Eighty-two-year-old Usup Amarian's 200-head flock of sheep will not be heading up into the mountains outside Yerevan for grazing this spring. Like many Yezidi shepherds, Amarian's family exported their entire flock to Iran last year to cash in on high export prices. Now, with domestic prices for sheep running at 65,000 drams (about $165) per head, Amarian cannot afford to restock.
"I don't remember such a situation in all my life," said Amarian, sitting with his now-out-of-work sheep dogs outside his house in the village of Zovuni, about 15 kilometers from Yerevan. "I've never seen a Yezidi in such a situation. So many families . . . sold their belongings and left Armenia."
But this is no ordinary tale of farmers down on their luck. The Yezidis, a Kurdish-dialect-speaking group who migrated to Armenia from Turkey starting in the late 1820s, are the country's largest ethnic minority. Aside from their religious practices, which include elements of Christianity, Islam and Zoroastrianism, they are best known in Armenia for their sheep-breeding and production of sheep cheese and wool.
The Yezidis initially benefited when Armenia shifted into high gear on sheep exports in 2008 to neighboring Iran -- up by 1,480-percent in 2009 to 142,000 sheep, the Ministry of Agriculture states. Prices tripled from about 25,000 drams (about $62.44) per head to 75,000 drams (about $187). But when local sheep went into short supply and livestock prices soared - from 15,000-20,000 drams (about $37-$50) per head to 65,000 drams -- the impact hit the Yezidis hardest, community members claim.
"Sheep reproduction takes a long time. A sheep is not a seed that grows once sown," commented Aziz Tamoian leader of the Yezidis of Armenia and the World Union. Tamoian earlier asserted that Armenia's 42,000-strong Yezidi community had lost some 90 percent of its sheep population through sales to Iran. Official statistics report an 8.6-percent decrease in the number of sheep to 511,000 as of January 2010, news outlets report.
Yezidis claim the official numbers do not reflect the extent of the problem.
"Under the current situation, many Yezidis are forced to leave Armenia since their work is gone thanks to the mass export of sheep over the past year," asserted Tamoian.
Lamb prices at Yerevan's central meat market suggest a sheep shortage. Lamb now sells for 4,000 drams (about $10) per kilogram, more than double last year's price of 1,500 - 1,800 drams (about $3.60 - $4.80). One market butcher calls the meat "a delicacy" sold only on request. "Not everyone can afford buying it now," he said.
To boost the sheep population numbers, the government on March 16 announced a ban on exports of ewes and plans to import pregnant yearling eyes from Germany and Austria in addition to current imports from Georgia and Russia. Minister of Agriculture Gerasim Alaverdian, however, denies that there is a sheep shortage.
Mutton and lamb will become available in markets in April and May, he claimed; the country's overall sheep population should increase by 5 percent in 2010, Alaverdian predicted, Armenian news outlets reported.
One 30-year-old Yezidi man in Zovuni, though, does not plan on waiting for the promised increase.
"We lost everything, what can we do here now? How can a Yezidi survive without sheep?" asked the man, who requested not to be named. "[W]e have no choice but to leave."
Some media outlets hint that the May 10-14 summit of the Food and Agriculture Organization in Yerevan could explain Alaverdian's determined optimism about Armenia's sheep situation.
One agriculture ministry official, however, retorts that the Yezidis have no one to blame but themselves for their predicament.
"The Yezidis' complaints are groundless. They have nothing to complain about," said Ashot Hovhannisian, head of the ministry's Livestock Breeding department. "Nobody forced them to sell their sheep; they were free not to do it."
Hovhannisian states that the Ministry of Agriculture plans to propose a program that will give shepherds imported sheep; recipients will have three years to pay the government back for the animals.
Omar Mamoian, a Yezidi National Union member and an advisor to the Armenian Agrarian-Farmers' Union on national minorities, contends that the ministry should have intervened sooner to stop the rise in prices for sheep and sheep products, he argues. "Why should we have exported sheep to end up now in such a situation that we need to import [sheep]?" Mamoian asked.
Mamoian and some Yezidi shepherds charge that the government is continuing to export ewes to Iran despite the ban; Minister Alaverdian has denied the claim.
Not all Yezidi sheep owners, however, gave in to the urge to sell. Zovuni shepherd Sharo Amalian says that he and his mother decided not to sell their sheep; the high prices for mutton and lamb along with careful economizing enabled them to stay clear of financial problems, he claims. A new car now sits in Amalian's front yard.
Soon, a fresh front could open in the tug-of-war over Armenia's livestock exports. Agriculture Minister Alaverdian has announced plans to export cattle - mostly bulls - to Iran. The news has triggered alarm among Yerevan shoppers. Beef prices this year have already soared by some 35 percent to stand at 2,000 - 2,500 drams (about $5-$6) per kilogram.
Marianna Grigoryan is a freelance reporter based in Yerevan. Anahit Hayrapetyan is a freelance photojournalist also based in Yerevan.