Armenia is the most mountainous of the Transcaucasian republics, with an average elevation of 1,800 meters above sea level. Forests and woodlands cover less than a tenth of Armenia, arid land nearly a half, and one-seventh pasture. Only ten percent of the country lies below 1,000 m, and its highest point is the 4,090 m Mt Aragats. The country has an area of some 30,000 sq km, of which less than half is suitable for agriculture, and a population of 3.0 million. The variation in altitudinal range, overlying four distinct geological regions, has resulted in a great diversity of climates and adapted habitats relative to the size of the country. As a result, Armenia hosts exceptionally rich and globally significant biodiversity. The country is situated at a biodiversity crossroads, on the junction of Circumboreal, Irano-turanian and Southern Caucasic floristic regions.
The Armenian Plateau is considered to be one of the places where agriculture first developed, and still supports many wild relatives of crop plants and domestic livestock, and a range of agro-ecosystems.The rich agricultural biodiversity of the country includes wild relatives of crop plants, wild-growing edible plants, and a wide diversity of landraces and breeds. The diversity of wild relatives of crop plants found in Armenia is globally significant and has been used to develop new varieties through breeding and selection. A wide range of species are currently grown in Armenia – including six species of cereals, 366 fodder plants, 62 berry species, and 65 types of vegetable. Sites such as Erebuni have particular significance for agricultural biodiversity – this reserve was set up to protect the genetic diversity present in wild relatives of crops, and supports three species, and 100 sub-species of wheat. Agriculture in Armenia accounts for about 20 percent of GDP. At the national level agricultural biodiversity underpins many livelihoods and contributes substantially to national development, although this is rarely acknowledged or captured by cost benefit analysis or similar indicators. The rich diversity, especially of crop wild relatives, as a source of valuable genetic traits, represents an important element for future food security and adaptation to climate change.
A number of globally important agricultural biodiversity species are found in the agricultural landscapes of Armenia. According to a recent study conducted within the framework of the UNEP/GEF project on “In-situ conservation of crop wild relatives through enhanced information management and field application”, 2518 species of the flora of Armenia were evaluated as crop wild relatives, around 70% of all plant species native to the country. Due to this abundance of wild relatives of cultivated plants the country was defined by Vavilov as one of the centers of cultivated plant diversity. This diversity of wild progenitors of cultivated plants represents a rich gene pool for the creation of new crop varieties resistant to diseases, and other adaptive characteristics. Armenia’s richness of agricultural biodiversity is of national and global significance. In addition, over 200 wild plant resources are of direct economic and social value to communities through direct harvest, utilization and informal marketing:
- Over 200 species of edible plants are collected in Armenia, and are used fresh, cooked, pickled or dried. Commonly used plants include longleaf (Falcaria), asparagus (Asparagus), and chervil (Chaerophyllum).
- Around 120 species of wild berries and nuts are collected, including walnut (Juglans), hazelnut (Corylus), pear (Pyrus), apple (Malus), dogwood (Cornus), blackberry and raspberry (Rubus), and currant (Ribes).
- A great variety of plants are used for animal fodder (around 2,000 species), including clover (Trifolium), sainfoin (Onobrychis), and alfalfa (Medicagosativa).
- Around 10% of plants found in Armenia have some medicinal use, and species of hawthorn (Crataegus), buckthorn (Rhamnus), juniper (Juniperus), barberry (Berberis), rose (Rosa), and St John’s wort (Hypericum) are collected for traditional remedies.
- Around 150 species of plants are known to produce essential oils, mainly species of thyme (Thymus), helichrysum (Helichrysum), and wormwood (Artemisia).
- Plants used in producing dyes (120 species) include spurge (Euphorbia), buckthorn (Rhamnus), elder (Sambucus), and madder (Rubia).
- A number of plants (c. 350 species) have an important role in attracting bees, including representatives of aster (Acer), sainfoin (Onobrychis), alfalfa (Medicago), lime (Tilia) and clover (Trifolium).
- A number of species are also used for their vitamin, tannin or resin contents.
Despite this diversity (most of which is poorly understood and researched) and the efforts of farmers to maintain it on farm, Armenia in recent times has witnessed serious problems of genetic erosion, and the loss of globally significant traits, as well as the undermining of traditional agricultural systems as a result of the spread of modern agriculture, globalization and other factors. Changes in climate are already impacting many poor smallholder farmers in the country.