Convincing people to save the forests of her native Armenia has become a passion for IUCN’s Luba Balyan. She describes how a love of birds turned into a love of forests and all that they offer.
I was only a third-year student when I was fortunate to get onboard a US-Armenian project which produced a first ever field guide to the birds of Armenia. The project had a unique cultural blend, forging a team of experts from Armenia, Russia, the UK and USA and promoted the conservation of Armenian natural resources through the study and appreciation of birds.
The power of birds
At that time I knew virtually nothing about birds, their habitats or challenges they faced and about the power of bird watching. But I always had itchy feet and wanted to see what brought so many professionals together.
It was not until I had my first binoculars in my hands and saw what I could usually only see in fancy nature magazines—a live and intricately coloured bird up close! It was through the power of seeing these remarkable creatures that I came to treasure the natural world and took the first step on a conservation career path.
Later, as I pursued my academic career in environmental science, I learned that birds are only a tiny part of an enormous and very complex matrix of ecological interactions which is being eroded on a daily basis. I became founder of an organisation which is one of the leading bird conservation NGOs and an Affiliate to BirdLife International in Armenia.
Winning hearts and minds
In 2009 I was privileged to join IUCN’s project on Forest Law Enforcement and Governance that promotes forest conservation in Armenia. Whether it was the effect of powerful media products which target communities, businesses or policy-makers to promote the idea of preserving forests, or research that unveiled controversial results and shook the attitudes of policy-makers, I am proud to see an uprise in civil activities that highlight cases of illegal logging and immediately act on them. And these actions are already changing the mindset of the country’s decision makers.
This is what we at IUCN have been doing—making people think twice and count the damage to nature each time we buy or sell timber or wood products, or throw trash in a forest, or make a political decision because it not only affects forests, but also the lives of rural communities who live in or next them.
The challenges are many and as a national project coordinator I faced them quite often. Forestry can provide important economic benefits. Beyond the jobs it creates and the value it generates, the industry is important for the rural communities it supports, the low-carbon products it provides and the renewable energy it can generate.
But how can we preserve our forests if they are perceived only for their economic value? If we want to truly value forests we have to understand their benefits beyond fuel wood or timber. Forests provide a range of vital services to people—not least a source of water, oxygen and biodiversity. They are our shelter—there is so much more to forests than just trees!
It is even of strategic and military importance for countries like Armenia to protect their forests where every plot of woodland is at stake. In our little country, both government and civil society vie to provide the most accurate estimate of how much forest is actually left; the figures range from 11% to less than 7%. Given this staggering scarcity, does it make sense to count forests? In this densely populated country, the value of forests should no longer be measured in figures.
Through our work in IUCN we have a unique opportunity to revive the historical thinking of Armenians: never cutting the tree that shelters you. I enjoy the change that is happening. There’s still a lot to be done to increase the involvement of local communities in managing natural resources and improve their understanding of the environment they live in and its importance for biodiversity.
I hope that I will be able to contribute to this vital process of shaping people’s understanding that by winning a little you lose everything... each time you cut down a tree.
Luba can be contacted at: email@example.com