Restoring Armenia’s Forest with Erik Grigoryan

July 16, 2020

Mr. Erik Grigoryan, Founder and CEO of Environment Group, Former Minister of Environment of the Armenia and Chair of Interstate Ecological Council of CIS, National Designated Authority of Green Climate Fund, Adaptation Fund, Political and Operational Focal Point of Global Environmental Facility and Climate Convention in Armenia.  More than 15 years of work experience in Armenian Government and international organizations.

Studied Environmental Management and Environmental Economics in Armenia, Greece and Germany. Author of number of publications and research papers printed in Armenia, Russia, Greece and Germany

John Shegerian: This edition of the Impact! Podcast is brought to you by ERI. ERI has a mission to protect people, the planet, and your privacy. It is the largest fully-integrated IT and electronics asset disposition provider, and cybersecurity-focused hardware destruction company in the United States, and maybe even the world. For more information on how ERI can help your business properly dispose of outdated electronic hardware devices, please visit eridirect.com.

John: Welcome to another edition of the Impact Podcast. I am so honored and privileged to have my great friend with us today, Erik Grigoryan. Erik is the founder and CEO of Environment Group. He is the former Minister of Environment of Armenia, and the Chair of the Interstate Ecological Council of CIS. He is a national designated authority of Green Climate Fund, Adaptation Fund, Political and Operational Focal Point of Global Environmental Facility, and Climate Convention of Armenia. Welcome to Impact Podcast, Erik Grigoryan.

Erik Grigoryan: Hi, John. Thank you very much for inviting me for this interesting podcast. I am happy to talk with you.

John: Well, let me just share with our listeners, and give them a little bit of a background. First, let me just say hello to all of our wonderful listeners around the world, but especially this interview is happening from Fresno, California, which is considered little Armenia in the United States. And of course, you are sitting in Yerevan, Armenia, so, barev hayastan to all of our great brothers and sisters around the world that are listening. It is just an honor to have you on [inaudible].

John: Just for our listeners to understand, Erik, first and foremost, is a great friend of mine. Second of all, he is exactly the reason why we created the show, the Impact Podcast, because Erik inspires me, and inspires thousands of others on the impacts that he has made in his journey. It is just an honor to have you on today, and share a little bit about your journey, what you did leading up to becoming the Minister of the Environment in Armenia, and then the accomplishments you, and the great Ministers and leadership in Armenia accomplished the last two years for the environment. And then, we are going to go into the future, and talk a little bit about your new company, and what you intend to achieve, and your vision for your new company.

John: So, Erik, before we get going here, and talking about all the amazing accomplishments that you have left in the last two years, and the impact you made in Armenia, that is going to last hundreds of years into the future because of your great leadership. Can you share with our listeners your journey, where you grew up, where you got educated, and your journey leading up to being named the Minister of the Environment of Armenia?

Erik: Thank you. First of all, I am also very happy that it started from Fresno, because Fresno is a very unique place for all of Armenia’s at least [inaudible] because of William Saroyan, my favorite writer. I am so happy because of that topic.

Erik: For my journey, I was born in Kapan. It is a small city South in Armenia. I studied in Armenia. I started in Armenia. So, first thing, some environment economy exile, I did my first education in Yerevan, then I continued in Greece. I studied environment management in Greece in Aegean University. Then I continued in Dresden Technical University in Germany. After I continued also again in Greece, did some PhD on environment economics. So, this is generally about my education.

Erik: And working, I started like twenty years ago again, in Minister of Environment. I started with my internship in Ministry, then get different jobs in Leading Specialist, Senior Specialist, Head of Division of International Corporation. After I left Ministry for a few years, worked for different international organizations like USAID, The World Bank, or UNDP, and other institutions. But after few years, I returned back to government as advisor of Prime Minister, And then, I become a first deputy minister for a year, and for last two years I served as a Minister of Environment.

Erik: To be honest, this political position actually is really a privilege for every citizen to be able to contribute for the well-being of citizens, so I am happy that I took this position, and happy what we achieved, and it was really very, very interesting and busy time, it was a very busy time to work.

John: Well, listen, I have in my hand, and I have read what you accomplished, why you were their Minister of Environment, with of course, first of all, your great team, many of whom I met and they are just both wonderful people, and also very [inaudible] to your inspiration and leadership, but then also your colleagues, the other ministers, and of course the Prime Minister. So I know nothing gets done alone, and it is a team effort, but I read what you accomplished the first two years there, and it was a hundred eleven points.

John: Like I told you off the air for our listeners, Erik and I can spend five hours together, it feels like five minutes. And I am never bored, I am always learning. But I would like for you today, I would like to go over some of the highlights of the a hundred eleven points of accomplishments for the environment that you did, and you did with the team, and leadership from Armenia during your ten years.

John: So let us just start with something really, really near and dear to so many people’s hearts, the issue of trees and forest management. Can you share a little bit about the background of historical forest management in Armenia, which you have shared with me before, which is absolutely fascinating. And what you, and the Prime Minister, and your colleagues achieved during your leadership period, the last two years in forest management?

Erik: For the last twenty to twenty five years, it was a very hard time for a forest management in Armenia, because starting from 90s, that was a some kind of energetic crisis. It was a lot of illegal cutting in the beginning, but it was a primary like a cutting of trees. But as in many countries, after this changing of societies or management, there are some groups are creating some rules. They were trying to take all these businesses, illegal businesses, with illegal logging, and timber production, and others.

Erik: And it was more than twenty five years. It was a lot of illegal cutting in Armenia, and at the same time, almost not any reforestation a part. So what we did actually, we started with legal acts, we changed a lot. It was a lot of changes, criminal law and other different legal acts, we changed the institutional structures, and we involved different state statures, like a police, environment inspectorate. And we started to fight actually, but it took more than one year. But in the end, I can assure that more than 90% decrease of illegal logging was in Armenia.

Erik: And in this moment, there was just few cases, more than 90% if not more. It was an achievement because of work of team, it’s Armforest, with the State Inspectorate, it was police, it was our local authorities or whatever. It was a lot of protests by a local people, who were involved in this business, but results that we have today, is really very good.

Erik: At the same time, we started another also activities to start the reforestation efforts. In 2019, it was the first year that government allocated more than $1 million, and we were able to plant half million trees to involve the local people. And the same people, they were involved in this illegal logging processes. They become a worker to workers to start the reforestation, but it was just beginning because we have a very ambitious plans to double forest covering Armenia. It was like more than 300,000 hectares.

Erik: If we will start this process, it has already started, this year also the government allocated 1 million, next year will be 2 million. We believed that in the next month, one of our international donor institutions will approve about $20 million grants again to reforestation, so it will be a very unique chance to combine the social economic and environment aspects, and we will be able actually to hire a lot of people for the seasonal works, and thousands of local people will be involved in this reforestation process.

Erik: This process had just started. I believe that the future steps and future activities will be broader and broader, and the forest sector will become some kind of locomotive for not only for environmental activities, but also to support local, social, and economic aspects.

John: Wow. Can you just share from your perspective, because you explained it to me when you were touring me through Armenia and showing me so many fascinating aspects of not only our great homeland, and as the core city, but then of course, the beautiful environmental elements of Armenia, why trees, and trees in particular are so important to a society? Any society, but of course, Armenia which had been deforested, why is the reforestation, and new trees, and taking care of trees so important to the sustainability of the future of all of the planet that we live in?

Erik: It is trees and the forest essentially just a very, I would say, amazing place to work, amazing place to assure our better climate, it is a supporting land, it is supporting water, it is supporting societies. It has so many aspects that you can consider. Also, to the forest itself is a place for a biodiversity.

Erik: I would like to mention that Armenia is one of the forty biodiversity hot spots globally. So there are everyone, probably in the US, a lot of people hear about the Madagascar or Amazon is very, very well known places. But in Europe, also there are two regions, it is Northern Mediterranean and Caucasian region. It is a biodiversity hot spots and it is a very unique biodiversity.

Erik: For example, we have a leopard. It is the last leopard actually in European continent, it is Caucasian leopard and we have leopards living in nature, and one of leopards now living just seventy kilometres from the capital Yerevan. So once you are protecting forest, it is also the home of the many biodiversity species. But also again, it is not only the environment aspect, but it is also the climate, the social, it is economic, and we are rehabilitating the forest areas. We are not creating the new forest there, but it was a forest area previously, but it was heavily impacted by different illegal actions or other actions.

Erik: Now they are returning back to nature what we took previously, because in the beginning of 90s, there was no any gas, electricity, so it was an energetic crisis and forest was used by all people as firewood for heating, and others. Now it is time to return back what we took, and all these actions that we are now starting to do, it is to return back. Plus, if you have forest, it means you have a better climate, you have a better water balance. It is really very amazing.

Erik: Even after this COVID actually, when Armenian government started some economic supporting programs, one of these programs was the planting of trees. And during the ten to fifteen days, we were able to plant two million trees, and to hire more than one thousand local people. We are from one side, we were able to take people who were affected because of COVID that the other unemployment activities come from other sides, but they did the planting of seeds will bring some better environmental effects in future.

John: Perfect. That is just so amazing. I know because of you, and the Prime Minister’s vision, when I was there in Armenia last October, you even announced the new initiative and you gave out a bunch of little baby trees to the entire audience that day. So that was so meaningful, and it felt so good. I am just so excited for the future of Armenia with more and new trees coming in the reforestation. I think it just means we have a more sustainable, and brighter, and cleaner future in Armenia ahead of us.

John: Let us talk about something that is a big issue around the world, a big issue in the United States, and a big issue in California, but also you put it on the agenda in Armenia. The issue of reusable plastic bags or reusable bags versus plastic bags, and how do we get plastic bags out of the ecosystem? What action did you take on the issue of plastic bags in Armenia?

Erik: We just banned the use of single use plastic. It will start from 2022, so from January 2022, it will be banned. So sale and realization of plastic sets and bags with up to fifty microns will be just banned in Armenia. So, no one can sell it. Why we give also the time also for the business to somehow change their activities, to start the production of biodegradable bags, or to switch to paper, or other. But my strength believe that within five to ten years, maybe it is even earlier, it will be banned globally, because you are using usually up to fifteen minutes while single use plastic bag, and then it will remain in nature for five hundred years. So it is fairly sustainable way of use this for plastic bags.

Erik: Not only a banned in Armenia, but we also send the letter to our colleagues in the former Soviet Union countries, to Eurasian union, to promote also the activities in their regions. But yes, it was banned in Armenia. It went through the government decree, it went to Parliament, and everyone was voted on banning. This was one hundred fifteen to zero voting to ban the plastic bags in Armenia.

Erik: But it was the only the first step because now we started new process, that was a deposit-refund system for plastic bags. So this system will give a possibility to reuse plastic bags up to 99% is working in many European countries like in Germany, or in Estonia, and other countries. So you are paying some small amount for your bottle when you are buying something, and then you just returning and getting back your money. It is giving chance to collect these bottles and to reuse it again.

John: Wonderful. Again, you put Armenia, you took us again, like many societies needed to make that important change. You took us from the back of the pack and you put us right on the forefront of how plastic bags should be treated and kept out of the ecosystem to keep a cleaner environment for all of our sake. Not only our sake in our generation, but also of course, our children and grandchildren’s generations as well.

John: For our listeners who just joined us, we have Erik Grigoryan today. He is a great friend, he is huge environmentalist, and leader, he is the owner of the Environment Group. To find Erik, you could find him at www.environment.am, www.environment.am. Erik, where else can they find you on Facebook and LinkedIn as well?

Erik: Yes. Through LinkedIn, it is Erik Grigoryan. It is easy to find and also on Facebook page.

John: Perfect. I am on your beautiful website now. It is a gorgeous website full of lots of resources, and all of your colleagues that you have at the environment group with you. I really highly recommend anybody who is interested in making the world a better place, both from an environmental standpoint, and a sustainability standpoint, to contact Erik. He is not only brilliant, but he is also really wonderful to work with.

John: Erik, let us talk a little bit about water management and the beautiful, the beautiful and iconic, Lake Sevan in Armenia. Lake Sevan and water management issues are on your point of a hundred and eleven issues that you tackled the first two years as the Minister of the Environment. Can you share a little bit about some of the wins that you got in water management and with Lake Sevan?

Erik: Yes. It was also some cumulative, like a negative situation with the Lake Sevan, and also the rivers, and underground water resources used by different users. For decades, it was a lot of pollution to Lake Sevan, and it was worsening the quality of Lake Sevan, the biggest water drinking water reservoir in Caucasians region.

Erik: We started a lot of activities. We started intensive cleaning of coastal zones from this organic materials that polluting. Also, we started the process to remove the buildings that were in the area and even in the water, we negotiated with the international donor organization. So, EU allocated €5 million to start the wastewater treatment activities, and to start different other activities to support quality of water, we negotiated with Germany institutions to bring some more knowledge working with Armenian Academia Science and the monetaring institution to see what we can do, because like ten to fifteen years ago, it was another scientific improvement that we need to increase level of Lake Sevan to keep the water ecosystem in balance. But because of climate change because of intensive pollution coming from communities.

Erik: Now, we need to act more actively, more intensively. So all this work was taken and a huge road-map was prepared, and it was presented to all the donor institutions like the UNDP, the World Bank, ADB, EBRD, all institutions that are working in Armenia. I believe that the process that we started for rehabilitation to support the quality of Lake Sevan will go and we will have a better situation than we have now.

Erik: Another problem was related to a small hydropower plant because it was a time that a lot of hydropower plant was built without considering environmental standards and environmental requirements. So we have developed a lot of legal acts, the minimum ecological flow, the water meters, what kind of measurement should be done? The penalties that were changed because previously, it was even, without almost any penalty to use more water resources, and it was making the conflict between traditional water users for agriculture in turn. So a lot of changes in the management of hydropower plants and third biggest part were with underground, artesian groundwater, because of the fish ponds, taking a lot of groundwater, a lot, more than it was even possible to regenerate.

Erik: So we did a lot of changes also in legal acts and we started to close abounded ponds only in 2019. Because of these activities, we were able to save one hundred million cubic meters of groundwater, it is drinking water. So it is more than all of Yerevan is using and it was just starting actually. I believe that the action that is how also, you know, it will give a chance to rehabilitate all these areas and have better water management because in Armenia, we have a lot of water resources like four times more than we used. But because of water resource management, we had the problem with irrigation in some areas or using it for other purposes. So once we will be able to conduct all these activities to assure that all our citizens will get access to water resources.

John: That is wonderful. One of the things you just mentioned during that narrative with regards to the important work and accomplishments that you made, with regards to water management like Sevan, and the future of Armenia, you talked a little bit about relying on German engineering. One of your strong suits I have learned, and you have shared stories with me is that you have a unique ability to reach out to other experts, subject matter experts, and leaders around the world, can you share a little bit about during your tenure and before, where you have built bridges that have been beneficial to Armenia, other countries and their leadership, and how you have sought experts in different subject matters in different parts of the world, which will benefit Armenia now, and for years, decades to come?

Erik: Oh, you know, John, in the environment, we do not have any borders. So everyone is in one boat. So you need to cooperate with your neighbor, within society, with everyone. Because even if you will do everything, you know, let us take the plastic, even if you will do everything good in Germany or in Norway and other, there is huge plastic pollution coming for example from India. It will go to the fish as a microplastic and eating your fish in Germany will harm you. The same with climate change I mean, even if you have a good standard in your country, climate change will hit everyone in every country, so you should cooperate. We are very active in working in international institutions. Within two years, Armenia became a member of the nine highest decision making bodies in international environmental conventions, and the first time Armenia became a member of the Green Climate Fund Council, it is a fund that should allocate one hundred billion dollars to fight climate change. It was really very good cooperation in working with different institutions, working with different countries. We were able to sign an MOU with China, the Emirates, with Austria, with other institutions.

Erik: So we work very hard for it because I mean, you are not an island if you are working in the environment., you should cooperate. Knowledge and experience are very important to what they can bring because you do not need to know to find the new solutions if it was already found in like in France or in other places. But at the same time, we were able to develop innovative climate finance mechanism. It was a very interesting method that was combining the country’s external data and commitments under the Paris Agreement. The idea that many developing countries that have a foreign debt and you know, it is difficult to serve it, but at the same time, a developed country has an obligation to support climate change activities of developing countries. So we developed a tool that combining all this, you know, that from one side the obligations of developed countries from the other side activities that should be taken in developing countries. We started with France, Germany, Japan, the US, and Russia, Armenia, but it is not a local tool. So I believe it will work with us and our neighbors. It may be replicated in other countries and after COVID, this will become more important, this tool, I mean. It will be a very useful tool to use because a money to be spend for climate adaptation and mitigation are needed to be available now. It will give a chance to developing countries to have this money and to stand for these climate activities.

John: Yes, but you say it so wisely. But many, many people when they lead, they are an island. They make themselves an island. You were different, just like you laid out, you led with an open mind of there are no borders. You relied on experts from already developed countries to bring the best technologies to Armenia. That is why we benefited, and that is why you had such a productive two years there. So that is to your credit, that is the culture you created. Many leaders, whether it is in business, whether it is in government, make themselves an island, and do not do what you did. But you reached out and that is fascinating, and also it shows you that paradigm really yields higher and better and faster results. That is to your credit, I will tell you that Erik, that is super impressive.

John: Let us talk a little bit about a fun topic. You know, Mr. Elon Musk gets lots of publicity, and the beautiful vehicles he has created and brought to the world, and Tesla is booming in terms of sales in terms of making the world a cleaner place and getting us moved around. Talk a little bit about your production and your impact on what you did with your team with regards to electric vehicles in Armenia to clean up the air and to clean up the environment, and make Armenia both a place that it is easy to get around, but also a place that has clean air and a wonderful environment to enjoy?

Erik: First of all, I just want to say that I am a big fan of electric cars. I believe that again, there will be a time that all cars will become electric. I remember once I was in San Francisco meeting with my friend in the area, everyone was riding in a Tesla or other electric cars. It came with the luxury sport Audi car, the quattro with everything. I ask him, you know, everyone is riding electric cars here, why do you don’t have this big engine car? He said, “You know, I think it is the last five years that people have this car. So I want to enjoy this car because all cars can become electric.” So what we did in Armenia actually be exempt from value-added tax, and it became very cheap to import car. The result was really amazing because it was only like in 2018, it was only one electric car imported in Armenia, it is like second half of 2018. In the 2019 second half, it was like around one hundred fifty. It is also one electric motorcycle and it was zero before and it became like five hundred.

Erik: Now, we have official dealers that are selling only electric cars. So it is booming here. I believe it is booming globally. But electric cars are not only interesting because of clean air, but it is also supporting the science we have these Polytechnic Universities. We have the IT sector growing very fast. Since last like ten years, was a time for example, for smartphones, I believe that this decade will be more, the innovation in electric cars in this sector. So once we have service, we have cars, it is also supporting science, I believe. It is also good for electric production because in many countries we have a problem with the usage in day and night time. So it is good as balancing also your electric bills. So many aspects why the electric car is good, but my impression that within a few years, the production of electric cars will be so easy that it will be organized in many, many small countries. I believe that Armenia will become a country that will start to produce electric cars and even export to the neighboring countries.

John: How many years off are we from Armenia producing their own electric cars? Do you have knowledge or some vision for that, Erik?

Erik: Taking into account how fast this sector is growing, and taking into account that the traditional cars have like thirty, forty thousand details and the electric cars just two three thousand, I believe it is very easy to organize and maybe, you know, I am too ambitious, but it may be organized within five years, I believe. I believe.

John: Wow, that is great. Hey, it is good to be ambitious because if you do not set big goals, you do not make big progress. So it is good to be ambitious. Erik, you have talked a little bit about with me this innovative tool of debt-for-nature. Can you explain to our listeners, what debt-for-nature means to you and why it is important?

Erik: Well, the idea is very simple. I mean, this tool was developed in ages like thirty years ago but was used only when the country has problems with solving their foreign debt and some part of the debt, they started to spend in their local environment issues. But it was just giving something for countries that are not able to pay. The tool that we developed is completely different. It is based on both interests, interests of developing countries, and the interests of developed countries. So within the Paris Agreement that was signed a few years ago, with all countries including the US, and then the US decided to, you know, be removed from the agreement. But they are still there. So the countries decided to allocate one hundred billion dollars to developing countries to start mitigation and adaptation of climate change. But the talks, forums and method on is how to do it? How it will work? What kind of method will be developed, it is still not clear.

Erik: So we developed our own platform, it was developed by Armenia with the support of the World Bank. This is one of the platforms so, for example, we need to pay like twenty million dollars to France, for example. We need to pay until 2050. So still thirty years that we need to pay them. At the same time, France took an obligation to pay annually one billion dollars to the developing countries to support climate adaptation and mitigation measures. So this tool just combining these two operations, and we are not paying this twenty million to France, but it will be like swops from the France obligation. These twenty million will go, for example, for reforestation efforts in Armenia.

Erik: Instead of waiting ten years, fifteen years or until they will get their money back and you know, to see how to allocate or, you know, climate adaptation and mitigation, they can act now. So it is very simple and we started with France, with Germany. Also, this tool was presented during the UN General Assembly last year by Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan. But tomorrow, it may work between Nigeria and Germany, between Egypt and France, and other countries. It is giving the chance to have that money now and to start to act now.

John: Make an impact now, not in the future.

Erik: Yes. Because it is still a lot of talk between developing and the developed country. They are blaming each other. You are, more polluters, you did a lot, whatever. So let us put all these talks to one side and to find a solution that is good for both sides, and to start actions now.

John: That is so important to start actions now. We can not afford to wait, Erik, with regards to the world and where we are now. With regard to the environment, people need wherever they are with whatever resources they have, everyone needs to take action now, way beyond our milieu. This goes for the United States, this goes for every country. Actions are needed now. So that makes such great sense that it gives a mechanism and a tool so people can take action now, and not wait for further degradation of the environment. That is really brilliant. You know, for our listeners out there, we have got Erik Grigoryan with us today. It is really just such a joy to have him with us. He is just so inspirational. Every time I am with him, I learn more. To find Erik and his great work at the Environment Group, you could go to www.environment.am. How simple is that? www.environment.am. Erik, talk a little bit about your vision for the Environment Group, and your work now, and years to come. Running the Environment Group, making the world a better place. Go ahead now.

Erik: So the idea to star to support not only, you know, the public activities, but also the private sectors. Because every year, the environment is becoming more and more important. If in the 70s or the 80s, the private sector was recognized as an enemy of the environment. So everyone is blaming the private sector, saying you are polluting like others. But now, every player see I mean, the government, civil society, academic or private sector, everyone is in the place to work.

Erik: Because like LED lamps, everything was developed by private companies, and now it is giving a chance to significantly reduce CO2 emission. All environmentally friendly technologies are coming from the environment sector. So the idea now to bring the new horizons for the private sector also, environment, social governance, how to be more environmentally friendly. How to work with better energy efficiency, water management, be more climate neutral, and others. So the company, I mean the Environment Group itself is just like an umbrella bringing in experts from all region I mean, we have experts from the US, from Germany, Slovakia, Kazakhstan, Russia, Armenia, Georgia, so many experts from different fields. We will bring our knowledge, our experience to make, you know, at least this time to make the region greener. But whatever we are doing for a better environment,

John: That is wonderful. I just feel the future is so bright with young leaders like you running such an important organization like the Environment Group, I feel that Armenia’s future is so bright, environmentally speaking, after hearing all of the great achievements you and the Prime Minister and your colleagues made the last two years. Now, with your new vision of privatizing your work, and being able to inspire, and to make an impact not only in Armenia but other places that you are hired, I think that is just wonderful and I am so excited for you. I cannot wait to have you back on the Impact Podcast to share all of the achievements you are going to do in the coming months and years ahead, Erik. For our listeners again, to find Erik, go to www.environment.am. Erik Grigoryan, you are not only a great friend, but you are the reason why I created the Impact Podcast because you have made already a huge impact on this planet, and going to continue to make an impact for decades to come. I thank you for your time today, and I just thank you for our friendship. Thanks again for joining us on the Impact Podcast.

Erik: Thank you very much.