TBY talks to Hüseyn Bağırov, Minister of Ecology and Natural Resources, on the compatibility between development and the needs of the environment.
TBY What key areas is your Ministry focusing on at the moment?
HÜSEYN BAĞIROV Our focus is to be clear with our environmental policy. At the time the new ministry was established, there were several quasi ministries that had existed since the Soviet era. These included state committees for ecology and the rational use of natural resources, hydrometeorology, forestry, geology, and fisheries. The Ministry of Ecology and Natural Resources is responsible for the protection of 1.25 million hectares of forests. Unfortunately, part of this territory is under Armenian occupation, and we are not able to protect it as we would like.
We have reforested 6,000 to 10,000 hectares of land partly from planting and partly from allowing nature to regenerate itself. We still have a serious problem with overgrazing. The liberalization of economics allowed people to do the easiest things with very small investments, such as with livestock grazing. Geological surveys are also an important part of my ministry’s operations. Over the last decade we have discovered 125 new deposits of valuable materials including gold, silver, platinum, copper, and so on.
Are you talking with industry leaders to try and find a balance between the public and private sectors regarding the environment?
We try to play a regulatory role in terms of the human impact on the environment. This is the strategy for most sectors in terms of standards for clean drinking water, wastewater, and the re-cultivation of lands. We are a former territory of the Soviet Union, which was very seriously affected by heavy industrial development. Around 1.5 billion tons of oil, which by modern prices is around a trillion dollars, was removed from the Absheron peninsula over the course of 150 years. Some Soviet history books say that the USSR’s industrialization was paid for by the sale of pictures from certain galleries. That is just a romantic story. You cannot compete with the Western bloc by just selling a few pictures to Western countries. It was paid for mostly by Azerbaijani oil. What we got was the legacy.
Its extraction industry was based on the most primitive technologies. The Soviets produced the oil so that it spilled into a lake and then by bucket it was put into a cistern and then exported. As a result, we have 30,000 hectares of heavily contaminated land. A lot of investment is now being put into cleaning up the mess, mostly by the State Oil Company of Azerbaijan Republic (SOCAR). It owns a lot of this land, and we need to maintain good standards in these areas.
In Azerbaijan, 2010 was declared the “Year of Ecology”. What were the results?
It was a tough year for us, and we worked hard, but it was positive for the public as lots of projects were fulfilled and tangible results were achieved. We already had some green areas here in and around Baku, and we added to them considerably. This is actually an arid area. You cannot just plant a tree and watch it grow like in the UK. We had to provide the right soil. We had to clean up the oil contamination. Then we had to secure the water resources to irrigate these trees. Precipitation is very low on the Absheron peninsula, and mineralization in the soil is a problem in some areas. In one year alone we turned 1,420 hectares of the peninsula green. This is a huge achievement as all of those hectares were irrigated. We then installed drainage systems to take away salty ground water. We put in a lot of fertilizer, most of which was natural. We then planted trees, including 400 hectares of olive orchards. We chose to plant olive orchards not for agricultural purposes, but because we identified the breed as stable and ideal for these conditions. We realized many other projects, too, over the course of the year. Such projects include drip irrigation systems, a clean, safe water supply for the villages by Kura River Basin, and much more.
Everyone knows about the caviar in the Caspian Sea and the protection of the sturgeon fish. Has your ministry been involved in trying to help support the population and regulate fishing and the companies involved?
First of all, it is difficult because there are five countries that have interests in the Caspian Sea. Some countries support the idea of a moratorium on fishing sturgeon. We are now in discussions with some of our neighbors about that. The second thing is that countries are politicizing the environmental issues at hand. They are trying to define different types of sturgeon, such as a Russian sturgeon, which that country then has a right over. There is also, apparently, a Persian sturgeon—yet there is no river where the sturgeon could thrive. In that regard, this is really an environmental issue.
When can we expect to see an Azerbaijani sturgeon?
I was wondering why we did not have one. We could enforce rules by which all the species have to be named after each country. It sounds funny, but it is a reality. There was a meeting in Baku of the five Caspian Presidents that took place some months ago. They decided to introduce this moratorium and work on it. On the other hand, Azerbaijan is in the middle of an intense period of development. We borrowed money from the World Bank and we built the largest and most modern hatchery. We release 15 million sturgeon fry a year. This is the only country that has taken responsibility and introduced a type of ban on two species of sturgeon fish; the barbel sturgeon and the beluga. We catch them only for reproduction purposes. Poaching is, however, an issue. Yet, most of the fish poachers catch are those we have released in the last seven or eight years. This shows the success we have had in increasing the population. The sturgeon is a very timid fish. It will not leave the area it lives in unless it is big enough to venture into deep water and can defend itself. We have observed this process for some time. It is not good, but it reflects the success we have had. We hope to develop common rules for all five countries to use the Caspian Sea, while taking into account biodiversity as well as economic interests.
What sort of things has Azerbaijan done in regards to conforming to the Kyoto process?
We try to encourage businesses to be more environmentally friendly, especially in terms of the atmosphere. We have had some major achievements. When the Soviet Union broke up, Azerbaijan was in quite a unique situation. Soviet industry was not a collection of national industries; it was one centralized complex. After the break up, most of our industry died out. We had to survive by developing alternatives based on modern technology. We succeeded with an industry that is four times the size it was. Compared to 1991, when we joined the Kyoto process, we produce half the level of carbon that we are allowed. Additionally, we have not sold our quota to another state. What we have reduced is roughly equal to what Spain is emitting per year.
Are there going to be any new laws regarding the environment coming in the near future?
The general trend is to harmonize with EU standards. There are some gaps as we are still using certain legal documents inherited from the Soviet Union. It is standard practice to use Soviet laws if there are no specific Azerbaijani laws. However, when a law is developed, it is based on EU standards. There is nothing unexpected in the pipeline, and nothing that will surprise people that want to invest. If the investors are coming from the US or Europe, it will only make the situation more familiar.
© The Business Year