The road takes us deep into the green grass-covered forest along the Gadik-Zargova highway in Azerbaijan’s north-east Guba district. The forest seems to stretch on forever, blanketing the land around us.
But even here, miles from the nearest village, the signs of illegal logging are clearly visible. The forest is littered with the broken trunks of trees, their canopies chopped off. The dead stumps look like headless bodies, strewn along the forest floor.
Gadik, a village in the Guba district, is 168 km from Baku. About 150 families live in this village in the foothills. The villagers depend on the forest for their livelihood. The ancient wood protects the water supply that feeds their fruit trees and nurtures the grass their livestock grazes on.
But today they fear the trees are dying and disappearing, threatening their livelihoods and the safety of their community.
Before the end of the Soviet Union, forests like the one in Gadik were protected by a system of professional rangers. They patrolled the area and kept illegal logging at bay.
Now, however, the ranger system has broken down and locals have started their own patrols in an effort to protect the forest.
Rasul Mehraliyev, 54, has a clear view of Gadik forest from his yard. As one of the villagers who patrol the forest, Mehraliyev knows the landscape of trees and meadows as well as he knows his own home.
Every day he walks the forest trails, looking for signs of illegal logging.
When he sees newly cut stumps or tire tracks, he informs the authorities. Mehraliyev notes that the situation has improved a bit -- before there was more illegal logging for timber to use to build wooden floors and furniture.
“It has decreased a bit recently, maybe because journalists wrote a lot. Also after surveillance cameras were installed in the forest, the scale of logging decreased,” he said.
But there are still plenty of signs that the logging persists. Deeper in the forest, Mehraliyev points out the tire tracks of large vehicles on the path before us.
“Look carefully, these tracks are the tracks of large, heavy vehicles. Look, these branches have been pulled out so that these cars can move freely,” he notes.
The government agrees that forests in Azerbaijan are shrinking. In particular, Azerbaijan’s Ministry of Ecology has noted degradation in the forests in Oghuz, Lerik and Guba districts.
Azerbaijan lost 7,000 hectares of tree cover since 2000, according to the global watchdog Global Forest Watch, which uses satellite imagery in its data.
However, environmentalists warn that even satellite images do not fully illustrate the problem, in part because satellite sensors can be confused with dark green colors, like wetlands and lakes. Satellite images show tree cover as any vegetation that is higher than five meters, which could be orchards or parks -- not just forest cover, but what environmentalists call the entire tree cover.
Another problem with satellite images is that the sensors cannot detect deforestation or the effect of forest fires. In addition, they can only register changes larger than 30 meters, notes environmentalist Javid Gara.
“However, even taking all of this into consideration, Global Forest Watch shows about 880,000 hectares of land covered with trees in Azerbaijan. These figures are lower than the official statistics -- 1,022,000 hectares of land -- which cover forests only," says eco-activist Javid Gara.
Gara, who has an MSc in Environmental Policy and Management from the University of Bristol, spent four years exploring the situation in Azerbaijan’s forests. He also worked as a senior advisor for the Forest Development Department of the Ministry of Ecology and Natural Resources for ten months, and based on his experience, Gara is confident that the official data is not correct.
“In Azerbaijan there has not been any countrywide mapping and forest management activities since independence [in 1991] and this work should be done at least every 15 years. The deforestation and natural regeneration have not been registered. Without healthy and vast forests, Azerbaijan suffers -- and will suffer much more -- from floods, desertification, droughts...,” Javid Gara says.
“I have explored the forests and rural areas for the last four years and also worked in the Department of Forestry Development as a senior advisor on protection for ten months... Deforestation is much more severe than any satellite-based reports or official figures.”
He says Azerbaijan’s forests are facing three major threats: clear cutting, selective cutting and forest fires.
“Cutting down trees for the production of parquet, furniture, and to clear land for vegetable crops causes the greatest damage to the forest cover. [Loggers] pick the rarest and biggest trees. That is actually the easiest type of logging to stop. If there is political will, it can be stopped in a matter of days,” Gara says.
Other threats -- like selective cutting for firewood and charcoal production-- are also solvable if the government has the will to take the proper steps, he says.
For example, Azerbaijan villages like Gadik do not have access to natural gas so they depend on wood to warm their homes in the winter.
“Cutting trees for heating is the least avoidable [illegal use of the forests] unless all these villages and some government buildings like kindergartens, schools, military buildings, etc. are provided with affordable alternatives,” Javid Gara says.
“However there is room to reduce its impact with better forest management and promoting more efficient wood stoves, etc. Ideally making electricity and /or gas very cheap in rural areas, especially in the villages in and around the forests, would decrease wood fuel consumption.”
Trees are also being cleared to make room for agriculture fields.
“For example, a tradesman cleared a few hectares of the Gadik forest from the trees to plant potatoes. What is left are the stumps of trees that were 40-50 years old. All because someone wanted to earn money from the potato business,” sighs villager Rasul Mehraliyev.
By felling parts of the forest, people are putting whole communities at risk, notes ecologist Nizami Shafiyev.
The trees in the forest, particularly the hornbeam trees, are vital for local communities’ water supply. Locals in Gadik have already complained about water supply problems and environmentalists warn the health of the forest and the water supply are tightly linked.
Azad Guliyev, the head of Department of Forest Development of the Ministry of Ecology and Natural Resources, says the ministry is taking steps to cut back on logging, including fining people who are caught illegally felling trees.
“Last year, the Ministry signed a memorandum for joint raids in forests, strengthening control over forests at the checkpoints. The goal was to prevent the illegal transport of materials from the forests. Patrol officers from the Ministry of Interior have been involved in these efforts, too,” Guliyev says.
He adds that surveillance cameras were installed in forests in several northern Azerbaijani districts in the Caucasus Mountains -- Zagatala, Sheki, Gakh, Oghuz and Gabala.
The cameras are just a partial solution for locals in Gadik, however. While they may be deterred by the fines, the businesses logging the forests for timber are not, notes environmentalist Shafiyev.
If the cut tree can be used as firewood, then the fine is five manats per cubic meter. If the tree is damaged to obtain timber for business purposes, the penalty may vary from 50-150 manats per cubic meter depending on the type of tree.
"Thus, the inspector can reduce the damage by 10 to 30 times at his own discretion. These tariffs were adopted in 2004, and they should be at least tripled, taking into account the inflation in the country," environmentalist Javid Gara says.
The Ministry says it has already appealed to the government to increase the penalties.
Ecologist Shafiyev adds that these fines are not a deterrent for large businesses. “Those who do this have plenty of money and power,” he says.
In the end, it is the poor, local communities that depend on the forests for heat and to make charcoal that suffer, both due to the ecological impact of the illegal logging and the government’s weak response to end it, Javid Gara says.
“Poor people work in dangerous and unhealthy conditions to earn their bread and rich businessman and corrupt officers get richer and richer. The most intensive illegal logging happens in the regions of Oghuz and Lerik where there is less economic opportunity than in neighbouring regions. In these regions, the forests are a major source of income for villagers,” he says.