The call for increased and improved transboundary conservation in the Caucasus is loud and clear, says Svenja Fox of IUCN’s Caucasus Cooperation Centre. But are countries in the region ready to pull together to save nature and overcome political and cultural divisions?
The Caucasus is an internationally-recognized biodiversity hotspot and one of WWF's Global 200 Ecoregions, covering the territories of the three countries of the Southern Caucasus (Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Georgia) and also including parts of Russia, Turkey and Iran. The Caucasus is a region of geopolitical conflict and substantial economic pressure and is home to culturally and ethnically diverse nations.
Vashlovani National Park, photo by Svenja Fox
Here, not only biodiversity hotspots (the Caucasus and the Irano-Anatolian hotspots) converge and create a unique richness in endemic species, but also continents meet, cultures clash, and borders – at least partly – remain contested. The past experience of the Soviet Union and its ongoing legacies further contribute to this complexity.
Since 2006, the Caucasus Ecoregional Conservation Plan outlines objectives and actions for regional cooperation in nature conservation. The Caucasus Biodiversity Council, a regional body, has been established to promote transboundary conservation (TBC). With the Caucasus Nature Fund, a financial mechanism has been put in place, and institutions such as the Transboundary Joint Secretariat for the Southern Caucasus and the IUCN Caucasus Cooperation Centre offer valuable platforms for information exchange and sharing of experiences.
These initiatives have raised awareness of shared ecological features of the region and of common threats and challenges. However, not many concrete results have been achieved so far. At present, no transboundary protected areas (TBPA) have been established. According to several central actors from the region, positive examples of successful TBC yet remain to be seen. But there is no lack of vision and ambition, and small steps towards their achievement are constantly being made.
A number of sites for future TBC have been identified, mirroring the state of relations between the countries in the region. The proposed sites include collaborations between Georgia and Armenia (Samtskhe-Javakheti National Park and Lake Arpi National Park), Georgia and Turkey (Machakhela National Park and Jamil's Biosphere Reserve), and Georgia and Azerbaijan (Lagodekhi Nature Reserve and Zaqatala State Reserve).
The major challenges for regional cooperation and TBC obviously lie with political, and partly armed, conflicts. The situation between Armenia and Azerbaijan remains unstable; Georgia and Russia currently have no diplomatic relations. Historical legacies of past conflicts (as it is the case between Turkey and Armenia) equally perpetuate in the regional consciousness.
In some cases, the exact line of national borders is unclear, leading to a strategy of 'freezing the issue' and minimizing (environmental) cooperation in these areas instead of actively trying to resolve territorial disagreements. Differences in national environmental legislation and a lack of law harmonization more generally present obstacles to cooperation, as well as limited state budgets and the emphasis on economic development as the primary policy objective.
For the high mountain regions in the Great Caucasus, the prospect of effective TBC appears to be especially unlikely, as the largest parts of the Caucasus mountain ranges lie on the territories of the Russian Federation and Georgia. When it comes to ecological corridors as a tool in TBC, the process seems to still be in its infancy. Currently, a preparatory phase of identifying potential priority sites is underway, concrete corridor designation and implementation has not yet begun.
Laying the foundations
An approach that has proven fruitful in the past and continues being considered a helpful strategy by central actors is to simultaneously work at the national level in the individual countries and to prepare the ground for increased cooperation in the future. This includes the development of common monitoring and management systems and a regional harmonization in terms of problem definition, needs perception, and common understanding of objectives and actions.
Subsequently, this can allow the up-scaling to the bilateral and regional level. Input from global best-practice plays a valuable role in this regard but careful consideration of local specificities is crucial. At the same time, there is not only a need for increased connectivity and cooperation across borders: protected areas in the region are notoriously small and fragmented and the need to move “from islands to networks” also holds true within national boundaries.
The vision for improved transboundary conservation in the Caucasus ecoregion envisages:
• To continue current efforts and to increase the coverage and connectivity of protected areas, both at the national level and across borders.
• To decentralize the management system of protected areas in order to allow for a local adaptation of activities.
• To synchronize nature conservation on both sides of the border and to subsequently up-scale these initiatives to the regional level.
Three crucial factors in the particular context of the Caucasus are time, patience, and the intelligent design of solutions within the tight frame of actions outlined above. The advocates of TBC in this region need to prepare the situation on the ground and to seize the opportunities of future 'windows of opportunity', when the time is ripe!
Image via Shutterstock