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.”