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A View From the Inside

Civilitas staff visits villages regularly and talks to their residents. The trips and the conversations are honest, fun, difficult, useful. Each trip reinforces our belief that in the very important agricultural sector, “one family at a time, one village at a time” we can help villages and villagers achieve sustainable growth and access to markets. A healthy civil society depends on such self-reliant, economically secure citizens.

Empowering People

A View From the Inside

IDSCN0149t’s Friday morning and a cold shower in the Mirhav Hotel reminds me of the not so distant past when a hot shower in the morning seemed like a far-away mirage. Fortunately it is just a matter of a phone call to the reception desk and life is back to normal.

We are in Goris. On the way to Meghri, this is our usual overnight stay at the Mirhav Hotel. Goris is beautiful, as always. I think this is the most beautiful city in Armenia. It has a lot of potential and a good mayor would probably turn this city into a real booming regional center with streets and architecture that make sense and a vibrant community that cares. But, just like everywhere else, there is a lot to do. And there are not many people who care, at least not enough.

We have asked Artashes, the leader of the Goris based Teaching and Partnership NGO to join us during this trip. We partnered with Teaching and Partnership NGO to mobilize the Alvank and Shvanidzor communities and they have organized community meetings there and helped the communities set up their water management boards.

The community mobilization is the most important component of our Bringing Water to Syunik’s Border Villages project as this will ensure the sustainability of the project and will secure that the community will take ownership of its resources.

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Putting Grandmas Out of a Job

A View From the Inside

It is harvest season in Armenia. The rural development team makes regular visits to villages to monitor Civilitas programs. The individual stories are representative of the dilemmas facing individual farmers and Armenia’s rural economy in general.

DSCN0054I get excited about our trips to the villages. It’s a good chance to disconnect from the office routine, from e-mails and tasks and try to reshuffle and test the ideas behind our projects, while looking for various other opportunities. It’s also a good chance to meet new people, get to know them and understand, to a degree, the problems and issues they are dealing with in the villages.

It was colder in Yerevan over the weekend so, geared up with warm clothes and some chips and fruit, we took off towards Goris with a plan to visit two communities – Harzhis and Bardzravan. Both communities are included in our Dairy Production Enhancement project, that we are implementing with the support of Polish Aid and in collaboration with the Strategic Development Agency, and they will be beneficiaries of milk cooling tanks by the end of February 2010. It is an interesting project and it raises a lot of questions that are difficult to answer.

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It is harvest season in Armenia

A View From the Inside

We've made more than two dozen trips to Meghri since the start of our Bringing Water to Syunik’s Border Villages project, but this trip was different, it felt different. Never before has the road to Meghri been so colorful. Never before have we seen so many cars and trucks on the road, and all of them full, transporting fruits and vegetables from and to the region.

DSCN0082It felt like all of a sudden something happened and Meghri is connected to the rest of Armenia. It seems to be at the center of everyone’s attention and people are in a hurry to get their share.

The answer to this sudden shift is the harvest. It’s amazing how many small cars “filled to the throat” with persimmon, and big trucks with boxes of the same orange fruit (carrying probably 3-4 tons per truck) are traveling through the region, adding to the already marvelous views of the highways that climb over mountains and through forests and hills.

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Success Breeds Success

A View From the Inside

Today I had an unusual visitor. One of our beneficiaries, Vardan Ghalechyan, (who has completed the payments of the milking unit we provided almost a year ago) came to our office in response to our offer to start a second stage of the project.

DSC_6579His visit was unusual because typically we visit the communities and meet with the farmers who are already beneficiaries of our projects or are willing to participate in our projects.

I remember it was a cold afternoon in November last year when we traveled to Getik, one of the villages of Gegharkunik marz, located not far from Chambarak. Our trip was one of the first for our Dairy Production Enhancement project and the two milking units we were delivering that day were our first purchases that would assist two farmers.

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Beyond saving?

A View From the Inside

BardzravanIt's been several months (of meetings and proposals) since our decision to put together a project that will assist the Bardzravan community in Syunik in securing a market for their milk and help them get on their feet. Everything seems to be in place - the willingness of the farmers, an interested partner organization that promises to push forward the project and secure its success, the dairy producer that promises to buy the milk output of the community and our willingness to secure the finances for the project and put time and effort into making this a showcase for later expansion of the project.

The idea behind the project is simple and derives from the same formula we have been using in our economic facilitation program projects - a 0% interest loan for acquisition of equipment that costs more than a farmer or a group of farmers can afford to pay right away. This equipment enables farmers to improve their practices and get better results. In some cases it is a milking unit that enables a small farmer to increase the quality and the quantity of milk produced, in other cases it is a cow that yields more milk. In this particular case it is a cooling tank that will enable Bardzravan to start selling their milk and concentrate on milk production.

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A Trip For Change

A View From the Inside

chahreze

We head to Meghri at least once a month to oversee progress on our community organization project, supported by the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation.

To break the drive into manageable pieces, this usually means a three-day trip. The first night in Goris, early the next morning to Meghri, back the same day, and then a night in Goris again. Back to Yerevan on Day 3.

This time, from Goris, we started our drive to Meghri at 7 am. It was still dark and it was raining and I really didn't feel like driving anywhere, let alone for three hours. A hot cup of tea, a book and a lazy morning at the cozy Mirhav Hotel in Goris would have been such a wonderful beginning for this day. Instead we left Mirhav, climbed into our car and set off for Meghri. The good thing about leaving for Meghri early in the morning is the lack of highway police that would otherwise slow us down and make the already tiring trip even longer. Tiring is of course an understatement. Three mountain ranges to go over, lots of sharp turns, not an easy ride. Meghri really is at the end of the world.

This time, from Goris, we started our drive to Meghri at 7 am. It was still dark and it was raining and I really didn't feel like driving anywhere, let alone for three hours. A hot cup of tea, a book and a lazy morning at the cozy Mirhav Hotel in Goris would have been such a wonderful beginning for this day. Instead we left Mirhav, climbed into our car and set off for Meghri. The good thing about leaving for Meghri early in the morning is the lack of highway police that would otherwise slow us down and make the already tiring trip even longer. Tiring is of course an understatement. Three mountain ranges to go over, lots of sharp turns, not an easy ride. Meghri really is at the end of the world.

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Improved Water Supply in the Border Villages in Syunik Region

A View From the Inside
During the several trips we have made to the Meghri region – down, way down, three mountain ranges away from the nearest city, at the southern edge of Armenia on the border with Iran – we have come to know the road (and the potholes) by heart. We have worked with the disenchanted Alvank community and the longtime mayor of Shvanidzor to complete our project, that is: to ameliorate the water supply situation in these two remote borderland villages.
The project is part of the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation’s Rural Development Program. They, together with the Iranian-Armenian community, support this project. The idea behind our efforts is to create a self-sufficient, self-propagating water management system for the communities of Alvank and Shvanidzor, controlled and maintained by those communities, and thus resulting in the acquired local governance experience we desire.

Teaching them how to fish

For the purpose of technical maintenance and organization, with the help of members of the Armenian community in Iran who are co-sponsoring this project, chahriz experts were invited to assess the conditions of the waterways. The leader of the group is an Armenian-Iranian architect, and the other three members are Iranian experts.
The experts were brought in during a major visit by the Tehran-based leadership of the Iranian-Armenian community. At the same time, Vartan Oskanian, Chairman of the Board of the Civilitas Foundation and Civilitas staff also visited the region, which took place in May. All those involved in this project were able to meet with the selected communities and had a hands-on experience in regard to what is being dealt with and what it takes to ensure a safe and reliable water supply in the area.
In order to ensure that the conversations with the village residents and leadership are solid and ongoing, we met with and consulted different organizations that are involved in result-oriented community mobilization activities within Armenia, and which have the relevant experience in this field. After several meetings and a couple of joint trips to the region, we signed a contract with ‘Partnership and Teaching’, an organization based in the city of Goris just a couple of hours drive away from Meghri. They not only have the gained experience in this field but also have already organized several meetings in the communities with which we work.
The strategy of mobilizing the people there involved beginning with small gatherings of key groups, such as the administrative leadership, the elders, the school board and the younger generation. The idea was to organize the communities incrementally such that, over time, groups of interested and active people could come together in order to work for the community as a whole, both in carrying out the necessary activities and in dealing with the rest of the community and their leadership.

Two Villages, More Than One Challenge

These two rural communities differ in their characteristics, and each proffers its own unique challenges.
Alvank is a village populated by Armenian refugees from Azerbaijan. We knew right from the start that dealing with this community would not be an easy task as these are people displaced and stripped from everything they once had. During the past two decades, efforts to form a true community were never a priority, and it really is hard to blame them for their apathy, given their situation. With the many issues they have had to overcome, from housing to nutrition to work – all harsh realities of refugee life – there was never any real desire or inclination for community-oriented service. To top it off, most of them had never seen a chahriz, did not understand how it functioned, were not aware that those wells and tunnels were their source of water, and nor could imagine that they somehow shared a responsibility for maintaining their operation.
And so it has been particularly difficult to truly engage the people of Alvank. We carried out presentations of the project and discussed the proposals made at group meetings, after which we tried to organize elections for a local water management board. This board would be comprised of active members of the community – acting as a responsible and responsive link between the community administration and community members in helping to clean and maintain the chahriz.
However, this continues to be an uphill struggle given the factions within this small community, but after many weeks and constant encouragement we have seen some signs of a positive shift toward our intended direction.
Shvanidzor, on the other hand, is one of the oldest communities in Armenia, with two centuries-old churches. It’s so old that its “new” church dates from the 17th century. The people there are much better-organized and are well-aware of their chahrizes and the important role they play. Community meetings there have also been regular and we were able to build upon an already-registered organization. Our work helped in organizing new leadership and in providing some direction for that body. In addition, they had understood from their previous non-effective maintenance efforts that truly organized and coordinated maintenance really is the only way to guarantee a healthy and steady water supply.

The Storm Before the Calm

These are among the last examples of chahriz systems left in Armenia, but they remain widespread throughout the Middle East and Central Asia. Possibly everywhere with climate change, and here certainly, there is a very severe water shortage problem. The amount of water is decreasing every year. With the passing of every season, especially as we face summer, it becomes more apparent that the chahrizes bring less and less water.
In June, very heavy rains hit Shvanidzor especially hard. Roads, fields, irrigation pipes, orchards, roofs, buildings and even chahrizes were not left untouched. All in all, around 33 million Drams in damage was evaluated (around 90,000 US Dollars).
As for Alvank, the impact of the rain is serving as a sort of rallying point for the community. For, even though a clean-up day was already in the pipeline, the heavier damage has called for a larger-scale of work. This is a first-time community-wide effort and will thus serve as a test for their self-organization, apart from actually remedying some of the damage.

What Next?

The Iranian experts spent 10 days in Shvanidzor where the chahriz system was in relatively good condition, that is, prior to the torrential rains. They then moved on to Alvank where they remained for another month and are still there for a few more weeks.
As a result, the creation of a Water Management Board has brought the Alvank community and community leader into a closer and more supportive relationship. Therefore, aside from creating water management awareness, there is a new sense of a community on the way toward greater consensus and an enhanced sense of both communal partnership and local ownership of the community’s own infrastructure.
Success in strengthening these boards could ideally serve to make them models for all such communities throughout Armenia in the near future.
 
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Number of theater performances (1) and attendance (2) in Armenia
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2008 2,364 409,500
2009 2,443 367,800
2010 2,331 394,800
2011 2,707 458,900
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