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/trucks transporting fruits and vegetables from and to the region.
It felt like all of a sudden something happened and Meghri is 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 small cars “filled up to the neck” with persimmon and big trucks with boxes of the same fruit (carrying probably 3-4 tons per truck) are traveling through the region, adding to the already marvelous views of the road that goes through forests and hills.
Andre, our intern from the US, is traveling with us this time and this is his first visit to this part of Armenia. He is enthusiastic and full of ideas: to build up ski resorts on the high mountain slopes of Syunik; to invest in wide highways to connect Meghri and the Armenia-Iran border to the rest of Armenia.
More and more, the work of the Civilitas Council on International Relations seems to have become our most urgent and most visible activity. However, the rewarding, although difficult work of the rural economic facilitation program goes on daily.
Thank you for your time and interest. Let us know what you think.
A Trip For Change
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.
It'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.
It’s been a long time since our last correspondence and a lot has changed since then:
The Economic Crisis Hits Armenia’s Farmers
Delivering milking units has become more difficult than foreseen, as the economic crisis has affected Armenia and the low milk price – down from 90-110 AMD to 60-70 AMD – is decreasing returns and making it harder for farmers to make investments. Farmers who were encouraged by the prospect of an automated milking process are now holding back and waiting for these hard times to pass. The main problem behind the price drop is the plunge in the price of powdered milk worldwide. In order to make local products that are produced from raw milk marketable, dairy producers have been purchasing milk from farmers at a decreased price as well.
During our trips to different regions we met with a lot of farmers who stopped selling their milk and started small-scale production of cheese instead, as the current price of milk has made it very hard to make ends meet. The cheese production itself is not that profitable either, and to be able to make it in this business the average farm should have at least twenty or twenty-five cows. As was mentioned, the unfavorable situation and uncertainty about the future has made a lot of farmers put a hold on their intentions of investing in developing their farms.
Vartan Oskanian: One Village at a Time
Answer: The Foundation has two program areas: The first is the Council on International Relations and the other is the Democracy and Development Initiative. Both aim to do the same thing: provide mechanisms, forums, resources to better inform and support our people, to strengthen civil society, all for the purpose of strengthening our state.
Civil society does not stop with our cities. And our work does not stop with conferences and information dissemination in Yerevan. Our rural residents too must become active in civil processes. But village residents cannot be active members of civil society unless they are first able to live self-reliant lives, in dignity, able to support themselves and their families. In our country, with our limited external markets, and our decayed infrastructure, only by offering villagers the specific and specialized support that they need, will they become self-sufficient. That is what Civilitas does.
On Friday, after a long process of negotiations with Mellat Bank, and with our Iranian partner Garnik Galstyan and with the Iranian producer of the milking units, as well as overcoming the obstacles of customs clearance and manual unloading of the units (weighing 7.2 tons) we finally received the 36 milking units we had ordered in January. This time we have also included a walking tractor in the order, to implement a pilot phaze of a different type of farming machinery provision. These type of machines are widely used in agricultrure worldwide and needs presentation for Armenian farmers.
Although purchase and shipment of goods seems to be a fairly simple and straightforward process, it took not only a lot of time and energy but also demonstrated the complexities one goes through in this part of the world.
Amazingly between the Iranian and Armenian holidays and mixed up weekends (Thursdays and Fridays are official weekends in Iran leaving only 3 days per week for business between Yerevan and Tehran) and different understandings of Letter-of-Credit procedures and different calculations of invoice totals (apparently accountants round up or down, while banks require strict calculations, go figure!) a lot of time was wasted. But then again, there was no way of doing this any faster despite on all our efforts (from all sides).
To share our excitement and to show you how the loading and unloading used to be done before invention of forklifts we have filmed the whole process from unloading to final counting of the cargo, which is a sort of confirmation of receipt of goods.
At the same time, we were working to ensure the expansion of the project. In that direction we had several meetings with various organizations including dairy producers, associations of milk producers, NGOs and international organizations that are implementing projects in this field.
With the support of the Swiss Development Corporation, and the participation of the Armenian community of Iran, we are charged with finding a sustainable and practical way to assure water flow to the residents of two villages on Armenia’s border with Iran. These very old villages, cut off from the world, depend on ancient water systems which have been in use in this region for centuries. The challenge now is to help them develop the social infrastructure to maintain the physical infrastructure which we will help them renovate.
Our last visit to Alvank and Shvanidzor was in June 2008 and that’s when we started to think and work on the initial project proposal for these communities. After a few months of planning, writing, consulting, here we are on the road to Meghri with our first introductory trip. There’s a lot on the schedule and a challenging project ahead, but overall it’s exciting that in several months, the water needs of two border-communities will be met.
Armed with the all the possible project related materials, a photo and a video camera and understanding that this trip marks the start of a new phase of this project we started our drive towards the southernmost region of Armenia –Meghri.
When you look at the map Armenia seems like a tiny country, it takes a trip to Meghri to realize that appearances can be deceiving and despite the map it’s a major undertaking to make the trip from Yerevan to the southernmost point of Armenia. It is in this context one cannot help to realize that the cost of transport will easily eat into the profit margin of any good produced in Meghriand shipped to Yerevan.
On December 2, 2008 we hit the road early in the morning. Everytime when it’s the time for a trip to a village there is an interesting expectation and some sort of mystery around the trip. It’s the time to get out of the concrete surroundings to the beautiful, albeit sometimes treeless terrain. It’s the time when your eight or more hours of the day are full with sceneries, farms, villages, road and new people.
Our destination this time is Syunik. Through the mountains covered with snow, an expectation that it's going to be freezing and dressed in warmest possible clothes , we discovered a sunny autumn weather, that made our trip much easier and pleasant.
We decided to expose the Civilitas Foundation communications coordinator Anna to a village experience. The result was a couple of upset chickens as Anna was trying hard to catch them =)
On Wednesday morning geared up with all possible equipment and warm clothes (as we were traveling to one of the coldest regions) we finally embarked on our trip to deliver the first two machines to two families in the region of Gegharkunik.
The road to Gavar, our first destination, is an interesting experience as you get to see the part of Lake Sevan that is off the beaten track.
With a lot of sea-buckthorn trees on both sides of the road and our conversation on different ways to facilitate the export of this exotic fruit and secure some additional income for the rural areas surrounding the Lake we were in Gavar, the vodka capital of Armenia.
Our first stop was the local Milk Collection Center of Ashtarak Kat, where the manager conducted a little tour of the facility. The Center collects milk from more than 25 surrounding communities and has a capacity of 10,000 liters.
After a conversation on the milk potential of the farms in the region and a coffee we set back on the road to visit our first beneficiary.
Spartak Apkaryan, 32, is a veteran of Karabakh war and has lost his right leg during the war. Together with his brothers he owns 25 cows and wants to expand and buy another 10. Milking of the 25 cows they currently own takes two-three hours every morning and the increase would make it impossible to milk all cows in the two hour time-frame in the morning and in the evenings.
On the other hand the increase of the livestock would make it possible to move from sustenance farming to a more sustainable and steady income generating activity and concentrate solely on animal husbandary.
This past week we were able to make a real progress in the process of acquiring the milking units. The week started with yet another meeting with the Ashtarak Kat’s representatives to finalize the agreements and understand the overall procedure from purchase to delivery of the milking units. During this meeting Ashtarak Kat’s representatives pointed out that there is a company in Yerevan that imports similar machines from Turkey and they have already had experience of purchasing one of these units. They were happy with the quality and the price of the units.
Earlier we have contacted the Iranian producer and required them to send us the prices, as we were concerned that the cost of the units may have changed.
After a phone call to the local company we decided to pay them a visit and check out the milking units and understand whether we can collaborate with them and make the process of delivery faster and more efficient.
To make sure that the machines are checked for quality and overall technical specifications are tested and verified, we made the visit together with the experts and managers from the Ashtarak Kat.