Autumn 1994 (2.3)

by Betty Blair

Beautiful Azerbaijan - a country blessed with nine of the world's 11 climatic zones. Here scenic glacier Lake Maral Gyol at 5,138 ft., located in the Little Caucasus west of Ganja, connects with six other lakes in the region. It is part of the Gyol-Gyol National Preserve and used to be a favorite haven for Azerbaijanis before it was closed due to its proximity to territory militarily occupied by Armenians.

October 18th is Azerbaijan's Independence Day, marking the collapse of the Soviet Union. It also identifies the third anniversary since the "iron curtain", seemingly so impenetrable, has been pulled down, losing its ability to cut off the flow of information to and from the outside world. Unfortunately, when it comes to environmental issues what we didn't know back then, hurt all of us, and still continues to do so. There are no walls, no space shields, no geopolitical boundaries capable of containing the harmful effects of environment. And so, Azerbaijan's problems are ours and vice versa whether we know about them or not.

Virtually nothing exists in the English language about the contemporary environmental conditions in Azerbaijan with the exception of a rare newspaper or magazine article. The few books that have been published in the '90s about the "ecocide" of the former Soviet Union rarely discuss Azerbaijan. In the typical 300-page book, there is usually only one page, at best two, despite the fact that the city of Sumgayit, the highest concentration of chemical factories in the USSR.

We chose to focus on environment in this issue because Azerbaijan is on the eve of signing the oil contracts with the Western Consortium-at least, everybody hopes so (See SOCAR Section, 18). Oil is the key to every aspect of development in Azerbaijan, including the restoration and preservation of the environment. We believe, protection of the environment must be developed parallel, and not behind, economic development. Environmental protection issues can no longer be treated as afterthoughts; they must be integral parts of each new project.

During our field preparation in Baku for this issue in May and June, we met only one woman who didn't welcome our investigation. She was living in Balakhani, a district near Baku, where oil has been pumped for more than 100 years. "You're no friend of Azerbaijan if you take pictures like that," she complained. "Why don't you photograph something beautiful?" Our cameras were aimed at the sheep grazing right next to a creaking old "nodding donkey" oil well less than 30 feet from the walled courtyard of her home, clearly a situation endangering her own health. We hope this issue proves her wrong and that most readers will understand the depth of our commitment towards "fixing the future" and restoring the health and beauty that was Azerbaijan's not so long ago.

Azerbaijan-A Beautiful Country
There are still many places of pristine beauty in Azerbaijan. Though quite small in size (like Austria or the US state of Maine), Azerbaijan boasts of nine of the world's 11 climatic regions; consequently, there is a wide variety of native plant and animal life. Evidence of the once healthful climate, air, soil, and water is clearly found in phenomenon of populational longevity which rates among the highest countries in the world.

And, in many respects, Azerbaijan has been fortunate among the Soviet Republics. It has no nuclear weapons test sites, no radioactive waste dumps, no plutonium uranium production, no nuclear power plants.

Serious Environmental Problems
But Azerbaijan is not exempt; it does have its share of critical environmental problems. One of the most serious is the lack of clean and accessible water in Baku. Oil extraction and its production are always potentially messy and Azerbaijan has 51 on- and off-shore fields with more than 10,500 wells. Even more threatening is the incredibly high usage of toxic pesticides for agricultural production; and the confounding mixture of toxins that have been spewing into the atmosphere from Sumgayit's smoke stacks. Nor is the Caspian without its own headaches, too.

Perhaps, most problematic of all, is the six-year war with Armenians which has been completely fought on Azerbaijan's territory. About 20% of Azerbaijan's map is occupied by Armenians; all Azerbaijanis have fled the area. Armenia's practice of land burning and laying of mines is devastating to man, plants and wild life. And the damages due to the subsequent deforestation that has occurred when 1.1 million displaced people have had to scour the countryside in search of fuel will require decades to rectify, at best.

Lethal Legacy of Soviet Policy
Azerbaijan's environmental problems can mostly be traced to abusive Soviet policies these past 70 years. It's not that Soviets had no legislature protecting nature. They did. There were plenty on paper. But many laws were so stringent they could not be enforced and, therefore, they were covered and lied about. In general, USSR policy was exploitative. In that vast land, that stretched 11 time zones, priority was given to the use of raw materials and not in recycling and re-using them. Resources were thought to be inexhaustible. Nature was entrusted to take care of itself. There was heavy industrialization without regard to human life. Human health was not the measure of the success of programs, high production was. The myth was always perpetrated that everything was equal to world's highest standards-even levels of pollution. Everything in the USSR was believed by most to have been normal.

Chernobyl Brought the USSR to Its Knees
The West likes to take credit for the unraveling of the Soviet Union. After all, since the 50s, the central organizing force behind nearly all Western policy was directed against Soviet totalitarianism. Despite all the threats and posturing between the superpowers, it was not outside forces but rather internal environmental abuses that brought the eventual collapse of that colossal system. History will prove that the final death wail of the USSR came from Chernobyl. Nature is unrelentless and unforgiving when exploited. Officially only 31 people were killed the night of April 26, 1986, fighting reactor fires. But since then, an estimated 15,000 people have died and, at least, 200,000-250,000 children in Ukraine and Belarus are critically ill. Absolute secrecy surrounded the disaster. Children continued playing in the streets totally oblivious to the dangers of breathing the nucleides. No officials signaled alarm.

Unfortunately even eight years afterwards, the final chapters of Chernobyl are far from being closed; people are still dying and will continue to do so at increasing rates as time passes (Ukrainian Weekly, Roman Woronowycz, December 5, 1993).

Throughout the Soviet Union, people had no idea of what was happening. There were no reports on television or other media, warning of the severity of the problem. People had no clues what radioactive exposure meant. It was only with Gorbachev's policy of glasnost that the truth about Chernobyl began to emerge. And with that knowledge, all credibility was shattered. The people no longer believed that their interests were being served by the Soviet Union and that's essentially what brought that corrupt, self-serving dictatorship to its end.

Azerbaijan's Environmental Impasse
The legacy has left immense problems for Azerbaijan that are extremely difficult to handle right now in the midst of the tragedy of war and the subsequential economic crises. Azerbaijan's environmentalists, themselves, admit they've "been in a coma for the past year". Ali Guldosti of Azerbaijan's Green Movement described the dilemma this way. "We have a story about two frogs that fell into a jug of cream. Unable to get out, the one gave up and sank to the bottom. The other decided to do the only thing he knew how to-swim. So he paddled with all his might and, in the process, churned up the cream so much that it turned into butter and he crawled out." It's a fable with a comforting ending. But for environmentalists in Azerbaijan these days, it's not so simple. "Our problem," said Guldosti, "is that we don't know what we've fallen into-is it water or cream? Nobody pays any attention to environmental issues right now. Morally, we don't even know if we're right to push for them. How can we speak about planting trees when life is so hard and people can barely manage to get bread just to survive? It's an extremely difficult time for us right now."
New Projects Initiated

Fortunately, a few projects are being initiated in Azerbaijan to reverse some of the most serious problems: Pennzoil and SOCAR are now capturing natural gas that was being vented into the atmosphere which lessens global warming; Brown & Root is investigating how best to solve the severest of Baku's water problems and the World Bank has pledged support. Kaiser Aluminum is involved in bringing new equipment to the aluminum plant in Sumgayit which will greatly reduce the toxic emissions. And the UN is involved in helping draw up a master plan that will lessen the chemical chokehold in Sumgayit.

But there is still much left to do and the international community can do much to foster encouragement, provide expertise, equipment and assistance. Some very basic suggestions include:
(1) Communication and Coordination. A comprehensive and coherent approach to environmental studies requires a large degree of communication between officials, scientists, engineers, environmental groups, inside as well as outside of Azerbaijan.

(2) Testing: standardization. It's difficult to fix something if you're not sure how badly it's broken. With budgets slashed, Azerbaijan scientists have not been able to adequately quantify their problems. Testing of air, water, land pollution needs to be done in a regular, systematic way that can be verifiable by international standards.

Times Series Reliability. A powerful tool in studying environmental issues is the ability to study changes that occur over time. To do this, there must be continuity of methods of analysis and trust in the level of accuracy. In general, little confidence can be placed in data gathered in the past due to "official" but inaccurate data entries.

(3) Education and Awareness. The greatest potential for reversing environmental damage is to create an awareness about what individuals can do to improve the situation. The collective actions of individuals, rather than the activities of a few individuals, will make the real difference. Azerbaijanis have always trusted government to solve problems for them; real changes will occur when people are educated enough about the dangers of environmental abuse to take responsibilities in their own hands.

(4) Pollution Fees. A system of laws, and subsequent ways to regulate and monitor environmental damage with accompanying fees and fines to help fund the Republic's environmental work needs to be organized. Also tax incentives should be worked out for companies which are investing to protect the environment long term.

(5) Joint interstate commissions. Regional problems need to be solved by regional bodies. Headwaters of Azerbaijan's rivers originate in Dagestan, Georgia, and Armenia. Ways must be found to protect and monitor toxic wastes being disposed in these waters.

Also, the Caspian is now shared by five separate independent nations-Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan, Russia, Azerbaijan, and Iran. No one country alone can solve the problems related to overfishing, dumping of toxic wastes, or the rise in level of the lake. An interstate agency needs to be formed from all these states. Iran must not be left in isolation as the only non former Soviet state. Iranians have much to contribute as they are a major country in the region with highly skilled scientists, many of whom have been trained in the West. Besides, they have a track record of protecting the Caspian.

The Global Connection
Environmental issues are global issues-historically and geographically. The international community cannot stand idly by and view Azerbaijan as a little country far away that has to take care of its own problems. The West must exert the same energy into solving environmental global issues as they did in fighting totalitarianism. Man's own ability and proclivity to destroy himself by abusing the environment is far more threatening than the Soviet system ever was. "Protecting the environment," to quote US Vice-President, Al Gore, "must be the central organizing principle - one agreed to voluntarily to use every policy and program, every law and institution, every treaty and alliance, every tactic and strategy, every plan and course of action-in short, to use every means possible to halt the destruction of the environment and to preserve and nurture our ecological system."

This US Administration is, by far, the most environmentally knowledgeable and concerned in its history. However, US legislators have acted blindly or, perhaps, naively with insufficient knowledge, legislating policy that contradicts these strides in environmental awareness and global vision.

In 1992 Congress passed what is known as the Freedom Support Act to assist in the democratization process of the former states of the Soviet Union. But Azerbaijan was singled out (Section 907) upon the insistence of Armenian lobbyists, as the only government not eligible to receive aid, including humanitarian and medical assistance, despite the fact that it now has the responsibility of caring for one of the largest populations of refugees in the world.

But the law spills over into the arena of environment as well, prohibiting any US aid to be given directly to their government that would do so much to help Azerbaijan "fix the future". Any assistance to guide, train, share expertise, initiate educational exchanges, and provide equipment for testing is not legal. In essence, the US ties its own hands in being able to influence and shape policy in a region where it has vested interests and which it declares is in so much need of help during this transition into democracy and market economy. There still is no guarantee that democracy and free market will take root in these republics. Many brutal forces are working against these principles. It's morally wrong for the US to stand idly by. It's unwillingness to do so can have irreversible consequences.

Until the ban is lifted, the US Freedom Support Act will always viewed as the Freedom "Denial" Act for Azerbaijanis as well as for the international community. There are no geopolitical boundaries when it comes to repairing and protecting the ecology and the environment.

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