1 Mar 2020
Perspectives on Peace in the South Caucasus through the Lens of Environmental Activism
Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Georgia as well as South Ossetia, Abkhazia, and Nagorno-Karabakh face not only territorial conflicts but also multiple environmental problems, including water, air, and industrial pollution. One of the existing environmental issues concerns the transboundary waters that affect the lives of millions in the region, including in the conflict zones of Nagorno-Karabakh, Abkhazia, and South Ossetia. This paper examines the perspectives of environmentalists on domestic and regional environmental problems and evaluates the prospects for regional environmental cooperation in the conflict-ridden South Caucasus.
Our previous study examined the potential of transboundary rivers to exacerbate conflicts or to be utilized as a mean for conflict transformation in the region (Veliyev, Manukyan and Gvasalia 2018). A case with a positive outcome studied in our work was the Enguri Hydropower Plant, the biggest hydropower plant in the South Caucasus, as its massive infrastructure pieces are divided between the Georgian-Abkhazian conflict divide. From Soviet times to the present, its management has been cooperative and has mostly served the common good (Garb and Whitely 2001). This article begins with the brief history of environmentalism in the region from the late 1980s to the present to set the context, followed by the examination of perspectives of environmentalists on the possibility of environmental cooperation and policy recommendations.
This study is primarily based on interviews conducted with environmental activists, environmental scientists, and professionals working in conservation organizations from Yerevan, Baku, and Tbilisi. No interview was carried out with experts representing Nagorno-Karabakh, South Ossetia, or Abkhazia. In total, eighteen interviews were conducted during the two-month-long data collection phase, distributed as five to seven interviewees per country. The interviewees were composed of five females and two males from Georgia, two females and three males from Armenia, and one female and five males from Azerbaijan. The interview questions aimed at exploring the range of environmental activism in each country by asking correspondents to elaborate on the past and present situation and the scale of activism in order to examine whether it has been country specific or regional. The study of the challenges encountered in developing a regional scheme for environmental cooperation was also an important part of the interviews. In this context, the perspectives of the correspondents on the impact of protracted conflicts on exacerbation of environmental issues were specifically examined. Prospects for domestic and regional environmental protection as well as interviewees’ recommendations on building regional environmental initiatives were also inquired to infer specific policy recommendations.
Environmental Problems in the South Caucasus Region
The entire South Caucasus faces trans-boundary environmental pollution. During the past years a number of international agreements on environmental protection have been signed obliging each of the states to take better care of nature, biodiversity, and health. The questions we asked aimed to identify whether environmentalists see local and trans-boundary environmental problems as a means of regional cooperation or a matter to be solved locally. In fact, the attempt made in this paper to introduce readers to local environmental problems was incited by the fragmented knowledge or, in some cases, absence of information of the interviewees regarding the environmental problems of the neighbors. Therefore, the paper initially gives an introduction to these problems after which the environmentalists’ perspectives on regional cooperation are presented.
Pre- and Post-Soviet Era: Environmental Activism in the Region
Even though the environment has hardly been a top government agenda item for each of the countries in the South Caucasus in the past decades, environmentalists have always been present and have sometimes been successful in having their demands heard. Environmentalism in the region can be traced back to the late Soviet years, even though the nationalist movements and protests, particularly in Armenia and Azerbaijan and to a lesser extent in Georgia, eventually overshadowed all the other movements.
Certain environmental problems are shared by many communities in the region. These include pollution from mining and hydropower plants, deforestation, and river pollution. Azerbaijan faces the challenge of water pollution caused by oil extraction, while Nagorno-Karabakh, Abkhazia, and South Ossetia have other concerns, such as lack of international recognition and involvement that could increase environmental awareness. Below we look at longstanding local environmental problems and the activism that has evolved around them through the lens of environmentalists.
The green/environmental movement in Georgia started in 1987. It raised issues such as pollution, environmental education and awareness, equality, and the eradication of the technocratic attitude towards the use of natural resources. The green movement was aimed at introducing new, environmentally friendly technologies (Pataraia 2013). This coincided with the perestroika period of the Soviet Union and its subsequent collapse, ushering in a new economic reality with a free, unregulated market, property rights, and other similar concepts.
In 1992, Georgia’s Green Movement acquired political ambitions: on April 12 of that year the group became registered as a political party. Some members left the movement and founded the Green Party (Pataraia 2013), which would actively work on the improvement of water supply, agricultural matters, and other pressing environmental issues.
In the 1992 Georgian parliamentary elections, the Green Party won eleven seats. Its leaders remained in political life but left the Green Party to join the Civil Activism Union. During this time, important legal environmental frameworks were drafted, including laws on forest protection, water management, air protection, natural resources licensing, mining, and other issues. Thanks to the Green Party, the “right to clean environment” was included in the Georgian Constitution under Chapter 37.
Overall, in the 1990s, “green subjects” were used by some politicians in Georgia to enter the political arena and get elected, since after coming to power, they would either abandon green issues or rank them down and subordinate them to economic or social issues, which seemed as the path to win the hearts of most of the economically vulnerable communities. This was especially possible in the light of low environmental awareness among the general Georgian population, especially in the 1990s.
And yet, one of the major projects that faced protests and was opposed by both the Green Movement and Green Party was the Khudoni Hydropower Plant in the mountainous region of Svaneti, with its steep slopes and landslide-prone areas. Manana Kochladze, an environment activist, coordinator of Bankwatch Network for Ukraine and Georgia, and the founder of Green Alternative in Tbilisi, began fighting against the Khudoni Hydropower plant once the project was reintroduced by Georgia’s ruling United National Movement government in 2005. It was supposed to be the second largest dam and hydropower plant in the country. Construction began during Soviet times and was never completed, with leftover construction pieces left on site. “It was not a new topic, but its rejuvenation was extremely painful” (Kochladze 2019).
Eventually, other smaller hydropower projects were added to Khudoni, which were large enough to pose major social and environmental impact locally. Currently, the Georgian government is planning to construct 98 dams throughout the country. With the serious lack of geological surveys, the dams pose additional risks to the landslide prone regions. Kochladze questions the necessity of such projects: “To build so many dams in Georgia means to build them in places where people live now. The government is not able to provide evidence in neither of these cases that these projects are of national importance to the energy security” (Kochladze 2019).
Subsequently, these risks have given rise to people’s discontent. When in 2011, heavy machinery was introduced to one of the mountainous regions of Georgia—Kazbegi’s Dariali Gorge—the concerns of the locals transformed into a more organized action, though not always successful. The company Pheri LTD, which had no prior experience in constructing hydropower plants, was to build a plant in the region, but the local people knew nothing about it. The project was called Dariali HPP and was to be built on the Tergi River, in the Dariali Gorge. Shota Buchukuri, a 23-year-old local activist, had already established an NGO called “Stepantsminda” and was busy with local tourism and cultural issues. “The problem was that some important changes were taking place around us which would change our lives but no one would inform us about them. That lack of clarity provoked me to start getting information myself” (Buchukuri 2019).
Soon, after the first plant was completed, the company introduced a second planned project in the gorge. The company held a public hearing on the second project in the local municipal building. Buchukuri was the only representative from civil society at the meeting. “When I asked several questions to the investors during that hearing, they said they did not see any problems regarding their project. They would not consider not only my opinions on the projects—and I was a dilettante by that time—but also the opinions of geologists and other specialists related to the sphere. They would not take anyone seriously” (Buchukuri 2019).
In those times the law did not require the company to inform the local communities about new projects. After the introduction of the new framework law on Environment Impact Assessment, the local municipality was obliged to inform its people about large projects that would impact the environment. After some time, Buchukuri got other people involved in the process. They created a council of 10-12 persons, consisting of local residents, company representatives, and municipal staff. The collaboration was aimed at creating better communication between the company and locals. Despite the communication, Buchukuri said the company did not consider the public’s opinions (Buchukuri 2019). Two years later, Pheri LLC built the third plant nearby. In 2014, soon after the first Larsi Plant became operational, extensive flooding ravaged the territory. Sludge covered all three plants, killed several people, and seized pipes and machinery. Despite this catastrophe and its other environmental harms, the company soon renewed the infrastructure and put it into working condition again. “That plant takes water from a small river which turns totally dry during winter seasons: all the water is diverted to the pipes” (Buchukuri 2019).
Pheri LTD is closely connected to the ruling political parties. In 2010, the company director Lasha Iordanishvili contributed 50,000 GEL (about 17,600 USD) to the United National Movement party. In 2012, the company’s directors contributed an additional 135,000 GEL (about 47,500 USD) to the party (Gujaraidze 2013). Additionally, Pheri LTD was awarded the “best business of the year” prize by the Georgian president (Mercury Business Award Ceremony 2012).
Green Activism in Tbilisi: Around the same period, Tbilisi too was witnessing new zeal and energy of green activism. In 2013, during the second year of the new Georgian Dream government, new grassroots activism by young people started to emerge. One of the more active and flamboyant groups of that time was “Green Fist.” Students and young scientists in their twenties protested against large hydropower plants, mining in regions, privatization of green spaces in Tbilisi, and other similar issues. The Green Fist manifesto had one main idea: natural resources should not be used only as an economic tool and a way to contribute to the budget. The manifesto stated that ecological, social, and cultural values of natural resources should also be considered, duly assessed, and taken into consideration before extraction decisions were made (Green Fist Manifesto 2014). Though the Green Fist protests had no major impact on the development of the projects they were protesting against, it was one of the most colorful unions of the young people fighting for change. The group did not register the initiative legally as they did not want to get grants and attribute their names to the then-cliché reference discrediting non-government organizations: people fighting for money and grants. Young people wanted to fight for ideas. Green Fist held several major protests against the above mentioned large hydro-power plant Khudoni, tried to save an ancient gold-mining site (Democracy and Freedom Watch 2015) and preserve it as a museum (allegedly the oldest site in Europe), and fought for green spaces in Tbilisi. The group had a good traditional and new media presence, but it started to lose its members after four years. Some members continued fighting on their own against other projects, including large hydro power plants and gold mines.
Nikoloz Tsikaridze, one of the most active members and leaders of Green Fist, left the group in 2017 after four years of protesting. He said he felt something was stagnating and a move forward was needed: “Too much time in the street meant less work,” he said. According to him, some leaders in the group started to pay more attention to social and educational issues rather than setting more specific green agendas: “I’m a ‘green’ person by nature. So I had to leave” (Tsikaridze 2019).
After leaving Green Fist, Tsikaridze founded his own organization called Green Policy Public Platform. He says the organization has two main directions: academia and public platform. Along with his scientist and activist friends, Tsikaridze received a small grant to do research on gold mining contamination in Kvemo Kartli, Georgia (Avkopashvili, et al. 2019). Tsikaridze explained that the green activism in Georgia was formed with a top-down rather than a bottom-up process since NGOs from Tbilisi go to the regions and “teach” the locals about their rights, suggest they read environmental assessment documents, and “preach” how to behave. “Activists are taking over the local people and dictating what to say and when. I’m happy that in my fieldwork I had local people involved—the father of one of the researchers worked in the gold-mining company. It was fundamental for me” (Tsikaridze 2019). His attempts have had some tangible results. An initiative group was created involving the Environmental Committee of the Parliament of Georgia and other parties, such as the gold-mining company. Currently, the initiative group is monitoring the process where precious metals mining company Rich Metals Group has to re-cultivate old mining tailing landslides and install pipes to create the closed water cycle, preventing the tailing liquid from flowing into the Kazretula River and polluting the local irrigation channels.
Today green movements in Georgia, both old and new, still continue working, but their overall impact on decision making is questionable.
Environmental activists in Armenia have long been vocal and oftentimes served as a catalyst for substantive changes. In 1987-88, several marches for environmental purposes took place (EVN Report 2018). Initially the protests and marches covered mostly ecological problems faced by Armenian industrial towns, such as pollution from the Nairit chemical plant in Yerevan, radioactive waste from the Metsamor Nuclear Power Plant, and construction of the amino acid production factory in Abovyan (Mediamax 2013). Hrach Mirzoyan, a chemist and an environmental expert who used to work for Nairit, remembered the first protests in which he also participated. Mirzoyan said he does not regret participating in these protests since it was not merely an environmental threat, but also plunder and absence of responsibility. “Nairit was one of the biggest plants in Armenia, yet it was saving about 30-40% on environmental expenditure, which was resulting in high quality products that were 30-40% cheaper than products from other countries. This cheap cost was at the expense of reduced environmental expenditures, our health, and well-being. A lot of gas was being emitted without control. And I couldn’t keep silent at the false statements that Nairit was enriching Armenia and that Armenia could not live without it. It was an environmental threat and the plunder of Armenia” (Mirzoyan 2019).
However, the environmental movement was soon to be swallowed by another process: the movement for unification of Nagorno-Karabakh Autonomous Oblast (NKAO) with the Armenian SSR, which came to the forefront of the protests. Environmental issues were temporarily pushed back (Hakobyan 2018). Environmental issues were to remain in the backstage even after Armenia’s independence for the years to come amid shortages of basic means of living—food and energy. Mirzoyan remembers that when the first post-Soviet government was forming, Prime Minister Vazgen Manukyan invited several environmentalists, including Mirzoyan, to manage the Environmental Committee. The first question raised was the future of Nairit, to which the Prime Minister answered that whoever takes the role of the head of the Committee should prioritize the re-opening of the plant. When Mirzoyan objected, pointing to Nairit’s devastating effect on the environment, the Prime Minister answered that now they were in power and they had to feed the people. The environmentalists were very disappointed and the movement on which the whole process of independence started was no longer needed. “We were now traitors who wanted to close the plant” (Mirzoyan 2019).
Until the late 2000s, the environmental agenda remained relatively secondary. In 2007, a group of environmentalists raised concerns over a copper-molybdenum mine project planned in the northern Armenian village of Teghut. Environmentalists were alarmed by the harm that would befall the forests and wildlife as well as the communities living near this mining project (Matosian 2012). Parallel to this activism, environmentalists were getting involved in raising other issues as well, such as protecting the Trchkan waterfall from the construction of a hydropower plant and protecting Mashtots Park in Yerevan from encroaching construction. This brought issues to the public’s attention, such as the clash of private and public interests, but also exposed the Teghut mine problem. As a result, in 2012 there were many more people aware and engaged in the Save Teghut movement (Matosian 2012).
Environmental activism was growing. Levon Galstyan, geographer-geomorphologist, was among those actively engaged in saving Trchkan waterfall from the hydropower plant. This was actually how he got involved in environmental activism. According to Galstyan: “Since the fight for protecting the waterfall was a success, and since many other environmental problems were not adequately addressed by the government, we founded Armenian Environmental Front (AEF). It became a tool for showing the state its omissions. Sometimes AEF would act wherever the state failed to”. He added that with their civil initiative they started monitoring hydropower plants, forests, water resources, and the mining sector (Galstyan 2019). They faced different obstacles posed by the state, private sector, or the communities, but this has never stopped AEF from raising issues, alarming the state bodies, presenting scientific analysis and research, and pushing for solutions. One of their most important achievements is raising community awareness about the environmental issues, so that the locals themselves launch their own activities to protect their environment. Galstyan says that some great examples of such self-organization are petitions by residents of Noyemberyan, Jermuk, and elsewhere declaring their communities as areas to develop a green economy and banning any harming industrial activity, such as mining (Galstyan 2019).
This environmental awareness has been the result of years of hard work. Journalist Tehmine Yenokyan witnessed this transformation through developments in her own community. Her activism is a prime example of how an individual initiative can have a spill-over effect in raising awareness and mobilizing other communities. “In 2011, I learned about the risks of a mining project in Amulsar that was planned near the village Gndevaz. I am from that village and the environmental risks were concerning to me. That’s when I started to investigate overall environmental issues in Armenia” (Yenokyan 2019). Having seen the negative examples from Syunik and covering the problems caused by mines there and elsewhere in Armenia, Yenokyan foresaw the future that would await her village if she and others did not act. The impact of the videos she made about environmental harms to human health in Armenia was enormous. As a result, people in a village in Vayots Dzor, who had seen one such video, managed to self-organize against a mining project (Yenokyan 2019).
Another transformation Yenokyan mentions is the fight for protection of the environment in her own village: “Before I felt very lonely against this mining project in Amulsar since not only was there little awareness, but also that project had the backing of international banks as well as embassies that, at the same time, would provide grants to our civil society. It was thus shocking for me to see a generation that grew and showed willingness to stand against such a big project. People there woke up also thanks to the revolution and started to demand the implementation of direct democracy” (Yenokyan 2019).
Whether people woke up due to the revolution, or the revolution occurred as a result of years of oppression and reaction to it, is a matter of discussion. The debate is formed around the idea that the revolution was not some spontaneous action but rather the result of years of protests on various issues and accumulated knowledge on its strategies (Schiffers 2018). Soon after the first goal of revolution was achieved and the desired candidate was appointed as the head of state, the protests stretched further and permeated to other towns and villages, no longer meeting the obstacles of local political or business “elites.” The Amulsar case developed with the same scenario.
However, Mirzoyan is skeptical that there has been much change in terms of environmental protection and especially policymaking, because mining in Armenia is based on exporting raw material, much like during the Soviet times. Mirzoyan explains that if Armenia produced and exported goods instead, the production chain would grow; there would be more jobs thus more taxes, which would make it possible to cover environmental costs. He adds that despite this, “today we export raw resources, while pollution stays with us; therefore mining in this form is anti-environmental” (Mirzoyan 2019).
Arsen Gasparyan, a biodiversity expert responsible for environmental projects at World Wildlife Fund (WWF) Armenia, sees slower progress in another field—the creation and protection of reserves and national parks, since there are systemic problems, including the absence of environmental policy on protected areas. Years of crises following independence had a high cost on Armenia’s forests and nature as a whole, yet even decades later there is reluctance to protect the environment. One such outcome of that reluctance, as Gasparyan mentions, is that only one or two out of twenty-seven state reserves have maps so far. He mentions other problems as well: “Take the draft law on specially protected nature areas; if I am not mistaken it was drafted in 2012-2013, but it wasn’t adopted—it might even need an update now. We also continue having problems with inspection bodies; the inspectors are often neither well trained, nor properly equipped” (Gasparyan 2019).
Gasparyan identifies initiatives aimed at filling these gaps. He mentions that since Armenia is a hotspot location for biodiversity, there is a need for protected areas to be more connected to each other. For this purpose, the WWF is implementing projects for creating eco-corridors, one of which connects Khosrov and Zangezur state reserves and serves as a route for leopards. “Moreover, we also implemented the first cross-border project between Armenia and Georgia by creating a new protected area near Lake Arpi on this side and the Javakheti protected area on the Georgian side. This has allowed for developing infrastructure, creating visitor centers, monitoring birds, and other activities on both sides” (Gasparyan 2019).
Despite overall systemic problems, legislative issues, and ineffective implementation mechanisms, local environmental groups in Armenia seem to have been successful in building tools for protecting the environment but have been even more successful in raising awareness in local communities.
The pre-independence period of the late 1980s and early 1990s in Azerbaijan is associated with widespread nationalist movements and protests. Unlike Georgia and Armenia, there is little evidence to indicate that environmentalism had a distinct place in Azerbaijan in the 1990s. However, as in Armenia and Georgia, the absence of corporate responsibility towards the environment and the lack of implementation of environmental protection legislation are also common in Azerbaijan. Challenges in dealing with environmental issues are well described in a report that objectively touches upon the generally accepted factors, such as the non-existence of a common system of environmental monitoring, environmental expertise, environmental audits, underdeveloped information access mechanisms, and insufficient cooperation between governmental and non-governmental organizations (Rzayev 2002).
Despite the lack of data or studies to indicate the emergence of extensive environmental activism in Azerbaijan at the time, according to Vicken Cheterian, the first ever demonstrations in Azerbaijan rose as a reaction to the alleged intention of the Nagorno-Karabakh authorities to cut down the forest of Topkhana in order to build an aluminum plant (Cheterian 2009), which was headquartered in Yerevan (Shaffer 2002). Mass protests broke out in Baku in November 1988 and the construction was halted. The protestors’ narrative described the forest as a “national shrine” for Azerbaijan since a battle against Iranian forces had taken place there in the 18th century. On the other hand, it was a direct challenge to the Azerbaijani government’s authority as Nagorno-Karabakh officials, by deferring the former, had made a decision for a company located in Yerevan (Shaffer 2002). The extent to which the demonstrations were an outcome of environmentalist concerns is thus a very debatable subject since it was a reaction molded with a strong political background. Therefore, it suffices to reiterate what Azer Panahli, a journalist from Azerbaijan, stated, that “the demonstrations about Topkhana were not about trees or ecology at all” (Panahli 1994).
Environmental pollution in Azerbaijan is predominantly related to oil and natural gas extraction, both on and offshore, which has polluted both the land and air, especially in Absheron Peninsula. Trans-boundary water pollution and land degradation also cause serious ecological problems. In an interview conducted with Islam Mustafayev, an environmental scientist in the National Academy of Sciences in Azerbaijan, he highlighted soil and air pollution due to oil production as the gravest ecological problem for Azerbaijan, which he claims will be the top source of pollution in the coming decades (Mustafayev 2019). The report by the Ministry of Ecology and Natural Resources in Azerbaijan underlines potential environmental impacts of increased offshore oil and gas activity in a broader geographic and biological context, since the currents in the Caspian Sea are large-scale and ignore geographic boundaries. In the report, it is stated that an offshore spill has a chance of hitting any of the Caspian littoral country coasts, which can result in large-scale mortalities of seals, fish, and other commercially important species (Rzayev 2002). Hence, oil pollution in the Caspian Sea is a collateral damage, although there is not a common understanding in this regard. For instance, Mustafayev argues that Russia and Iran are not willing to acknowledge that they have also been polluting the Caspian Sea (Mustafayev 2019). Recent efforts to resolve the long-standing dilemma on the status of the Caspian Sea gives hope for cooperation in different spheres, from which the environment can also benefit. Crude Accountability consultant Sergey Solyanik claims that the resolution on the status of the Caspian Sea will urge the states to more actively solve environmental problems and analyze the consequences of megaprojects there. However, “there is little reason for optimism, given the widespread violations of national and international laws in the participating countries” (Crude Accountability 2018).
Alongside actual pollution, human indifference is viewed as a great harm to nature. Samir Gadirov, the founder of Green Baku in Azerbaijan, sees the indifferent attitude of people toward the environment as the biggest ecological problem in the country (Gadirov 2019). Javid Qara, an environmental activist from Azerbaijan, sees the careless behavior of people towards nature from a different perspective, namely lack of infrastructure for environmental protection: “People in the regions dump the waste or simply bury it because there is no waste management system in villages and towns” (Qara 2019).
A study of different sources in the local media that underline the government-sponsored programs creates a vision that all implemented plans are flawless. And yet these valuable contributions of the interviewees provide a more balanced perspective in an otherwise biased context. Importantly, they also show the high level of scrutiny of media by the government that leaves no room for critique.
Green actions on the ground: Most of the government funded events and independent volunteer initiatives supported by foreign institutions, such as the EU Delegation, cover cleaning up the beaches of the Caspian Sea. According to Samir Gadirov, for instance, Green Baku facilitates ecological initiatives by engaging volunteers in cleaning waste, tree-planting, and implementing educational programs for the residents of Baku (Gadirov 2019). Green Baku’s biggest project is its beach cleaning activity—collecting waste on the beaches of the Caspian Sea’s Absheron peninsula (Green Baku 2019). In an interview, Gadirov stated that the beach cleaning initiative started in 2010 by a group of five or six friends, but a decade later it engages thousands of volunteers twice every year (Gadirov 2019). On one hand, it seems as a great leap forward and a positive example of mobilization, and such activities raise public awareness. On the other hand, the scale of activities is mainly limited to Baku and the surrounding areas with no extended impact countrywide. For instance, the southern coastlines of the Caspian Sea in Azerbaijan suffer from high pollution as mentioned above, but those regions receive little or no attention in terms of cleaning activities. Widespread local environmental activism in smaller towns and villages are not common in Azerbaijan, as compared to Armenia or Georgia. Some of the reasons behind such limited activism include strong governmental control and restrictions on what takes place locally, which makes it difficult for the activists to visit different regions in order to organize various projects. For example, the latest Freedom House report indicates that some activists who sought to visit regions have been strictly observed and restrained from conducting anything significant. The report states: “In the aftermath of protests against worsening economic conditions and high prices in 2016, local governments reacted by increasing surveillance and drafting local volunteers into informal militias to monitor residents for signs of further unrest. Travel to the regions by Baku-based activists is viewed with more suspicion than in the past. In April, local authorities briefly detained human rights activist Bashir Suleymanli and questioned members of his family about the purpose of his personal visits in the regions” (Runey 2018).
Having problems with space for civil society organizations to carry out activities and organize events is a grave issue because it hinders society’s organizational nature, which leads to reduced activity in non-political spheres as well. Studies show that to protect, restore, and promote sustainable use of terrestrial ecosystems, sustainably manage forests, combat desertification, halt and reverse land degradation and halt biodiversity loss, civil society actors working to protect the environment, forests, and biodiversity are under particular direct attacks and face hostility that prevents them from acting in a growing number of countries around the world (Hossain, et al. 2019). Hence, the lack of political space for civil society organizations turns out to be one of the reasons, if not the only one, for weak environmental activism in Azerbaijan. A young environmentalist from Azerbaijan, who preferred to be renamed as Ilhama Aliyeva to remain anonymous, underlined that there are financial and logistical difficulties for environmental activism. However, she added, a bigger problem is the “lack of opportunity due to pressure from the above hierarchies” to organize open-air and broader events for raising environmental awareness “such as rallies or demonstrations to show our care for ecology in Baku and surrounding regions” (Aliyeva 2019).
Some organizations implement different environmental activities and projects, but other activists interviewed for this paper expressed discontent concerning the nature of such projects. For example, International Dialogue for Environmental Action (IDEA), a public union, promotes awareness of environmental issues and identifies environmental problems to find proper solutions for them (IDEA 2019). Most of IDEA’s projects are tree-planting activities carried out by school and university students in addition to providing shelter for homeless animals. However, these activities are specific and local in nature, called a “show” by the anonymous interviewee. Despite this, IDEA is a major partner with international institutions such as the United Nations in organizing international events on environmental problems. In June 2018, IDEA together with the UN office in Azerbaijan and the Ministry of Ecology and Natural Resources organized an event gathering 200 youth to raise youth awareness on Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and increase the role in the implementation of these goals (United Nations Azerbaijan 2018). However, limitations on the independent activism of civil society organizations cast doubt on the mid- and long-term impact of such workshops.
Additional critique by Aliyeva summarizes these doubts: “Do you expect an agency controlled by the president’s daughter [edit-referring to IDEA public union] to open up serious debates about ecological problems by highlighting the shortcomings of her father’s regime?” This statement can be taken as an answer to the limited nature (both in content and geographically) of certain environmental organizations in Azerbaijan.
Thus, notwithstanding being less of a political issue, the protection of environment faces challenges as well. Zulfu Farajli, an environmental activist from Azerbaijan, recalls some of the obstacles he met during his activities as a result of state’s lack of operative behavior: “Upon being notified about illegal hunting in the nature preservations, we notified the Ministry of Ecology and Natural Resources for them to catch and punish the criminals. It took three days for the Ministry representatives to visit the place of crime, too late” (Farajli 2019). Farajli suggests that it would be helpful if an emergency operation response is installed, so operative measures can be implemented, or for a policy to be adopted regarding the investigation and potential prosecution of those advertising on social media the illegal killing of animals, as is being implemented in Turkey (Farajli 2019).
There is therefore a stark contrast between the government promoting tree plantings and its failure to implement effective protection of the forests. Javid Qara states that while working for the Ministry of Ecology and Natural Resources, he was involved in uncovering criminal groups that were engaged in tree-cutting in the forests. Thanks to Qara’s efforts, some massive tree-cutting cases have been identified and those groups have been punished by the ministry. And yet, “corruption is so widespread that my presence disturbed the systemic process of how bribery worked, so I was an ‘outsider,’ an enemy for them” (Qara 2019). Therefore, corruption is another reason for holding back the effective implementation of policies and legal frameworks for environmental protection.
Awareness of Environmental Problems in the Neighboring Countries
Before moving on to the discussion of perspectives of environmentalists on regional cooperation opportunities, it is important to highlight that the above introductory information on the green movement in each state was also important since most of the environmentalists interviewed had fragmented information on the situation regarding their neighbors. We wanted to understand the presence of regional environmental consciousness, and whether years of independence in post-Soviet countries such as Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Georgia has shifted the thinking towards more regional environmental protection or hampered environmental protection in each country. In general, most of the interviewees mentioned the pollution of the trans-boundary waters as one of the pending regional environmental issues. There appeared to be a general consensus among all interviewees that ecological problems are similar in nature in the South Caucasus countries, but as Gadirov noted, “approaches to resolve them vary from country to country” (Gadirov 2019). Galstyan admits having little information regarding the state of environmental protection in the neighboring states. He says he mostly knows some of the most outstanding things, like problems with hydropower plants and mines in Georgia: “Also, I remember problems with public spaces in Tbilisi. I have even less information on Iran, Turkey, or Azerbaijan” (Galstyan 2019).
Parvin Guliyev, a young agricultural engineer from Azerbaijan, mentions that he is aware of pollution of the Kura River where it crosses Tbilisi, but he is not informed about any other ecological problems in Georgia or Armenia (Guliyev 2019). To resolve issues such as informational gaps as well as environmental inaction, all interviewees from Azerbaijan see regional cooperation as a possible solution, which is, however, impeded by persistent conflicts in the region, especially the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. Gadirov stated that this conflict negatively affected the biodiversity and land usage (Gadirov 2019). Studies also show that local land use change specifically in the conflict period from 1987 through 2000 is profound (Baumann, et al. 2014).
Humanitarian and ecological disaster from a possible accident in Armenia’s Metsamor Atomic Station was also mentioned by some environmentalists from Azerbaijan, but it was more of an urgent concern that can be unilaterally preempted by Armenia. Aliyeva argued that third parties should pressure Armenia to close the atomic station because it is in a seismic zone. She added: “Azerbaijan’s criticism in this context don’t seem objective as we are enemies” (Aliyeva 2019).
Mirzoyan, when speaking about the need for regional cooperation, indicated the absence of borders in nature and that environmental pollution in one place affects everyone regardless of distance, through acid rain, groundwater, or fruits irrigated with polluted water. For him, cooperation is critical. “Environmentalists have to stand above the politics because earth is so small that even environmental degradation in China affects our region in form of global warming” (Mirzoyan 2019).
Inga Zarafyan, biophysicist and founder of Ecolur environmental news agency in Armenia, raised a similar concern that collaboration could also help in terms of protection of the Caspian Sea as it covers an even bigger region that includes Russia, Iran, and Kazakhstan. “For example, the current cooperation on the Caspian includes the component of environmental cooperation, and this helps to prevent countries from blaming each other on some environmental issues” (Zarafyan 2019).
Experiences of Regional Cooperation and Obstacles Met on this Path
Drawing from the above considerations about the need for regional environmental cooperation, it must be mentioned that there have already been certain attempts in this direction, with some continuing even today.
For example, Nugzar Zazanashvili, World Wildlife Fund Conservation program director in Tbilisi, Georgia, when talking about South Caucasus regional cooperation, mentioned the Eco-Region Conservation Plan for the Caucasus that started at the end of the 1990s and includes six countries beneath a common cooperation umbrella: Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Russia, Iran, and Turkey (Zazanashvili 2019). Mustafayev also highlighted that some regional projects have been carried out by USAID from 2000-2010 aimed at addressing regional environmental problems (Mustafayev 2019).
Gadirov added that Green Baku is engaged in cooperation with organizations from Iran, Georgia, and Russia (Gadirov 2019), but due to the ongoing conflicts, full-scale regional cooperation engaging all parties is missing. This missing point, as Conca and Dabelko state, could in fact be a tool for post-conflict transformation and peacemaking built upon partnership and cooperation in the environmental sphere (Conca and Dabelko 2003). All interviewees perceived regional cooperation in the environmental sphere as an important step in building relationships beyond politics.
A more grassroots cooperation took place when environmentalists from Georgia and Armenia demonstrated the will to mobilize their resources to fight against the pollution deriving from the Teghut mine. In 2010, Manana Kochladze of Georgia, along with her colleagues, joined Armenian activists against mining Teghut. When interviewing the investor Vallex Group, Kochladze said the project could pose a risk not only to Armenia, but also to Georgia, if the tailing dam collapsed and spilled into the Debed River, which joins the Kura River in Georgia and eventually flows into the Caspian Sea through Azerbaijan. When addressing the government of Georgia in this context, Kochladze also underlined the importance that Georgia becomes part of the Espoo Convention to have more mechanisms to avoid trans-boundary pollution (Kochladze 2019). Our previous study also indicates that the lack of participation in regional environmental agreements is one of the serious issues that creates lack of responsibility and commitment from the region (Veliyev, Manukyan and Gvasalia 2018). Yenokyan remembers an instance of cooperation when campaigning against the Teghut mine: “Tailings from Teghut mine pollute the Debed River. We tried to present the issue in Georgia and receive their solidarity. I personally presented the issue there a couple of times” (Yenokyan 2019).
Anano Tsintsabadze, a lawyer and environmental activist working on urban issues in Georgia, recalls another attempt of cooperation among grassroots. During the protection protests of public spaces, such as Mashtots Park in Armenia and Vake Park in Georgia, activists had visited each other to support their colleagues (Tsintsabadze 2019). Yenokyan also recalls the Armenian activists at Mashtots Park making a video in solidarity with the movement for Tbilisi’s Vake Park to remain public (Yenokyan 2019). However, as Tsintsabadze mentions, that collaboration soon ended because the protests are not constant in the region, but rather sporadic: “First we fight over a case, we either win or lose and then everybody continues their principal jobs: environmental activism cannot be a source of income, one has to survive as well” (Tsintsabadze 2019). Below, highlights of the obstacles faced by environmentalists on their path towards regional cooperation are examined.
Scarcity of Long-Term Funding: One such obstacle mentioned for long-term environmental project implementation domestically or regionally has been the unsustainable nature of funding. Tsintsabadze [Georgia] shares her concerns: “A donor may finance a reactive action against this or that project, which is not sustainable, is not a constant or preventive fight against such an injustice” (Tsintsabadze 2019). Other environmentalists raised concerns over the unequal distribution of funding between the recipient countries. Mustafayev [Azerbaijan], for example, questions the effectiveness of the projects since Azerbaijan usually receives less financial support compared with Armenia and Georgia (Mustafayev 2019).
Locality of Activism and Thinking: Conversations on various experiences of implemented projects and activism further demonstrate that the scale of the activities is local, although the problems are identical and more regional. Environmentalists like Tsintsabadze [Georgia] recognize it as a major problem that hinders regional cooperation: “Throughout the region, be it in Georgia, Armenia, or Azerbaijan, activists fight locally for one park in one city without seeking the root reasons: why is that in all these countries we have the same problems?” Mentioning that private interest always outweighs public interest because there is no sustainable economy, she further suggests that environmental movements also demand a sustainable economy plan from their politicians as a step towards solving local issues with the common interests of the region in mind (Tsintsabadze 2019).
Politicization of Environmental Problems: The conflicts in the region result in matters that are politicized, even if these matters go much beyond politics. Environmental issues in their turn are not void of politicization. Since direct cooperation between conflicting countries is challenging, some environmentalists have mentioned international organizations as possible mediators for finding creative ways for cooperation for the common sake of environmental protection with as little politics involved as possible. Zazanashvili [Georgia] suggests that identifying common problems can give the possibility to suggest common solutions to conflicting parties. And yet, he reminds that even in presence of common issues, separate solutions may be given to these issues in an attempt to keep them away from politics. (Zazanashvili 2019). Yenokyan [Armenia] also reminds about politicization of environmental issues preventing from cooperation. In the past, she participated in some activities with Georgians and Azerbaijanis, such as protests against privatization of beaches in Ureki, and yet she is skeptical about the current possibility of cooperation: “It is difficult to imagine sitting and talking about environmental problems. Even if that was still possible before April 2016, after that it became even harder” (Yenokyan 2019). But even with Georgian environmentalists, Yenokyan estimates the level of cooperation as low despite the common problems. One reason for this is the lack of specific targets and goals: “Regional cooperation is important, but there should be very specific issues framed for solving them” (Yenokyan 2019).
Galstyan [Armenia], regarding politicization as an obstacle for regional cooperation, does not think that environmental cooperation can bypass political differences. “I don’t think environmental issues have enough leverages to impact the situation. It can be a drop in the sea, but if there is no mechanism and willingness for conflict resolution, I don’t imagine that environmental issues can change something, but maybe other fields like human rights can” (Galstyan 2019). This skepticism is not theoretical, but rather is based on experience. Zarafyan [Armenia] mentioned that for years, experts and scientists worked on creating standards for monitoring the quality of water in rivers that would be acceptable for Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Georgia, but it did not work due to politicization: “If a standard is adopted, it should be accepted by all countries, but Azerbaijan always brings up the Karabakh issue, claiming that until this question is solved, it won’t cooperate on anything. Georgia in its turn sees it unfit to collaborate with one side refusing to do so. But such cooperation could help to understand the responsibility of each state in terms of environmental pollution” (Zarafyan 2019).
Qara [Azerbaijan] also shares the view on how the conflict negatively influences the perceptions of “the other.” He highlights that accusing the neighboring countries of polluting the trans-boundary waters does not make sense if Azerbaijan itself keeps polluting the Caspian Sea with sewage. “Critics in Azerbaijan argue that Armenians exploit nature in Kalbajar with gold mining activities, but for me their purpose is not to destroy nature, but mine gold, which pollutes nature, and we do pollute in Gadabay by gold mining. They lack an effective domestic mechanism and management, and so does Azerbaijan” (Qara 2019). The politicization of environmental issues is thus one side of the coin, while the other side has more to do with the careless attitude towards nature stemming from cultural norms and institutional factors, such as lack of mechanisms for effective implementation of laws, as well as from structural problems, including corruption.
But politicization of environmental matters also negatively affects the involvement of international organizations in nature protection and conservation activities. Nevertheless, even for such scenarios environmentalists offer solutions by inviting the local non-governmental organizations to be more active. Zazanashvili, when discussing, as he puts it, the “sensitive” case of Georgia and its breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, mentions the perspective of the non-recognized states, which usually demand to be presented among regional countries with their self-declared statuses, borders, and flags when asked to join a certain regional project. “But this creates problems for international projects because organizations like World Wildlife Fund (WWF) cannot agree on such conditions and the countries refuse to accept our conditions. We, as an organization, cannot ignore UN rules. Here is when national NGOs can play a better role and interfere” (Zazanashvili 2019).
Isolation of Non-recognized Territories: The existing conflicts in the region isolate the non-recognized entities from the regional and international collaborations and treaties, among other issues creating a fertile ground for environmental problems. The interviews show that the absence of international organizations in non-recognized states in the South Caucasus has a high cost on the environment there due to the lack of support to civil society that results in little awareness and activities in the sphere of environmental protection. For example, Zarafyan [Armenia] knows of no environmental organizations in Nagorno-Karabakh: “The civil society is not very strong there. To work professionally, you have to invest all your resources and thus you need some support that international funds provide. But that’s not possible in Artsakh. This problem is similar in all non-recognized territories—Abkhazia,
South Ossetia, Crimea. It is very difficult to raise environmental problems in these areas. Even if raised, there may be no response” (Zarafyan 2019).
Galstyan [Armenia] also highlights the more problematic situation of non-recognized states due to inapplicable international regulations: “It is difficult to protect the environment in Artsakh as the laws applicable there are unclear. I have been there to monitor the forests, but it was difficult. People alert us about environmental issues there, but all we suggest is to self-organize” (Galstyan 2019).
Despite this isolation, there have been some cases of collaboration in which the non-recognized entities have also participated. Eliko Bendeliani, an employee at the Nationalism and Conflict Research Institute and a consultant at Conciliation Resources in Georgia, works towards connecting Georgia and Abkhazia via environmental issues. Bendeliani tries to initiate peace and environmental projects in Abkhazia to protect migrating animals and endemic plants that have no sense of borders. She also shares the idea that “Ecology stands beyond politics and it is important to acknowledge this. Nature belongs to everyone” (Bendeliani 2019). Bendeliani’s initiative has been supported by the British organization Conciliation Resources, which has been working on the Georgia-Abkhazia conflict for years. One of the projects the organization implements is Line House, where people from conflicting regions all over the world meet each other. Such meetings usually take place in neutral locations. Each year the topics change—in 2019 the topic was sustainable development.
Bendeliani states that at this stage, there are no barriers from the government of Abkhazia, which shows that environmental issues are seriously considered there. She also points out the non-recognized states suffering from isolation and that such meetings are important for them: “Realistically speaking, from the environmental protection point of view, Abkhazia is like a “black spot” on the map—it is not part of the international or regional projects. During meetings, which took place in London and Berlin, we summed up some important topics: water management, protected areas, and green spaces management issues in Abkhazia” (Bendeliani 2019). The meeting in which Georgian and Abkhazian representatives participated included MPs and government representatives from both sides, as well as environmental specialists in different areas such as water, mining safety, and green space preservation. Later, European colleagues went to Sukhumi and shared their experience with the local government.
Suggestions of the Interviewees to Overcome the Regional Challenges
Several interviewees mentioned the leopard protection project that, even though implemented in Armenia and Azerbaijan, is not limited by regional borders. The leopard conservation plan was formed and put into operation as Armenia and Azerbaijan protect this species separately, under one umbrella project, in their territories where the species is proliferating, and some great results have been recorded. Zazanashvili stated: “When two countries are in conflict with each other our aim should not be the maximalist approach to cooperation. Forget about an illusion that they will embrace each other right away. Some diplomacy is necessary” (Zazanashvili 2019). Gasparyan [Armenia] also says that while there are similar activities for protecting the leopard in Armenia and Azerbaijan, there is no cooperation between the two countries. “We are in touch, we meet in Georgia, but it is not a cooperation; no joint activities are planned. It only foresees actions here and there. But animals recognize no borders, and such projects are important” (Gasparyan 2019).
Gasparyan also highlights the absence of borders in nature as animals pass boundaries, but due to mined areas such as the Nakhchivan border, animals (e.g., mouflon) blow up. He sees animals as a possible link for communication, for which there should be willingness to cooperate. He suggests several options for regional cooperation, such as the forested lands in Jiliza becoming a cross-border park shared between Armenia and Georgia and the creation of an eco-corridor between Armenia and Iran by opening some sections of the border for animal migration and installing technologies to monitor the border. He points out that even though there are no conflicts between Armenia and Georgia or Armenia and Iran, there still needs to be willingness on both sides for such environmental cooperation (Gasparyan 2019).
Another opportunity for cooperation mentioned by some interviewees is the face to face meetings of professionals. Such meetings among environmental experts rather than officials were mentioned to be more effective in reducing enmity and opening up a dialogue. Zazanashvili [Georgia] for example highlights the importance of finding ways of intersection, especially personal meetings between mid-level people who do the real work since meetings between ministers and other high profile figures always get political appeal: “Some people think such projects are a waste of money but I disagree; such meetings are crucial to lower the level of alienation” (Zazanashvili 2019).
Zarafyan [Armenia] believes that international organizations can be helpful for overcoming regional environmental cooperation challenges. She sees them as a suitable platform for regional environmentalists, particularly when the scope of environmental action crosses national borders. “We have many political problems and it is difficult when any environmental issue is politicized, whether they are issues with forests or rivers or mines. In such circumstances international organizations are good platforms to get people together and talk” (Zarafyan 2019). She mentions the creation of such a platform by the European Neighborhood Policy, which Armenia, Georgia, and Azerbaijan are part of and send representatives for meetings and discussions on environmental issues.
Nonetheless, not all environmentalists have a positive view about the visible impact of such platforms since some consider these meetings as merely opportunities to exchange information that rarely create grounds for cooperation. As a result, some environmental activists like Galstyan [Armenia] do not even consider visiting such meetings due to resource constraints and lack of tangible results. “There are international organizations with their branches in this region, and yet we are not an NGO, but a civil initiative. To organize something on the level of civil initiatives is even harder” (Galstyan 2019). Galstyan mentioned that despite this, there may sometimes be joint announcements and solidarity actions in which their initiative does participate (Galstyan 2019). Zarafyan states that even such conferences organized on certain international platforms aimed at developing cooperation have not always produced the desired outcomes. “Once at a meeting organized by Goethe Institute we were discussing issues related to natural monuments. We suggested studying the problems we have in three countries and create a map of natural monuments. This shouldn’t have given rise to any conflict, but again Azerbaijan didn’t approve it, they said water problems are more important for them and again politicized the issue. Had we implemented this project, I think we could have done something useful. It could also be used for touristic purposes” (Zarafyan 2019).
Despite the organizational difficulties, especially for the grassroots, the international organizations are seen as a crucial medium for regions in conflict, such as the South Caucasus. Gasparyan [Armenia] mentions that the few international environmental organizations that operate in the region have the potential to connect the region: “Problems in our region are localized and there is literally no linking body. The environmental organizations do not have those functions, but it wouldn’t be bad if, for example, there was cooperation among rangers from the whole region. And yet no such step is initiated” (Gasparyan 2019).
Conclusions and Recommendations
In Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Georgia, waves of nationalist movements in the 1980s expressed in the form of widespread demonstrations did have certain associations with environmental concerns as a substantive matter. Whether it was the demonstrations concerning Topkhana forest or protests against pollution from Nairit chemical plant or Khudoni power plant, environmental issues were at the core of expression of discontent within the context of ethnic conflicts or irrespective of them. According to Cheterian, the focus of mass movements gradually shifted from environmental concerns, but nevertheless the green movements in all three countries at different levels became the precursors of nationalist movements (Cheterian 2009). Hence, environmental issues were foreshadowed by growing political problems and experienced a downward slope in terms of urgency and significance as a national issue. In other words, environmental protection became marginalized and lost the momentum as a mainstream approach, but its legacy was considerably profound.
When thinking about at least two layers of environment and conflicts, we can see from the discussions mentioned above that on the one hand, the environmental issue related to the Topkhana forest played a role in the eruption of conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan. But it obviously was a spark in the fire that was going to burn in the already heated political context of ethnic division. On the other hand, we observe the conflict having a negative impact on the environment as attempts for environmental cooperation to solve the existing problems are hindered by that same conflict. The victims of the situation, however, are not only the conflicting sides, but everyone in the region as a result of the trans-boundary character of nature itself. Therefore, it is in the interest of everyone in the region to establish grounds for cooperation in the solution of environmental problems.
Compared with Armenia and Georgia, the level of mobilization and activism in Azerbaijan to address environmental problems is substantially weak, which is due to the lack of political space for independent civil society organizations. Even worse is the situation of environmental awareness and protection in non-recognized territories, which suffer due to their status and as a result of absence of international organizations and their support.
And yet we have also heard environmentalists highlighting the absence of prioritization of environmental protection even on national levels. The absence of education or awareness on environmental matters, as well as the fact that often politicians campaigning on green ideas have gone up the political ladder only to cast aside their environmental agendas, shows that environmental awareness is an urgent issue that must not be used as a tool of manipulation by politicians.
Additionally, some interviewees, highlighting the need for environmental education and awareness, proved the point by denoting how it had empowered the locals to be not only more environmentally active, but also demand their right for participation in decision making, especially in local governance. This could be an important path for avoiding the top-down approach—activists from the capital engaging in environmentalism outside the capital, which would further decentralize environmental activism.
The interviewees, although agreeing that regional cooperation is a must, did not all share the same opinions about the paths to such cooperation. While for non-recognized entities it was mentioned that little can be done by international organizations due to their abiding to international regulations, suggesting that local organizations take responsibility, for recognized independent states the opposite was highlighted—international organizations were viewed as a good platform to bring the conflicting states together to discuss environmental matters.
In the past years there have been meetings between environmental organization representatives as well as activists, and yet we have seen little regional cooperation, which may be due to different reasons—overall lack of interest, insufficient mediation by international organizations, lack of long-term funding, and the absence of a regional environmental vision among environmentalists themselves.
The interviewees, when speaking of the need to cooperate on matters of environmental protection, also highlighted the willingness to put aside political agendas and concentrate on matters that will lead to common visions in nature protection. One way for this could be a very narrow specialized collaboration, such as organizing a meeting for rangers. Another step for conflicting and non-conflicting states could be the creation of cross-border parks protected by the states as well as eco-corridors for animal migration with the assistance of technologies to monitor the borders. There has been such a precedent for conflict transformation, as in the case of the creation of a peace park in the mountainous Cordillera del Condor border area between Ecuador and Peru. For decades this territory had witnessed territorial conflicts until peace talks began in 1995, the result of which was the Brasilia Agreement highlighting the need to establish protected areas on both sides of the border with both countries committing to promote socioeconomic and environmental cooperation in this trans-boundary area. The contribution of governmental bodies, as well as conservation organizations, local scientists, and indigenous peoples, framed the assessment of the region’s biological importance, the outcome of which was a peace park contributing to the conservation of the rich biodiversity and creating an atmosphere of trust as an essential component for a lasting peace in the region (Hauk 2016).
The transitioning economies of all states in the South Caucasus have had a high cost on the environment. In the absence of local environmental agendas and perspectives, discussions on regional environmental cooperation have been somewhat inapplicable, not to mention the regional conflicts hindering the situation. And yet, common problems as much as collective fights for environmental justice are key points for discussions and cooperation, so long as there is willingness to live in clean and healthy environment. In the context of global changes of climate, viewing the South Caucasus in its wholeness as one big ecological hub is now no longer a matter of politics but a matter of survival for all of the species in the region, including humans. For this purpose, we have the following recommendations for different stakeholders.
To states and non-recognized territories in the region:
– Ensuring good governance to eradicate corruption and raise effectiveness through strict control of the bodies responsible for scrutiny of environmental protection (ministry and agencies, national parks, water areas, etc).
– Implementing educational programs in schools to raise environmental awareness throughout the countries, thus decentralizing the topic.
To international organizations:
– Advocating for the incorporation of the non-recognized territories into awareness raising and conservational programs and ensuring the implementation of such projects on the ground, which will be one of the pillars in de-politicization.
– Focusing more on arranging meetings between people with more narrow specializations in conservation or general environmental protection, such as rangers, conservationists, and veterinarians, since their meetings deem to be more productive and less political or official in nature.
To both states and international organizations
– Extending the existing domestic conservation projects for leopards to a bilateral partnership between Armenia and Azerbaijan coordinated bilaterally or by third parties to erect an alternative way for public diplomacy.
To civil society and grassroots:
– Creating a regional environmental charter/manifest and plan activities to ensure more sustainable collaboration and regional environmental protection.
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 The Armenian Revolution of 2018.
 Armenia as well as Azerbaijan are parties to the convention, whereas Georgia is not.
 Ureki is a town in Georgia near the Black Sea.
 Clashes between Armenia and Azerbaijan took place during four days in April 2016.
 Kalbajar is the Azerbaijani name for one of the regions in the zone of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict.
 Artsakh is the Armenian name for Nagorno-Karabakh.
 A region in Armenia bordering Georgia
*A protest against the privatization of beaches in Ureki, 2013. Armenian environmental activists joined the protests in Ureki to show solidarity to Georgian activists. Photo taken from the Facebook page of Georgian Young Greens.
** This article was written within the project “Building Sustainable Trans-Border Communities in the South Caucasus”, funded by ifa (Institut für Auslandsbeziehungen) / Funding program zivik with resources provided by the German Federal Foreign Office.