Azerbaijan’s Forest Thieves

By Samira Ahmedbeyli

BAKU, Azerbaijan, September 8, 2011 (ENS) – Official data show that Azerbaijan’s forests have finally begun to expand after years of decline, but activists and opposition figures say the statistics mask widespread illegal logging run by well-connected businessmen.

Agababa Abdulhasanov, a representative of the ministry for ecology and natural resources, says that forested areas accounted for 11.8 percent of Azerbaijan’s territory this year, up from 11.4 percent in 2010.

Map of Azerbaijan and its neighbors (Map courtesy CIA)

The ministry is participating in an international program called Forest Law Enforcement and Governance, FLEG, sponsored by the World Bank, the European Union and other international organizations, under which the country’s forested area is supposed to increase by 20 percent by 2020.

But Yegana Balakishiyeva, an advisor to the FLEG program in Azerbaijan, said the country is still failing to control its forest resources properly.

She pointed out that since Azerbaijan’s forestry agency came under the environment ministry, that means the ministry is both executive and regulator, so “it is hard to say there is any transparency in forestry.”

Illegal logging in heavily-forested areas like Lenkoran, close to the southern border with Iran, takes place on two levels.

Local residents cut firewood for heating and cooking because they lack alternative fuels, and illegal logging also takes place on a commercial scale. Opposition activists accuse local officials of shielding businesses involved in the latter trade.

Afiq Malikov, a member of the Society of Independent Ecologists of Lenkoran, said the small-time loggers acted out of need.

“Unless the regions and villages are not fully supplied with gas, then it isn’t going to be possible to solve this problem,” he said. “I live in the central town of Lenkoran, and we’ve had no gas since the end of the Soviet Union. The official statistics say 75 percent of Lenkoran residents have gas. That figure isn’t true.”

Forest in Lenkoran, Azerbaijan (Photo by Suleyman Azerbaijan)

Local residents admit taking firewood from forested areas, but say they do little harm to living trees.

“Yes, the majority of villages and even the regional center do not have a gas supply, and there’s no alternative fuel, so villagers are forced to get fuel from the forests,” said Yunus Gahramanov, 45. “But they mainly take dead wood, as greenwood doesn’t burn well.”

In addition, the lack of pasture land in the area means herders graze their animals in the forests, where they damage trees.

“Although it’s illegal to pasture livestock in the forest, often the rangers close their eyes to it,” Malikov said.

One of Gahramanov’s neighbors, Agamali Farzaliyev, said it was now hard for individuals to get into forests without a permit.

“I can’t even remember when I last got fuel from the forest. Can you really get into the forest through the fences? They only let their own people in,” he said. “Ordinary people like me are forced to buy our fuel from dealers, who have unofficial permission from forest managers to cut wood and sell it.”

Local opposition activists are campaigning against the organized illegal felling of trees.

Firewood stacked by an oven for baking bread, Azerbaijan (Photo by Martin Lopatka)

Yadigar Sadygov, head of the local branch of the Musavat party, said it was natural for people to use firewood when there was no gas available.

“The trees are felled not by ordinary villagers, but by local oligarchs who are doing business out of people’s need. It is they who chop down the trees and sell them to people who then use them as fuel,” he said. “And they don’t sell them cheap either – one cubic metre sells for 60 or 65 manats (US$75-80) in winter, and one family will need an average of nine cubic metres over the season,” he said.

Sadygov said the timber on sale included protected species like Persian ironwood, explaining that “these kinds of wood burn for a long time and so are popular as fuel.”

He accused forestry staff of conniving with illegal loggers while blocking villagers from getting firewood for themselves.

Shakir Latifov, the director of forestry for Lenkoran region, denied his agency had any part in the illegal trade.

“It’s simply impossible that I could be in charge of illegal felling,” he said.

Latifov refused to allow a reporter past the double fence ringing a nearby forest to see what was happening for herself.

“I don’t know exactly where the paths into the forest are,” he said. “Only the foresters know, and they’re all in various places and I can’t take them away from their work.”

Forested area of Zaqatala (Photo by Mike Raybourne)

Alimurad Yarmamedov, who heads the Forest Defenders’ Organisation, said the illegal timber trade is not confined to one region and is a problem in every wooded area of Azerbaijan.

He said his organization had conducted surveys in five regions – Zaqatala, Balakan, Masalli, Lerik and Lenkoran – and discovered that significant quantities of trees were being felled not just for firewood, but to make furniture and flooring as well.

“In Zaqatala, we followed smugglers early one morning as they drove three trucks carrying freshly-cut trees out of the forest,” he said. “We filmed the whole process, but we were spotted by traffic police who were escorting the trucks. They stopped us and forcibly confiscated our camera. They destroyed the film and warned us not to poke our noses in where they don’t belong.”

Yarmamedov said the illegal furniture trade was run by officials and businessmen in the capital Baku, not just at a local level.

“Lenkoran has several furniture workshops, and timber is also shipped to Baku and Ganja. Furniture made from rare trees from Lenkoran region is shipped to foreign countries including Iran,” he said.

Environment ministry representative Abdulhasanov conceded that things were far from perfect, but insisted that wrongdoers were punished.

“We do have serious problems. There are very few foresters, and they’re on low wages. The shortage of foresters doesn’t make for a good environment for encouraging honest work among those who remain,” he said. “Of course, that doesn’t give them the right to exploit the situation and help the smugglers.”

Abdulhasanov said the ministry was engaged in a “constantly battle” to deal with corrupt staff. He said, “Last year, two dishonest foresters were sacked in Lenkoran. And some time ago, a forest director in Shamakhi went to trial for his illegal actions. That’s why we signed up to the ENPI [regional programme of] FLEG – to gain a deeper understanding of forestry problems, and to resolve them.”

{This article was first published September 5, 2011 by the Institute for War and Peace Reporting}

Copyright Environment News Service (ENS) 2011. All rights reserved.