I am so grateful for who you are and what you are doing. Thank you for being a guest today on the Impact! podcast.

Jeanmarie: Thank you for having me. It was my pleasure.