The government of Azerbaijan is weaponising the forests and animals of Nagorno-Karabakh in peace talks with its neighbour Armenia.
The two countries fought a six-week war over the region in 2020. After thousands of deaths, Azerbaijan’s military emerged victorious. Its government now claims it is suing Armenia for alleged environmental destruction during the 30 years it previously controlled the territory.
On 18 January, Azerbaijan’s foreign ministry accused Armenia of “widespread deforestation, unsustainable logging, and pollution through significant construction and mining” in the disputed region of Nagorno-Karabakh.
It claimed in a press release this was the first known inter-state arbitration under the Council of Europe’s Bern Convention on the conservation of wildlife and natural habitats.
Today, Azerbaijan has launched the first known arbitration case regarding failure to conserve habitats and species under the Bern Convention on Conservation of European Wildlife and Natural Habitats – https://t.co/T9w2EiYUkO
— Elnur Mammadov (@ElnurIMammadov) January 19, 2023
Experts told Climate Home that no arbitration request had been officially filed, forests fared better under Armenia’s control than Azerbaijan’s and the case had an “element of propaganda” to it.
The two sides have fought over the region, on and off, for more than 100 years. During the Soviet era, it was an autonomous enclave inside Azerbaijan, with an ethnic Armenian majority population. After the Soviet Union collapsed, Armenia took over. In 2008, the UN general assembly took Azerbaijan’s side.
The conflict reignited in 2020 and Armenia gave up control to Azerbaijan and to Russian peacekeepers. Fighting has now stopped and talks over a long-term settlement continue.
There is only one road connecting Nagorno-Karabakh to Armenia. People claiming to be Azerbaijani environmental activists are blocking it.
One of the protesters is the chair of the Women, Development, Future Public Union Gulshan Akhundova. She told Climate Home that Armenians were extracting “our minerals (gold and copper)” and sending them to Armenia and cutting down trees.
She said that most of the protesters were from Azerbaijani environmental NGOs and there are also represenatives of Azerbaijan’s environment ministry there.
Human Rights Watch said the blockade could have “dire humanitarian consequences”. It prevents Armenians in the region getting essential food and services or leaving for Armenia.
The government of Azerbaijan invited the United Nations Environment Programme (Unep) to visit Nagorno-Karabakh in March 2022.
The visit was organised between Azerbaijan’s environment ministry and Mahir Aliyev, Unep’s regional co-ordinator for Europe. Aliyev is from Azerbaijan, although he does not represent its government.
Unep’s team was accompanied by environment ministry staff throughout the trip, who organised all meetings and facilitated all visits. Parts of the region are covered with land mines.
The Unep team produced a 45-page report. In its press release announcing the arbitration, the government of Azerbaijan quoted selectively from this report.
It correctly said that Unep had noted Armenia’s mining had caused “chemical pollution of water, soil, and [plants and animals]”. But it left out Unep’s conclusion that the abandonment of farms because of the conflict had led plants and wildlife to “re-establish themselves”.
Unep further reported that “new road construction – launched as part of the reconstruction drive in January 2021 – is also having a significant impact on forest cover; particularly the approximately ~80-kilometer highway segment between Fuzuli and Shusha”.
Zaur Shiriyev, an analyst from the International Crisis Group in Azerbaijan, explained Azerbaijan’s government began building this road as soon as it took over the region in 2020. It is known as “victory road” in Azerbaijan. The authorities plan to build 1,500 km of roads in the “liberated lands”.
After looking at satellite data, Liz Goldman from Global Forest Watch, told Climate Home: “There does not appear to be significant tree cover loss in the Nagorno-Karabakh region.”
In fact, she said that between roughly 2000 and 2020, the region had gained more tree cover than it lost. It lost 355 hectares and gained 2,310 hectares.
Global Forest Watch’s data covers just 20 years of the 30-year occupation. But it suggests that Azerbaijan’s president Ilham Aliyev was wrong to claim that “fifty to sixty thousand hectares of forest have been completely destroyed” by Armenia in Nagorno-Karabakh.
“Tree cover loss has been especially low in recent years but did increase to about 50 hectares in 2021,” Goldman said, “with loss appearing along roads.” Satellite data shared with Climate Home confirms that this tree loss is along Azerbaijan’s “victory road”.
Shiriyev told Climate Home that both countries were making claims and counter-claims against each other in international forums as leverage in peace talks. “They see it as a pressure point,” he said, adding “there is an element of propaganda for both sides”.
Speaking through British public relations firm Portland Communications, the government of Azerbaijan told Climate Home it had served papers directly to Armenia.
A spokesperson for the Bern Convention’s secretariat said that arbitration requests had to be made to them and “we haven’t received any request so far”.
The government of Azerbaijan declined to be interviewed for this article and, at the time of publication, had not responded to written questions. The government of Armenia did not respond and the Unep declined to comment.
This article was edited on 30 January to remove references to particular articles of the Bern convention