New farms threaten Azerbaijan’s legendary gazelles

Aygun Rashidova, Esmira Javadova,

Gazelles are a success story in Azerbaijan today. After decades of poaching and unsustainable farming decimated the local gazelle population, the species has slowly started to return to its historical grazing lands thanks to successful conservation activities.

But the start of crop farming in the Ajinohur plain at the Gakh State Nature Sanctuary has alarmed environmentalists and local sheep farmers, who fear the crop farms will destroy the land and force the gazelles to leave.

Gazelles are an honored part of Azerbaijani culture. Prized for their grace and beauty, the Azerbaijani word for gazelle – jeyran – is also a girl’s name and a term of endearment.

For millennia, gazelles lived in the southern plans of the South Caucasus, including what are now parts of Azerbaijan and Georgia. But unsustainable hunting and farming in the 20th century decimated the local population. By the 1970s, less than 200 remained.

A conservation program started under the Soviet government by creating Shirvan Nature Reserve in 1969 and was strengthened by Shirvan National Park in 2003. Furthermore, in 2010 the Azerbaijan government started a modern reintroduction program with the World Wildlife Foundation to restore the historical areas of gazelles in Gobustan and Acinohur. 

Today it is estimated that over 7000 gazelles live in the country. One of the most popular habitats is the Ajinohur plain in northern Azerbaijan, near the border with Georgia.

But in August 2018, an online environmental group, Ecofront, raised the alarm about the cultivation of thousands of hectares for crop farming in the Ajinohur plain.

Ecologists and agricultural experts warned that the farms could create an environmental crisis, including erosion, salinization and the end of the gazelle population.

A representative of Ecofront, environmentalist Javid Gara, agreed that the new crop farms in Ajinohur spell the end of gazelles.

“One of the projects that the state is implementing increases the descendants of animals, the other one wants to cut them off,” Gara said, referring to the government’s successful gazelle resettlement program and the reports that the commercial farms are allegedly owned by a holding company with connections to the government.

The land, however, belongs to the local government, not the local sheep farmers or the Azerbaijan Ministry of Ecology and Natural Resources, which is involved in the gazelle resettlement program.

The local government, the Gakh district executive authorities, says it has the right to extend the rent for sheep farmers to use the fields for winter grazing – or to rent them out to crop farms. “And the head of the district decided to sign a lease agreement with a company that has applied for land use, not with [sheep] farmers whose agreement was already over,” the district authorities said. 

“For any cultivation, experts need to re-evaluate the category of the soil and Cabinet of Ministers needs to make a decision about this change. Only after that there can be cultivation,” Javid Gara said.

Gara noted that the government is repeating the same mistake that the Soviet Union made in the 1960s, when there was a short-lived attempt to turn the area into wheat crop farms.

Farmers who used these lands for pasture worry that the new crop farms in Ajinohur will, like the previous wheat farms, ruin the soil and grassy fields the local gazelles and sheep rely on for grazing. 

A lawyer representing some local sheep farmers, Aslan Valiyev, said the farms will “murder” the environment. He noted that in this environment, no one is allowed to plow “even a centimeter” but the crop farms already planted grain 35 centimeters deep.

“This is the degradation and degeneration of the lands, the destruction of the gazelles who live here, and will result in 175,000 sheep without a winter pasture,” he said.

Valiyev is representing 40 farmers who have sued Gakh Executive Authority over the loss of their winter pastures.

“They can’t understand that if it were possible to get grain from this land, it would not be categorized as winter pastures. By planting the fields, they destroyed the lands and livestock farms,” said Haji Artunov, one of the farmers. His sheep will return from the summer pastures in a few months, but now there are no winter pastures for grazing.

“There is no point in returning to the winter areas that were destroyed by planting, where the grass cover will not return for at least 20 years,” he added.

Amin Babayev, 70-year-old soil scientist whose research focused on mainly Gakh-Zagatala region, warned that the lack of moisture in the soil means that years of fertilization and plowing harms the soil cover and changes it, leading to desertification.

Ecologist Nizami Shafiyev echoed Babayev’s concerns. “Sowing in saline soils will end in failure. The soil will need 20-25 years to replenish its grass cover, so the land cannot be used for 20-25 years,” he says.

So far, the courts appear to be listening to the fears of environmentalists and the local sheepherders.

On June 27 the court ruled that the new farms should stop planting in Ajinohur until the government could determine the area’s status. The agreement between the private companies and local authority still exists, however, and the local authority still has control over who uses these fields.

The court decision will not undo the damage that has already been done to the soil and the habitat that the gazelles depend on. But lawyer Aslan Valiyev is optimistic; even this partial victory is a precedent in Azerbaijan, he says.

“This is the first achievement regarding winter pastures in Azerbaijan. The majority of winter pastures in the country have been destroyed. But we didn’t let them to continue the same operation here in Ajinohur. This means that others who want to take these lands for business purposes will refrain from doing so out of fear that people will rise up against them.”

Environmentalists fear that commercial farming in the Gakh State Nature Sanctuary will harm the gazelles. They might be frightened away or harmed by the chemicals used to cultivate the soil.

Sheep farmers have traditionally used a large part of the Ilisu State Reserve as winter grazing land for their flocks.

Ecologists warn that the soil in the Ajinohur plains is not fit for farming. They say that cultivating the land will exacerbate the desertification of the area.

Local sheep farmers began protesting as soon as the commercial farms started to cultivate the land. The protest has successfully stopped the commercial farms, at least for now.

Sheep farmers fear that cultivation carried out by Aqroİnkişaf 2017 has already harmed the soil, making it impossible for them to use the land as a winter field for their flocks.

The land near the reserve is better for growing plants, noted sheep farmer Haji Artunov. “The difference is clear when it’s irrigated.”

After the harvest in the fields, there is a practice of burning what is left over from the wheat. “It is a threat to the protected areas and the air quality,” said Javid Gara, a representative of Ecofront.

Haji Artunov has been raising sheep here for over 20 years. He recalls that once he also tried to cultivate the land slightly more than the permitted 3% allowed for crops and was fined 400 AZN.

In general, farmers say there is a water shortage in the area, which will make it more difficult for crop farming to be successful.

Sheep farmer Haji Artunov notes that the crop farmers tried to plant wheat but had a poor harvest this year.

It may take decades, and even costly soil treatments, to restore the natural grass to the plans, noted Javid Gara. He added that abandoned fields becomes full of thistle, which is a fire hazard.

The crop farming has stopped for now but there is no guarantee that it will not resume later. This is a serious concern for farmers and ecoactivists.

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