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EU neighbourhood

Conservation challenge

by Michael Schwartzkopff
Caucasian forests need protection. / Kaukasische Wälder brauchen Schutz

Caucasian forests need protection. / Kaukasische Wälder brauchen Schutz

Biodiversity is extraordinary in southern Caucasus, but many animal and plant species are endangered. The region is marked by poverty and political tension. Partners from the EU support the region’s governments in setting up capable agencies, but local decision-makers seem more interested in economic opportunities stemming from a new pipeline than in environmental matters. [ By Michael Schwartzkopff ]

Southern Caucasus was already regarded as a tremendous treasure trove in classical literature. According to the myth, Jason and the Argonauts went there in search of the Golden Fleece. Today, oil and natural gas arouse the interest of international investors. Massive deposits extend from the eastern rim of the Caucasus, through the Caspian Sea to Russia, Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan. Accordingly, the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline (BTC), which was completed in 2005, raised the region’s economic and geostrategic status.

In Soviet times, a pipeline network in northern Caucasus tapped these resources. During the communist era, Grozny, the capital of Chechnya, was one of the most important refinery centres. After the break-up of the Soviet Union and subsequent conflicts in northern Caucasus, the West showed interest in an alternative transport route, bypassing Russia as well as Afghanistan and Iran. However, conflicts smoulder in southern Caucasus too.

This region is very heterogenous in terms of language, culture and religion. Historically, arbitrary border demarcations and forced resettlements have exacerbated tensions. Nonetheless, the only pipeline route permanently safe in the US view had to extend from Azerbaijan through Georgia to Turkey. The EU similarly considers southern Caucasus an important transit corridor.

The new pipeline triggered an economic upswing with double-digit growth rates in Azerbaijan. The construction sector, above all, is booming. Georgia also gets a share of the foreign-exchange inflow, thanks to transit fees. However, this country is also at considerable environmental risk, as the pipeline leads through a tectonically unstable zone and affects habitats worthy of protection.

The WWF (World Wide Fund for Nature) lists the Caucasus among the world’s “ecoregions”, the biodiversity of which is not only particularly significant but also highly endangered. No other ecoregion in the temperate zones boasts such a wide range of endemic plants and animal species. However, 700 highly developed plant species and around 50 animal species are considered endangered. The causes include overgrasing, illegal logging, uncontrolled hunting and overfishing. Poverty and economic decline have been driving forces in the region, even before the Soviet Union collapsed. Indeed, Georgia allows foreign investors (primarily from Kazakhstan, Russia and China) to log its forests.

In view of these trends, international environmental campaigners are pressing for the creation of conservation areas. But even where, like in Azerbaijan, the environment minister shows interest in their arguments, they face stiff resistance. Rural communities in particular regard conservation a threat to generating incomes and developing the region. Lacking up-to-date heating, moreover, they obviously need fire wood in the Caucasus’ cold winters.

Support for reform

Meanwhile, the EU is also in favour of more stringent environmental policy. The European Neighbourhood Policy (ENP) is aimed at offering the Union’s neighbouring countries a long-term perspective of economic development, political stability and regional integration. The EU supports its neighbours in implementing reforms, and gives them the opportunity to participate in a choice of EU policies and programmes in the long term. The German government’s Caucasus Initiative is based on similar considerations.

Last November, the three southern Caucasian countries signed national action plans with the EU. These plans define medium-term cooperation in different fields. The priorities are education, the rule of law and health care, as well as economic development in general. The EU insisted on including environmental affairs too, but that did not get high on the agenda. When negotiating with the EU, Irakli Okruashvili, Georgia’s minister of economic development, even went so far as to state that the economy takes priority over the environment. Similarly, Azerbaijan seems to be more interested in the oil revenues than ecological balances.

So far, there are only inklings of environmental movements in all three countries of South Caucasus, and they do not make much difference. Moreover, government agencies entrusted with environmental affairs remain weak. The relevant offices are generally at the bottom of ministerial hierarchies, and they lack competencies for planning as well as execution. Qualified staff are frequently lured away by private companies or other government agencies, as environmental management does not offer promising careers. For that reason, the basic expertise generally comes from international advisers or UN bodies.

In the meantime, deficiencies abound. More funds for water-management systems, for example, do not compensate for the lack of sewage treatment plants in Armenia and Georgia – and there is no money to invest in infrastructure. Azerbaijan, Georgia and Armenia have begun to draft waste management plans they will not be able to implement for lack of landfill sites and treatment plants.

Nonetheless, other daunting challenges await environment ministries and their agency. In the past, the entire Caucasus was run according to soviet law, which basically relied on command and control. Now, modern regulations are needed instead. In tune with EU guidelines, environmental law should operate with price incentives, thus reconciling ecological and economic needs. Every national government in the Caucasus should accordingly be drafting new legislation.

Of course, stronger environmental management will depend first of all on the qualification of staff. In this context, EU partners regard “twinning” as an important approach. Experts from the environmental authorities of various EU member states, who are seconded on a long-term or short-term basis, are supposed to help translate European legislation into national legislation. So far, however, that is hardly happening due to the lack of expertise in the respective ministries.

Therefore, bilateral programmes are focusing primarily on putting environmental agencies in the position to identify urgent problems and propose specific solutions. Since November 2004, InWEnt has conducted around 20 workshops and seminars, with 200 participants from the environmental authorities of the three South Caucasian countries, teaching the fundamentals of European environmental policy and environmental law. Even though South Caucasian governments are unlikely to make environmental protection a priority anytime soon, competent staff should boost the environmental agencies in the long run – and thus contribute at least in part to compensating for the current deficiencies.