These issues are reflected in UN’s 17 Sustainable Development Goals.
Notably, Goal 6 is about efficient use of water resources and access to water and sanitation; Goal 13 concerns taking action to combat climate change; Goal 15 covers protection and restoration of land ecosystems, sustainable forest management, combat of desertification, and halting land degradation.
Projected by the United Nations until 2030, these goals are heavily jeopardized by Armenia’s occupation policy, which lasted almost 30 years and significantly disrupted the environment in South Caucasus.
Illegal businesses and exploitation of natural resources on the occupied territories resulted in a huge economic damage and numerous environmental ramifications.
Clearance and burning of forests, pollution of water resources, destruction of flora and fauna, and embezzlement of natural resources have upset the environmental balance. Unhindered degradation of nature caused a backlash on the part of environmental organizations even in Armenia itself.
The environmental consequences of an illegal economic activity on the formerly occupied territories of Azerbaijan are covered in Azerbaijan’s Foreign Ministry’s report titled “Illegal Economic and Other Activities in The Occupied Territories of Azerbaijan”.
The international law classifies any military occupation as temporary by default, nor does it provide for the acquisition of sovereignty over the occupied territory by the occupying country; therefore, the Foreign Ministry’s report writes, the legal status of this territory should not change due to the fact of the occupation.
The international law specifically prohibits any activities aimed at altering the legal system and changing the physical, cultural and demographic character of an occupied territory as any type of annexation is prohibited. Annexation resulting from a military aggression shall not be recognized.
Exploitation of the inhabitants, the resources or other assets of the territory under occupation for the benefit of the occupying power or its population shall not be permitted”, writes the report, referring to the international law practice.
In the case of Karabakh, however, these regulations represent no obstruction whatsoever to the occupying country.
The environmental impact has also been pointed out in various documents issued by international structures.
For instance, a country report by the Asian Development Bank for Azerbaijan writes that the aggression has resulted, inter alia, in degradation of lands.
The environmental damage to the region has been demonstrated by images, made by AzerCosmos and included in the 2019 report titled «Illegal Activities In The Territories of Azerbaijan Under Armenia’s Occupation: Evidence From Satellite Imagery“. The large scale of illegal economic activities across these lands is an evidence of significant investments made.
Once Azerbaijan gained victory the Patriotic War and liberated its territories, the government launched an assessment of losses Armenia had caused to Azerbaijan over the years of occupation in different aspects, environmental among them.
Azerbaijan has already maintained that it would demand, through international courts, compensation for damage both from Armenia and from international companies that had conducted illegal business in the previously occupied territories of Azerbaijan.
“Of course, the illegal exploitation of our natural resources is an undeniable fact. We have the names of companies. I must say that if the companies that illegally exploited our gold and other deposits do not pay compensation, this issue will go to court. If they do not deliver this compensation, all the cases will go to international courts, and they will be humiliated”, said Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev during the 6 January 2021 videoconference dedicated to the outcomes of the year 2020.
Destruction of Biodiversity
The formerly occupied territories of Azerbaijan were covered in total by nearly 260 thousand hectares of forests, which, however, have been rapidly reducing over the last 30 years.
Satellite images have shown ongoing deforestation on these territories; notably, large swaths of forest were chopped down to build a water canal near Sarsang Reservoir (Теrter District).
Azerbaijani Foreign Ministry’s report writes that valuable species (nut, oak, pine, persimmon, and other specially protected trees) were chopped down and felled timber delivered to Armenia to fabricate furniture, barrels, and rifle stocks. Thousands of hectares of forest were chopped down as new mines came onstream. Many species of trees are already on the brink of extinction.
The report also writes that illegal woodcutting on the occupied territories has also been confirmed by Armenian sources.
It is no coincidence that the furniture industry and exports have grown in Armenia in recent years, which is an indirect hint to them having used forests resources of Karabakh, choke-full of valuable tree species.
According to the Ministry of Ecology and Natural Resources of Azerbaijan, many species of trees and shrubs in Karabakh are on the verge of extinction: yew, storax, Araz oak, wing nut, oriental plane, common pomegranate, woodland grape, holly, box, pine, common persimmon, willow-leaf pear, etc. among them.
70 out of over 460 species of trees and shrubs in the region are endemic, that is, they do not grow naturally in any other part of the world.
The Foreign Ministry-reported list of companies engaged in deforestation and illegal timber trade on the formerly occupied territories includes Max Wood Ltd., a company registered in Armenia and founded by Mher Bagratyan and Enrique Viver Camin, a Spanish citizen. Camin set up a wood-drying operation in Koghb village in Armenia’s Tavush region, which caused serious damage to the regional environment by cutting down the valuable trees in the area.
With outstanding debts to the Armenian forestry service and protests of the local population, Camin relocated his wood business into then occupied territories of Azerbaijan. Foreign Ministry’s report quotes Harutyun Pambukyan, Member ofArmenian Parliament from then ruling Republican Party, who confirmed that Max Wood Ltd., with the efforts and direct participation of himself and his friends, had reached unprecedented agreements with several renowned European companies, such as Beretta and Browning, to send them wooden details for hunting rifles made from the roots of walnut trees.
The liberated territories host Azerbaijani natural reserves and wildlife sanctuaries with a total area of 43 thousand hectares, including the reserves of Basitchay and Garagol and sanctuaries Lachin, Qubadli, Arazboylu, and Dashalti. Before the occupation, they accommodated numerous species of flora and fauna, listed in the Red Book of the Republic of Azerbaijan, many of which have already been extinct.
According to Arzu Samadova, Director of the Biodiversity Protection Service under the Ministry of Ecology and Natural Resources, there are about 43,000 hectares of specially protected natural areas in the liberated territories, that is, 2 state reserves and 4 wildlife sanctuaries. They will be restored soon, she said in her 11 January 2021 interview with Trend. Work has already begun to assess the situation on these territories.
The unprecedentedly large-scale deforestation in Karabakh was even covered in the Armenian media.
For instance, Hetq reported in December 2019 that 2014-2018 had seen the so-called “NKR” (a separatist regime Armenia set up on the formerly occupied territories of Azerbaijan) felling 2.3 times more trees than in Armenia itself (404.8 versus 175.3 thousand cubic meters). 102,488 thousand cubic meters of woods was chopped down in Karabakh during 2017 alone. Hetq reported in November 2018 that 2012-2016 had also seen deforestation in Karabakh 2.3 times that in Armenia.
Over the entire 28-year span of occupation, Azerbaijani territories have been systematically subjected to arsons, which resulted in burning-out of lands and forest areas. These processes stirred up concerns across international organizations yet in early 2000s.
Pursuant to the UN General Assembly Resolution dated 7 September 2006 «The Situation in The Occupied Territories of Azerbaijan», the OSCE mission paid a 10-day visit to the region and assessed the environmental situation on the spot.
The mission provided its opinion as to the environmental and economic consequences of fires and the danger they pose to people’s health and safety. It made the following conclusion: the fires had covered extensive areas and inflicted significant damage to people, economics, and the environment.
According to the Ministry of Ecology and Natural Resources of Azerbaijan, deliberate fires on the occupied territories of Azerbaijan resulted in destruction of over 110 thousand hectares of areas. The fire destroys all living organisms together with fertile soils, grasses, and shrubs.
Images by AzerCosmos’ satellite, posted in the same report, show a 26 sq km scorched area, which encompasses the villages of Jilan and Bunyadli (Khojavend District) and the villages of Khalafli, Khibyarli, Kurds, and Garar (Jabrayil District). The report also provides the images of another 347 sq km area, which encompasses 25 villages in Fuzuli District; it spans 22 km from the south to the north and 17 km from the east to the west.
One of the last deliberate fire reports before the 44-day Patriotic War came out on 4 August 2020. The Karabakh bureau of APA reported Armenian forces had set fire to the area of Gizili Kengerli village in Agdam District of Azerbaijan.
The Patriotic War also saw acts of environmental terror.
On 30 October 2020, Azerbaijani Ministry of Emergency Situations reported that Armenians had used heavy artillery to shell Goygol and Goranboy districts of Azerbaijan, causing a fire across forestlands.
Azerbaijan’s officials and government agencies have repeatedly maintained Armenian military forces used white phosphorus munitions, which, apart from their poisoning and skin burning effect, creates fires that are very difficult to suppress. Phosphorus munitions represent one of the most dangerous warfare used to scorch enemy’s lands. It was not once that Azerbaijan National Agency for Mine Action (ANAMA, currently Mine Action Agency of the Republic of Azerbaijan) discovered them on the frontline during the war.
The use of phosphorus munitions against civilians, civilian facilities, and forests is prohibited by Protocol III to the UN Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons (1980), as well as by the 1977 Additional Protocols to the Geneva Convention for the Protection of Victims of War (1949).
The use of prohibited phosphorus munitions against the peaceful population of Azerbaijan has been reflected in the official letter Prosecutor-General of Azerbaijan Kamran Aliyev sent to UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet in November 2020. It was not once that Hikmet Hajiyev, Assistant to President of Azerbaijan, reported the use of phosphorus munitions by Armenia, providing photo and video evidences.
Deliberate burning of lands, forests, houses, and infrastructure across Nagorno Karabakh and adjacent districts have become a commonplace after President of Azerbaijan, President of Russia, and Armenian PM signed on 10 November 2020 the Trilateral Agreement to end the war in Nagorno-Karabakh.
Under this joint agreement, Kalbajar, Agdam and Lachin districts had to be returned under Azerbaijan’s control by 1 December 2020.
Armenian settlers, who had illegally resided on occupied historical Azerbaijani lands, were granted a few weeks’ time to pack their things and leave.
They picked and took away with them every little thing they could, up to window frames, toilets and overhead power cables. They also drove trucks laden with timber, burning every single tree they could not move.
Virtually each family burned its house and surrounding areas when leaving. That was especially so in Kalbajar and Lachin, which had been a place of choice for Armenian settlers; the fires raged across the region over the whole month of November.
This is evidenced by numerous reports provided by global media who were in the region at that time, including Reuters, BBC, StraitTimes, Euronews, France24, RBC etc.
Armenians even set on fire a power plant in Kalbajar. Some footages even showed Armenians killing the cattle they could not move away.
Another footage from Kalbajar shows hundreds of burning beehives.
Armenian settlers on these occupied lands have apparently lived up to the motto “Leave nothing to Azerbaijan”.
Contamination and Appropriation of Water Sources
Most of the rivers flowing through Azerbaijan originate in either Armenia or Karabakh. These water sources have been polluted by various wastes; according to the Azerbaijan’s Ministry of Ecology, pollution of River Araz has resulted in extinction and depletion of valuable fish species.
The almost 30-year long lack of control over formerly occupied territories has prevented Azerbaijan from discharging its obligations under the respective international conventions. The Ministry of Ecology maintains that Armenia not joining the UN Convention on the Protection and Use of Transboundary Watercourses and International Lakes makes it not possible to resolve transboundary watercourse issues in line with international regulations.
Seven relict lakes of high environment significance that are located in occupied territories suffered from a significant human impact. According to the Azerbaijan’s Ministry of Ecology, Armenian occupation had encompassed freshwater resources: Boyuk Alagol, Kichik Alagol, Zalkhagol, Garagol, Janligol, Ishigli Garagol (across yaylaks of Kalbajar and Lachin districts) and Garagol in Agdere District (Toragachay, a tributary of Terter River).
Armenian invaders had also seized 6426 km of irrigation canals, 185 km of headers and drain ditches, 1429 artesian wells, 539 waterworks, 220 HPPs, 88 pumping stations, and 8 water reservoirs with a total volume of 640 million cubic meters.
Formerly occupied territories also accommodated 10 water reservoirs, including Sarsang Reservoir on Terter River (currently in Russian peacekeepers’ zone of responsibility).
The 500 million cubic meter reservoir was originally designed for irrigation of 100 thousand hectares of farmlands in Lower Karabakh. Due to poor maintenance, it poses a threat to nearly 400,000 people living in piedmont and lowland areas of the region.
The Azerbaijani side has repeatedly maintained that Sarsang Reservoir is a potential source of humanitarian, environmental, and industrial disaster.
To make matters worse, Armenians deliberately released up to 85-90% of annual flow rate from the reservoir in the wintertime when it was not required for farming, and even flooded Azerbaijani villages downstream.
In the summertime, when water demand was supposed to be much higher, Armenians released only 10-15% of the annual norm, thus depriving farmers of water they needed so badly to irrigate their farmlands. Agricultural sector suffered as a result, and environmental tensions rose.
Here we are talking about water Azerbaijani government did a huge job back in 1970s to collect, as the Sarsang Reservoir construction was funded from the budget of Soviet Azerbaijan.
In 2016, PACE adopted Resolution 2085 titled “Inhabitants of Frontier Regions (lower Karabakh valley) of Azerbaijan are Deliberately Deprived of Water”. In view of a grave nature of this humanitarian issue, the resolution requested the Armenian authorities to cease using water resources as tools of political influence and grant access for independent engineers and hydrologists to the region to carry out a detailed on-the-spot survey.
The document also pointed out that the reservoir posed a danger to the whole border region. The Assembly emphasized that the state of disrepair of the Sarsang dam could result in a major disaster with great loss of human life and possibly a fresh humanitarian crisis.
It has been long years that Armenia has ignored both this and other resolution of international organizations.
It is noteworthy that this area is now within Russian peacekeepers’ zone of responsibility.
To makes matters worse, the puppet regime leader Araik Harutunyan announced early in August 2020 the commencement of the Sarsang Reservoir «water transfer program» in order to increase the irrigated territories and crops in the so-called unrecognized “NKR”. He branded his arrogation on occupited territories “the project of the century”.
On 28 August 2020, the Armenian side deliberately stopped the flow of Injasu River, which originates in Armenia and flows towards Gazakh District of Azerbaijan. This resulted in a significant reduction of water reserves in a reservoir in the frontier Kemerli village (Gazakh District), imminently disrupting farmland irrigation process.
Launching a counteroffensive on 27 September 2020, Azerbaijani army liberated Sugovushan village from occupation, thereby making it possible to supply water from the Sugovushan Reservoir. According to the Azerbaijan’s Ministry of Ecology, it was an important step towards irrigating Azerbaijani lowland districts and establishing the environmental balance.
Embezzlement of Natural Resources
During Armenian occupation Karabakh used to be a fertile ground for illegal activities of any kind over many years. Both government-backed Armenian companies and numerous transnational corporations used to conduct business in this gray area.
These businesses mostly operated in mining and telecommunication sectors.
Unsurprisingly, on occupited territory of Azerbaijan boast over 160 deposits of valuable metals, including 5 gold, 7 mercury, 2 copper, 1 lead and zinc, 1 coal, 6 gypsum, 4 vermiculite, 1 sodium carbonate, 12 colored and trim stones, 21 cover stone etc.
These resources used to be of great significance for Azerbaijan’s economic potential, but they have been illegally exploited by Armenians and sold overseas for many years. During the occupation, the Azerbaijani side could not conduct geological studies or use the rich mineral resource reserves of these lands.
While Armenia produced no more than 2 tons of gold per annum before 2002, its gold production jumped to as much as 3.2 tons in 2003. Occupied Soyudlu field (in Kalbajar district) alone yielded 2 and 2.5 tons of gold in 2003 and 2004 respectively.
This data was provided in an interview (December 2017) to 1news.az by Hikmet Hajiyev, then Head of the Press Service of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (now Aide to President of Azerbaijan Republic).
Illegal activities in the occupied territories and the exploitation of natural resources also raised a number of environmental concerns. The mining companies that acquire illegal “licenses” for exploitation of mineral resources in the occupied territories had poor environmental record in Armenia and continued the same depredatory practices in Karabakh, paying no regard whatsoever to the environment, Azerbaijani Foreign Ministry’s report writes.
Mining industry is infamous for its tailing dumps, which contain heavily contaminated waste that requires special treatment. According to the 2016 report, tailing dumps across Karabakh already contained at that time millions of tons of waste choke-full with heavy metals and other hazardous substances. Notably, three tailing dumps are located at the ore field in vicinity of Heyvaly (dubbed “Drmbon” by Armenians).
Some tailing dumps are located not far away from strategic water reservoirs, for instance Sarsang (which is in close proximity to Gizilbulag field tailing dump).
A gold mine tailing dump near Vejnali (occupied Zangilan District) is not far away from the Beshitchay State Natural Reserve.
Some 4 million tons of wastes have been accumulated in 2 tailing dumps in the course of 11-year operation of Gizilbulag field and the adjacent mining and processing plant near Heyvaly. The reports states that 20 to 30 hectares of forest were chopped down as part of prospecting operations.
Such illegal exploitation is reflected on AzerCosmos’ satellite images. Most of them demonstrate that illegal activities were conducted not only in NKAO itself, whitch had been licuidated, but also across the adjacent districts that had never ever seen Armenian population.
The report, for instance, provides images of a tailing dump near Gizilbulag gold and copper mine in vicinity of Heyvaly (Kalbajar District); captures extension of a tailing dump as a result of operations at Demirli copper and molybdenum mine (Terter District); devastation of forests as part of mining operations near Chardakhli village (Terter District).
The Foreign Ministry’s report writes that the exploitation of the natural resources accompanied by associated ecological disasters, such as tailing dumps and water pollution, has reached such a fast and unobstructed pace that even Armenia-based environmental organizations, including the Pan-Armenian Environmental Front (PAEF), raised red flag.
In 2012, Armenian journalist Armine Narinyan reported about death of fish in the Sarsang reservoir resulting from a leak of cyanides from the ore processing plant near Heyvaly.
The area sits on an earthquake fault line, so as a result of a potential earthquake or some other natural or manmade hazard toxic wastes from the structurally unsafe tailings at the dump could easily spill into the water reservoir.
The report also evidences that waters of the rivers in Armenia’s Syunik district, polluted with wastes from the Kapan Ore Processing Plant and Zangezour Copper and Molybdenum Combine and Artsvanik tailing dump, flow into the trans-boundary Okhchuchay River, which in turn flows into the occupied Zangilan district and the Araz River, thus creating environmental risks for numerous downstream urban and rural communities in Azerbaijan.
Environmentally irresponsible exploitation of natural resources in Nagorno-Karabakh caused a blast of criticism even from media outlets in Armenia. Hetq, for instance, wrote in December 2020 about Base Metals CJSC, a member of Armenian conglomerate Vallex Group (a major player in Armenia’s mining sector), which had for many years provided up to 35% of all payments to the budget of unrecognized “NKR”.
Once other copper deposits in Karabakh got depleted, Base Metals launched the development of Kashen copper and molybdenum deposit not far from Agdere in 2013. The company’s previous project, a gold and copper mine near Heyvaly (dubbed “Drmbon” by Armenians) 40 km away from Kashen, had been fully depleted over 10 years of operation.
A bright example of Vallex Group’s poor environmental image is the history of Teghut mine they developed in the north of Armenia, close to the Georgian border.
Following numerous protest actions, the company’s environmental noncompliance resulted in one of foreign lenders terminated co-financing of the project; in 2017, Denmark’s Export Credit Agency (EKF) decided to withdraw the loan they had previously issued to Teghut mine operator, accusing them of failure to comply with environmental standards.
In its statement, EKF cites issues with pollution of water in the area, seismic stability of the tailing dump, and poor labor conditions. Hetq also reported some 140 hectares of forest chopped down around the mine. The website quotes Davit Tadevosyan, the public relations officer of Vallex, according to whom there have been a few instances when water from the tailing damp was discharged, “but which did not cause pollution of the river in any way.”
Vallex Group is chaired by Russian businessman of Armenian descent Valery Mezhlumyan, one of tycoons who had until recently shared the sweetest pieces of Karabakh’s pie. Back in December 2014, Mezhlumyan was personally awarded by Serzh Sargsyan, the then President of Armenia, with the Medal of Merit to the Fatherland.
According to Hetq, the mining industry accounted for 13.7% (47 billion drams or $97.6 million) of the occupation regime’s budget. Asbarez reports that Karabakh mines have been the main driver behind the Yerevan’s puppet regime’s economic growth over the last few years. A 7% growth was recorded in January-September 2017 alone.
While plundering natural resources, devastating the occupited territories of Azerbaijan and involving foreign companies in this crime, Armenia sought to assert the fact of the occupation and nourished its hopes to get the occupation regime recognized by the international community. Exploitation of natural resources in Karabakh has been a source of enrichment for the Armenian elite for decades.
As the puppet has now lost control over the formerly occupied territories, left Base Metals’ operations completely paralyzed, Valeri Mezhlumyan and his partners in crime, Base Metals’ CEO Artur Mkrtumyan and Vallex Group’s investor, citizen of Switzerland Vartan Sirmakes have been put on the international wanted list by the Prosecutor General of Azerbaijan on the charges of illegal entrepreneurship.
Disposal of Radioactive Waste
Recent data show the growing role of Armenia in the smuggling of nuclear and radioactive materials and nuclear fuel waste, which increases the likelihood of the disposal of radioactive waste on the formerly occupied territories, in the gray zone, which until recently was outside Azerbaijan’s control.
Groups involved in the smuggling of radioactive materials with the participation of Armenian citizens have been repeatedly exposed in neighboring countries, in particular, on the border with Georgia. One of such cases was in November 2011, when security services apprehended four people following an attempted sale of radioactive strontium 90, a potential ingredient for producing a “dirty bomb”. Two more Armenian nationals were detained on the similar case in April 2012.
In 2010, Armenian nationals were arrested on the charge of smuggling of highly-enriched uranium to Georgia. Georgian police arrested four more people on suspicion of attempted sale of cesium 137, one of strongest biosphere contaminants. As of 2016, Georgian prisons held five Armenians charged with smuggling radioactive materials.
The illegal turnover of radioactive materials is a threat to the region as well as to the broader world, as they can be used to produce cheap nuclear warfare. During the 44-day Patriotic War, some people in Armenia suggested using the radioactive waste from the Metsamor nuclear power plant for military purposes against Azerbaijan.
Early in November 2020, Armenian political expert and Chairman of the Partnership for Democracy Center Stepan Danielyan suggested to spread the waste of the Metsamor nuclear power plant throughout Karabakh. At the end of November, the Armenian newspaper Asbarez published an article by Stepan Altunyan, who argued that it was time to use ‘dirty bombs’ against Azerbaijan and ‘turn Baku into a radioactive wasteland‘.
Such discussions continued even after the ceasefire arrangement was reached.
The use of radioactive wastes generated by Metsamor HPP for military purposes against Azerbaijan was discussed again at a higher level, when the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Regional Affairs and Eurasian Integration held it session on 12 January 2021, News.am reports.
Armenian MP Mikael Melkumyan from “Prosperous Armenia” Party, who chaired this Committee, asked whether it was feasible to do so. Akop Vardanyan, Deputy Minister of Territorial Administration and Infrastructure, replied that it is hypothetically possible, explaining that it can only apply to radioactive fuel kept in dry storages. The official, however, could not say whether Armenia was capable of making a scientific breakthrough and achieving this goal.
Over the years of occupation, the Armenian side never advised its neighbors as to the method and location of disposal of nuclear wastes. One can therefore suggest that they were also disposed in Karabakh, a gray area outside the jurisdiction of international law.
Metsamor nuclear plant in Armenia, which generates radioactive wastes, is by itself a source of concerns for the international community due to its outmodedness (it was built in 1976). The EU has repeatedly expressed its concern over this issue and suggested the plant is decommissioned, for a compensation. This item is one of priority deliverables of The Eastern Partnership Action Plan.
Article 42 of the Comprehensive and Enhanced Partnership Agreement between Armenia and the EU lists, among the conditions of cooperation in energy sector, the closure and safe decommissioning of Metsamor nuclear power plant to ensure the energy security across the region. The EU documents write that this nuclear plant cannot be upgraded to satisfy the international nuclear safety requirements.
In April 2011, National Geographic dedicated an article to operation dangers of the outmoded Metsamor NPP.
It highlights that, should an accident happen at the plant, it will affect not only Armenia but also other countries of the South Caucasus and the Middle East; for the power plant is located 120 km away from Azerbaijan and Georgia, 60 km from Iran and just 16 km from Turkey. Aggravating the risks is its location in a seismic zone.
The Armenian government has not taken any actions to date, only extending the NPP life through 2026; the plant is expected to remain in operation until 2046.
Armenia therefore remains a source of risk to environmental security in the entire region.