The country of stones
Tisane herbs produced by Armenian female entrepeneur Rita Martirosyan's cooperative, supported with European funds. (Photo: Anush Janbabyan/EFE)
Geghard (Armenia), Dec 28 (efe-epa).- The Armenians call their homeland "the country of stones." In a country with very little arable land, treasures such as tisane herbs and dry fruits are grown by a cooperative, founded by female entrepreneur Rita Martirosyan in the city of Geghard, which hosts a medieval monastery which is a UNESCO World Heritage site.
The women of Geghard have found employment in the cooperative, a project funded by the European neighbourhood programme for agriculture and rural development (ENPARD), launched by the European Union in 2015 with an initial endowment of 25 million euros ($30 million).
The stated goal of the program is to support, over a three-year-period, the establishment of new agricultural cooperatives, modernizing and increasing the added values of landholdings and developing market strategies for their products.
Funded by the EU and the Austrian Development Agency, the program is being implemented by the United Nations Industrial Development Organization and the United Nations Development Program.
"Where the stones scream"
One of the most famous Russian poets of the 20th century, Osip Mandelshtam, described Armenia as "the country where the stones scream," impressed by the beauty of its landscapes after visiting the country.
Situated in South Caucasus, Armenia has an area of just 29,743 square kilometers (11,484 square miles), and most of its surface is a high plateau: cold, dry and covered with volcanic rock.
The lack of water and fertile land has always been one of the biggest concerns for farmers in Armenia, a country which produces only 60 percent of its food requirement and largely depends on imports, especially of cereals.
Apart from the rocky surface, the remote location of fertile lands or their proximity to mines reduce the amount of cultivable land in the country to barely 10 percent of the total area.
According to the Food and Agriculture Organization, the agriculture sector accounts for 20 percent of Armenia's GDP and employs 40 percent of the workforce, but mostly consists of subsistence farming, with little access to markets, limited resources and a weak potential for growth.
Most of the land belongs to cooperatives (45 percent) or the state (30 percent), leaving very little in private hands.
The difficult life of a farmer has been a reason behind the exodus of the inactive population from rural areas, in a country where 30 percent people live below the poverty line, according to official data.
Kotayk province, where Geghard is located, is known for its grape and apricot crops but poverty affects 40 percent of its people. The EU-funded program has led to renewed optimism among residents of the region.
A delegation of European lawmakers visited the city before Christmas after the end of a regular meeting of the EU-Armenia Parliamentary Cooperation Committee, which was held between December 19 and 21, 2017 in Yerevan.
After visiting the cooperative, called the "Ritart Group," Latvian MEP Andrejs Mamikins (S&D) said he was proud of the project, as it created new job opportunities and markets and developed the economy of the region.
Mamikins told EFE that the project was unique even compared to those in Georgia or Tajikistan, and was a "very practical use" of EU funds.
The business was founded five years ago by Rita Martirosyan, who used the knowledge of herbal medicine she had acquired by collecting herbs for her family and attracted the EU's attention.
The project assumes a special importance since its main beneficiaries are women, for whom the unemployment rate reaches almost 70 percent. The products have been well received in the Armenian and Russian markets.
Martirosyan told EFE that she started working alone by collecting just a kilo of herbs, but the work grew fast and soon she needed help from her family and eventually from the EU.
She said she was hoping to export to European markets soon.
One and a half thousand curative herbs
Martirosyan said that a square kilometer of land in Armenia could produce hundreds of types of herbs. Around 3,500 herbal varietals grow in the country, out of which around 1,500 have curative properties.
Finland's MEP Heidi Hautala (Group of the Greens) said Martirosyan's project fulfilled many important requirements, such as creating job positions in remote areas, where agricultural production is low.
Hautala said she was impressed to know how many different types of flowers and herbs were collected, pointing to the rich biodiversity in Armenia, and added that the products were of good quality.
The lawmaker said such projects helped locals to develop skills and create "a value chain instead of just selling raw materials. ".
She added that after the recent signature of a comprehensive cooperation agreement between the EU and Armenia, "it's important to be able to export to European markets", although stressing that the community's safety standards should be met.
Anneli Jaatteenmaki (ALDE), another Finnish Member of the European Parliament, said she lived in a village in Finland and therefore supported the measure when EU funds were assigned to help rural populations keep living in their own area.
Clare Moody, a Labour MEP from the United Kingdom, praised the herbal infusions offered to her and said that the business should export to other countries.
The lack of water for irrigation and hail are major challenges for Armenian farmers.
Some years, hail storms destroy one-fourth to one-third of crops in the country, while 10-12 percent losses are commonplace.
ENPARD has initiated projects to install anti-hail nets and drip-irrigation systems which help in saving up to 40 percent of water.
By Anush Janbabyan
Translated by Iqbal Abhimanyu
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