Maximizing community-led research planning in advancing environmental protection and human rights in Armenia

Text by Julia Amiraghian & Shoira Olimova

Photos by Centre for Community Mobilization and Support NGO (CCMS)

Read the article in Armenian.

Marts village of Tumanyan community of Lori region, Armenia

Marts is a village in Tumanyan community of Lori region, Armenia. It is situated on the left bank of the Dzoraget River at an altitude of 1,500 meters above sea level. The village has a population of around 1,000 people and is popular for its beautiful natural environment including forests, mountains, and rivers. The area around Marts is famous among hikers and nature enthusiasts. Marts is also known for its historic monastery, which dates back to the 10th century and was built by the Armenian King Smbat II and dedicated to the Holy Mother of God. It features unique architectural elements including intricate carvings and decorations.

The local economy of Marts is mainly based on agriculture, with villagers growing crops such as wheat, barley, potatoes, and beans. Livestock and poultry are also a common livelihood in the village, with many households keeping cows, sheep, and chickens. However, the community faces a range of challenges that threaten the well-being of its people, their livelihood, and the natural environment.

The lack of local employment opportunities, insufficient skills training, inadequate avenues for self-expression, and limited access to professional and educational opportunities for young people contribute to a sense of skepticism about the future. The municipal budget, which is primarily derived from local taxes paid by the community, as well as grants and subsidies provided by the state, do not translate to efficient and comprehensive provision of social services for the communities. In addition, there is a scarcity of donor organizations supporting alternative socio-economic and ecological development initiatives in communities. There are agricultural development banks that provide loans for agricultural workers but Marts farmers are hesitant to access this loan due to high interest rates. These factors contribute to out-migration particularly among the youth who tend to relocate to the capital or regional centers. These challenges push the Marts community to learn from other communities how to address their development issues.

Being a part of the global process for change

Challenges and obstacles are unique in each country. Similarly, different societies and organizations have their own unique model of facing challenges and overcoming difficulties. It is in this light that the Centre for Community Mobilization and Support NGO (CCMS) joins the Global Advocacy Team (GAT) to meet people from other countries to learn their experiences and give energy and motivation to strengthen the local work and struggle. The CCMS thought that the best practices of other community organizers and activists from other countries in handling human and environmental rights advocacy and campaigns can be customized to fit in the local context of Marts and Armenia, in general. The GAT is also seen as a great opportunity to jointly respond to problems and challenges in a global arena.

“We are a member of the GAT in order to combine our efforts with the GAT collective in the struggle for social justice and to learn from international experiences and share our experiences too. For us, being a part of the GAT means taking responsibility at the global level and feeling like an actor in global advocacy processes and changes,” Oleg Dulgaryan.

The CCMS was founded in 2009 in Alaverdi, Lori region, Armenia and Marts is a village in Tumanyan community of Lori region as well. The Centre for Community Mobilization and Support NGO aims to contribute to the participatory discovery and development in the fields of human rights protection, community development, international cooperation, children’s rights and youth, civil society, social education,non-formal education, environmental and cultural protection in the Republic of Armenia.

CCMS’s Oleg and Julia presenting the river-plan of the community-led research project of Marts community during a meeting in Chiang Mai, Thailand

The CCMS seeks to ensure and deepen the awareness of the Armenian people with regard to ownership of problems and consolidating around community-led solutions. When the Marts community members know that they are a part of the Global Advocacy Team, they feel a sense of ownership and responsibility for the development of their community as well as a sense of purpose and commitment to promoting positive change at the local level. The community hopes that this is a great opportunity for them to raise their voice and achieve some results.

Unpacking community’s concerns through community-led research

As part of the Global Advocacy Team (GAT), the Centre for Community Mobilization and Support NGO (CCMS) implements a community-led research to understand underlying issues and phenomena that impede community development. In conducting the research, the CCMS works closely with community leaders and members to identify and prioritize community issues and their further solutions, led by the participants selected from the community, and to initiate processes for the protection of their own rights. The CCMS team has been committed to working with communities to build and strengthen their capacity and create opportunities to advocate for their own rights and interests to meaningfully participate in decision-making processes that affect their lives.

The primary methodologies of the community-led research employed in community work encompass a range of tools such as individual and group meetings, focus group discussions, interviews, and surveys. Additionally, information support is provided through consultations and media campaigns. Promoting civic actions to address identified issues, such as environmental protection and road repairs, is another vital approach. One of the key instruments involved direct communication with community members and fostering a team spirit to yield results. This engenders a sense of ownership among residents, making them active participants in addressing the challenges that affect their community.

CCMS team facilitates a meeting with the members of Marts community

The research findings indicate that the people of Marts have been suffering from inadequate communication and road infrastructures, making it difficult to access essential services and resources. For instance, the absence of efficient road and irrigation systems has greatly affected their agricultural activities, livelihood, income, and mobility. According to a local villager, poor road connectivity affected the flow of tourists in the area hence, impacting their income.

Moreover, community-led research has revealed that access to clean and drinking water remains a major issue in the community. During one of the meetings, the villagers mentioned the lack of access to safe drinking water has led to waterborne illnesses and other health problems. They also fear that it will adversely affect their ability to grow crops and sustain their livelihood.

A member of CCMS research team conducts interview with community members of Marts

Genuine development projects could have provided solutions to address the concrete issues and challenges faced by the community. However, development aggression projects such as the operation of hydropower plants have serious consequences on the environment including loss of biodiversity, pollution, and disruption of local ecosystems. It also exacerbates the existing difficulties of community members. Furthermore, several attempts to open gold mines in the community for years are also threatening the ecosystem and the people. During the community-led research process, the elderly residents of Marts community voiced their concerns regarding persistent attempts by mining companies to initiate mining operations in their community. They emphasized that mining poses a significant threat to their health, expressing deep apprehension for the well-being of their children and grandchildren. They are concerned that the mining activities will cause devastating and irreversible impacts on the natural environment, including soil degradation, loss of biodiversity, and pollution of local water sources. These activities can also lead to human rights violations, including displacement, loss of livelihoods, and exposure to toxic substances and heavy metals, and the right of living in a clean and healthy environment.

The villagers have been becoming more worried that this situation would further lead to social isolation, poverty exacerbation, environmental devastation, and limited economic opportunities.

Lessons learned moving forward

The community-led research provides a database that helps better understand community problems as well as their cause-effect relationship. The research process also provides a space for people to be involved and to freely voice out their needs and development priorities. Interactions with local villagers show that while helping people, CCMS and the research team are also learning a lot from the villagers. They contribute ideas that shape new problem-solving approaches and help localize the methods being employed. The research directly impacts both the community residents and research team, thereby strengthening the community processes and overall impact. Raising awareness and fostering cooperation among residents have led to community mobilization in addressing significant issues, such as community mobilization in the fight against mines or for the purpose of road repairs. Recently, there have been more processes in the community that aimed at protecting their rights and interests and initiating ideas for their community development and establishment and development of tourism and their own green business.

“During the implementation of the research, we learned how to handle stereotypes and fears, which allows people to fully engage and participate in community-led development processes, and transfer this experience to other communities as well.” stated by Julia, CCMS community mobiliser.

The community-led research for the development planning process serves to identify the trajectory and priorities for community development. It provides the basis upon which community members can establish long-term goals and envision their future.

Head of CCMS and ecological rights defender Oleg Dulgaryan with indigenous women rights defender Mayalmit Lepcha from India and Brazilian activist Daniel Faggiano posing for a photo after a training session in Chiang Mai, Thailand

Addressing these challenges faced by the community requires a multi-faceted approach that involves community members, local government, and other stakeholders. It will be important to prioritize community-led solutions that promote sustainability, equity, and respect for human rights. By working together, the community can build a brighter future for all its members and protect the natural environment for future generations.

This article is a part of a series that features stories from the 8 community organizers from 8 countries who are part of IAP’s Global Advocacy Team. The Global Advocacy Team initiative brings together incredible community organizers from around the world to conduct community-led research and mobilize their communities to change how development is designed, funded, and implemented. Learn more about the Global Advocacy Team focused on community-led development planning.

Shoira Olimova is the Community Organizer for the South Caucasus and Central Asia in International Accountability Project. She is based in Tajikistan.

Julia Amiraghian is the Community Mobilizer in Centre for Community Mobilization and Support NGO (CCMS) and is based in Armenia.

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International Accountability Project (IAP)

IAP is a human and environmental rights organization that works with communities, civil society and social movements to change how today’s development is done.