Environmental Management in the Caucasus

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Name a country that is home to gazelles, flamingos and leopards? It’s probably not your first thought, but one of those places is Azerbaijan.

Best known for its oil, gas or perhaps Formula 1, this South Caucasian republic boasts a wealth of biodiversity – from high mountains to arid steppes, ancient forests to the Caspian Sea.

One of those responsible for protecting this environment is Mukhtar Babayev, Azerbaijani Minister of Ecology and Natural Resources.

Here he talks about some of the environmental challenges facing his country.

What are Azerbaijan’s most successful environmental projects in recent years?

It’s hard to choose but I will go for our conservation and reintroduction work. One of our most successful projects concerns gazelles. In 2003, there were 4,000 goiter gazelles in Shirvan National Park, south of Baku, but now there are up to 7,000. Together with two of our most important partners – IDEA and WWF – 293 gazelles have been reintroduced to former gazelle habitats in western Azerbaijan and even in neighboring Georgia. We are now monitoring these areas to see if gazelles are establishing themselves there. I should add that in Soviet times, in 1961, an aerial survey found only 171 gazelles in Azerbaijan.

Why such a dramatic drop?

Hunting was a major cause. Then there is the loss of habitat to agriculture and the loss of corridors. Roads and urban development prevent animals from moving between ranges as they did in the past. These issues have also hit the Caucasian leopard population hard, but thanks to a national action plan, again implemented with our partners, the leopard population is now around 10 head.

Alongside the gazelle and the leopard, there is the brown bear, the imperial eagle and the gray wolf.

Another species that we are reintroducing is the bison. We brought back 26 bison from Europe between 2019 and 2021. After a period of adaptation in an enclosure in the foothills of the Caucasus, the bison were released into the wild in the heart of the Shahdag National Park. I’m happy to say they’ve had six calves so far, bringing the herd to 31.

What aspect of your job are you most passionate about?

It’s easy to answer. It is the rehabilitation of the Azerbaijani economic regions of Karabakh and Eastern Zangezour, liberated in 2020 after almost 30 years of occupation.

First, the territory must be cleared, which is a long and laborious job. But last month we were able to release tiny brook trout (Salmo trutta fario) into the Besitchay and Hakari rivers in Zangilan. We also planted saplings of chinar in the Besitchay State Nature Reserve to replace the few Oriental plane trees felled during the occupation. These are small steps but symbolize our determination to restore the biodiversity of this magnificent region.

And we are passionate about opportunities to mitigate the impact of climate change as we rehabilitate Karabakh. We are rebuilding our settlements into “smart” towns and villages and creating a green energy zone as part of “Azerbaijan 2030: National Priorities for Socio-Economic Development”. Electricity will be produced by solar, wind and small hydroelectric plants. Our goal is to create a net zero emissions zone in the liberated territories by 2050.

What keeps you up at night, or maybe I should say what worries you the most?

Another difficult issue – water shortages and water pollution are a major concern. Almost 70% of Azerbaijan’s freshwater resources are formed outside the country, so we face increasing challenges related to transboundary water management and pollution.

I will give you an example: the Okhchu River is polluted with heavy metals and hazardous substances from copper and molybdenum mines in Armenia, operated by international companies. The Okhchu flows through the Zangilan released into the second largest river in the South Caucasus, the Aras, and has a direct impact on its quality. I called on the international community to help stop this pollution, but so far to no avail. When our displaced people finally return home, it is crucial that they live in a safe environment.

You mentioned net zero targets for Karabakh. What else is Azerbaijan doing to mitigate the impact of climate change?

We want to set up a regional early warning system to identify climate-related events and risks. More effective information exchange and coordinated action with our neighbors would strengthen our resilience to some of the effects of climate change. No country can meet these challenges alone.

As a party to the United Nations Convention on Climate Change, Azerbaijan has ratified the Paris Agreement and has set an ambitious target of reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 35% by 2030 We have since adopted a new commitment to reduce emissions by 40% by 2050, a voluntary commitment.

We are also working on sustainable development across the country. Zaqatala State Nature Reserve in northwestern Azerbaijan is set to become the region’s first biosphere reserve. These reserves are a UNESCO initiative aimed at reconciling the conservation of biodiversity with its sustainable use.

Is Azerbaijan party to any other international environmental conventions?

Absolutely. Azerbaijan has signed all the main international environmental conventions – there are around 20 of them – and we work closely with the various specialized environmental agencies of the United Nations responsible for their implementation.

I have already mentioned UNESCO and we are hoping to achieve world natural heritage status for some of our natural sites — the Hirkan National Park in southeastern Azerbaijan, which includes a forest of ancient relict trees and a leopard habitat, and for a very different area too – the mud volcanoes southwest of Baku.

The EU is another key international partner for us. The President of the European Commission and other senior officials visited Baku this summer. A memorandum of understanding on a strategic partnership in the field of energy has been signed and defines commitments to reduce methane emissions throughout the gas supply chain. Energy efficiency, the fight against climate change and Azerbaijan’s participation in EU Green Deal initiatives are on the agenda. I am optimistic about the potential for cooperation with the EU and other international organizations to build a more sustainable and green economy in Azerbaijan.

I know that World Natural Heritage status helps draw attention to an area. Are you looking to develop eco-tourism in Azerbaijan?

Yes quite. Our national parks and state reserves are ready to receive visitors, and we are working with other state agencies to develop more sustainable forms of tourism. I would like to take this opportunity to encourage EUobserver readers to come to Azerbaijan and see our natural wonders for themselves.

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