Uncontrolled grazing is leading to soil degradation and desertification in the mountains of north-western Azerbaijan, and soon the pastures on which local farms are so dependent will have disappeared. Now, the EU-funded Clima East project has linked up with local communities to stop the soil erosion and give the landscape a chance to recover, while maintaining local livelihoods.
Burdoval village, Ismayilli, Azerbaijan - Sheep farming is a traditional activity in rural regions of Azerbaijan. In many places, sheep breeding is the main source of income.
However, uncontrolled cattle grazing, along with the impact of climate change, is leading to active soil degradation and desertification. As a consequence, every year the state of pastures in the Greater Caucasus deteriorates. According to experts, the uncontrolled use of summer pastures will result in their disappearance within 50 years.
For the EU-funded Clima East Project, or "Ecosystem approach to climate change", the goal is to stop the process of soil erosion and improve the fertility of pastures in Azerbaijan using consistent management.
Summer pastures in the Ismayilli region have been chosen as a pilot area for project implementation. They are located in the foothills of the Greater Caucasus in north-western Azerbaijan, where cattle breeding is the main type of activity. With a budget of 1.1 million euros, the project is funded by the European Union and implemented by the UN Development Programme (UNDP).
"In the past, these mountains were entirely covered with forests. Today, at the end of each summer season, there is almost no vegetation," says one of the project activists, 40-year-old Badal Massimov, a villager from Burovdal in the Ismayilli region.
Burovdal lies at an altitude of 1,800 metres and is the highest settlement in the area. Around it are majestic mountain landscapes and pastures, on which local farms are so dependent.
Uncontrolled overgrazing is a major factor in soil degradation on summer pastures. The Ministry of Ecology and Natural Resources of Azerbaijan considers this issue among the priority environmental problems requiring immediate action.
According to regulations, four to eight units of livestock can graze on one hectare of land on summer pastures. In reality, each hectare of summer pasture is currently grazed by 20-30 units of livestock, sometimes up to 50.
"It is way above the norm. Farmers realise that animal feed is getting smaller with each passing year. Further chaotic and overly intensive use of pastures over the next 10-20 years will lead to their complete disappearance," warns the coordinator of the project Eltekin Omarov.
The highlands of the Greater Caucasus are under a heavy load, as occupation of Nagorno-Karabakh has led to a loss of almost half of about 560 thousand hectares of Azerbaijani summer pastures. Currently, Azerbaijani refugees have to graze their cattle in the foothills of the Caucasus.
Systematic management of pastures
The first phase of the project, which is implemented from 2013 to 2017, included an inventory of pastures. On the area of 3,000 hectares where 16 pastures are located, the experts studied the structure of the soil and vegetation. The results showed that on the whole territory there are areas, which are now heavily exposed to degradation and are low in nutrients.
One of the measures to restore the soil was seeding mountain areas. In Burovdal village, a nursery-garden was equipped, where endemic plant species such as cherry plum, wild rose, hawthorn, beech, eastern oak, sea buckthorn, mountain cherry, wild apple and others are cultivated.
"We transport the nursery plants to the highlands and plant them there. This helps to strengthen the soil, preventing the processes of further erosion and washout," says Eltekin Omarov. "The fences protecting the planted areas from livestock demonstrate how the vegetation is able to recover naturally, if it is given the opportunity."
A sainfoin plant is actively used for seeding. This is a leguminous plant, rich in protein, carbohydrates and amino acids, which can reach 70cm in height. Mixed with seeds of local plant species, it becomes valuable forage. One hectare of sainfoin can also produce up to 400kg of honey.
The head of Burovdal municipality Agami Agayev notes that in the times of collective farming in the Soviet period, farmers worked under a clear guidance, they knew exactly what and how to do.
"Today, the main problem is the absence of systematic planning," he says. "In recent years, experience has been lost, each farmer has his own chaotic methods, without adherence to any common action plan, sometimes without thinking either about the impact on the environment or about the future."
In the framework of the project, Azerbaijani farmers were offered to use a rotational grazing system. For this purpose, the grazing ground was divided by fences on sections of three-four hectares each for daily grazing. The system allows each piece of land to 'rest' for about two weeks, until a farmer passes the whole cycle with his herd and returns to the first section.
According to the project coordinator, in the near future seven most dynamic farms will be equipped with portable electric fences, which do not cause any harm to the cattle, but do provoke a reflex to stay away. This will facilitate the work of shepherds who will not need constantly to monitor the herd.
Local shepherd Khamis Miriyev is very positive about the work, carried out by the project in his home region: "After the installation of dividing fences, the tangible difference is visible. It is in our best interest to stop the soil degradation process on our native land."
"We did understand that there were problems with pastures, as there was less and less vegetation every year. But we didn't know what to do," says 35-year-old Khamis, who has been a shepherd since his childhood.
"If over the coming years we manage to slow down the degradation of soil in the highlands and to restore the vegetation, this will have a very positive impact on the local farms, and will open great opportunities for us," adds Khamis, who chose this profession as he considers it noble.
In addition to its primary objective to restore the soil on pastures, the Clima East project in Azerbaijan pursues an additional goal - to help farmers develop alternative activities that will bring them extra income in case they need to reduce the number of cattle.
This could be beekeeping, collecting medicinal mountain herbs, processing of fruits and selling them in the form of compotes, jams, and dried fruits.
According to the project coordinator, the beekeeping activity is of interest to many local farmers, because it does not require much time, and can bring real profit. Honey itself and other products such as propolis, pollen, bee venom, which have powerful healing properties, are in high demand.
"Within the project it is planned to organise simple sales points to allow local farmers to sell their products directly, bypassing dealers, who buy their goods for a pittance and resell at an exorbitant price," says Eltekin Omarov.
It is also planned to provide farmers with special packaging, which will contain product labelling, a logo of the village and the region. This will make products from the Ismayilli region more attractive and will increase their chances to be in demand in the capital, among locals and tourists alike.
"For us it is important that the farmers realise that their extra efforts will bring them real benefits," says Eltekin Omarov. "Our goal is to show them the perspective, give an incentive, motivate at the initial stage, so that in the future they can continue on their own."
The residents of the Ismayilli region already seem to be very interested. A local activist of the project, Badal Massimov, says: "Now, when we see the first results of our efforts, many local farmers have developed a passion for their work. And even after the project is finished, we will continue to do everything possible to use our land effectively but gently."
Author: Elena Ostapenko
The Clima East project is implemented by the European Union in all six Eastern Partnership countries - Azerbaijan, Georgia, Armenia, Ukraine, Moldova, and Belarus. With a total budget of 18 million euros, the project helps countries in the region to apply effective approaches to reduce the adverse effects of climate change and enhance adaptation to it.