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Caucasus: Robust Nature Conservancy Blossoms In South

The Southern Caucasus republics -- Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan -- are still struggling to adapt to the new era that emerged from the collapse of the Soviet Union more than a decade ago. Like other countries in transition, the priority in the Caucasus has been on how to achieve working political and economic systems amid poor infrastructure and fragile social and ethnic situations. Despite the region's practical difficulties, however, a robust nature conservation movement has emerged.

Prague, 15 January 2004 (RFE/RL) -- Set between the Black Sea in the west and the Caspian Sea in the east, the Caucasian landmass forms a bridge linking the vast European territories of Russia and Ukraine to Iran, Turkey, and the lands of the Near East.

As befits a bridge between two worlds, the Caucasus is a mix of diverse cultures, with vivid traditions drawn from both Christianity and Islam. Prone to earthquakes, the region is also highly volatile in human terms, with unresolved conflicts or tensions stretching from Chechnya to Nagorno-Karabakh.

A unifying factor is the natural beauty of the Caucasus, from its snow-capped mountains to its plains and forests. Some 20 percent of the Caucasus is still afforested, with Georgia having the most woodland -- 40 percent of its territory. Some 12 percent of Caucasian woodlands are pristine, meaning they have never been logged, an increasing rarity.

These forests, therefore, are of high natural and scientific interest. For instance, Georgia alone has 400 tree types, one-quarter of which are found only in that country. Of its five varieties of oak, four are found only in the region.

There are also treasure troves like the broad-leafed woodlands in western Georgia bordering Russia and also Turkey, and also in Azerbaijan bordering Iran. These forests feature many relict plant types dating from the Tertiary Period about 1 million years ago, and which survived the Ice Age because of their sheltered positions.

These precious forest areas are now under increasing threat. Controls in the post-Soviet era have been too weak to deter illegal logging, sustainable forest management has been lacking, and poaching and forest pests are a problem. Farming and oil-industry development have also proceeded with scant regard for nature conservation. The region's economic troubles have also had some unusual side effects -- for instance, conservation activists say the consumption of firewood for domestic purposes is now five times as high as it was in Soviet days.

But there is a robust conservation movement operating to save the forests. In fact, the Caucasus can be seen as an example of international cooperation in nature preservation, with Germany, France, the United States, Switzerland, Japan, Turkey and institutions like the World Bank all lending support in one way or another.

The result, says Nugzar Zazanashvili, the Tbilisi-based conservation director of the World Wide Fund for Nature's (WWF) Caucasus office, is that some 8 percent of Georgia's forests is now held within protected areas. And he says things are likewise progressing in Azerbaijan:

"We are rather successful [in Georgia] in this field of developing protected areas systems. Also in Azerbaijan now, the government is actively engaged in enlarging existing protected areas," Zazanashvili said.

Zazanashvili says the World Bank has projects in Georgia and lately in Armenia to strengthen sustainable forest management techniques. And he says the WWF is pursuing a related aim: "Our effort is now concentrated on identification of high conservation value forests outside protected areas."

The idea is to develop sustainable forestry techniques in such areas, and the WWF-Caucasus has a joint pilot project with its sister organization in Turkey, and with the Turkish government, involving cross-border forest management.

In another effort, the Swiss government is supporting a project on the sustainable use of medicinal forest plants. There is also a project underway in Georgia to develop what are being called "community forests," in which efforts are made to improve the lives and economic opportunities of local people, and to give them a stake in the preservation of the forests.

In addition, there are moves afoot to develop eco-tourism, particularly with the support of the German government. But Zazanashvili says much depends on political stability in the Caucasus. A start to eco-tourism has already been made, with hundreds of tourists last year visiting the Borjomi Kharagauli National Park, where bunkhouse accommodation and horse-riding facilities have been provided.

Zazanashvili is optimistic about prospects on the conservation front: "Today, we have an absolutely different picture from the one we had even five, six, or seven years ago, when the situation was absolutely dramatic. There was absolutely uncontrolled logging, openly in protected areas. Now, the situation is much better."

One coming danger is the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan oil pipeline, which is scheduled to be built soon through Georgia's Borjomi Gorge, next to the national park, which is a sensitive ecosystem producing mineral water known for its medicinal qualities.