Caspian Shoreline Plundered

Illegal sand extraction on Azerbaijan’s Apsheron coast is a profitable business for boomtown Baku’s building industry.

Caspian Shoreline Plundered

Illegal sand extraction on Azerbaijan’s Apsheron coast is a profitable business for boomtown Baku’s building industry.

Thursday, 1 September, 2005

Azerbaijan’s Apsheron coast on the Caspian Sea was once renowned for its fabulous beaches and holiday homes. Today it looks more like a bombsite.

The beaches on the Apsheron peninsula are located conveniently close to Baku and their golden sands have become a target for people wanting to turn a quick and easy profit.

Large-scale housing projects in Baku have led to an increased demand for sand used in the construction industry.

Apart from the damage done to the beaches themselves, the extraction is also causing degradation to the 15 kilometres of fertile coastal lands, encompassing the villages of Nardaran, Mashtaga and Kurdkhani, which boast the best local varieties of grapes and figs.

In Nardaran, IWPR’s correspondent came across 12 men digging a pit outside one of the holiday cottages or “dachas” that are common here. The hole was huge - 250 by 70 metres. At the bottom, ten metres down, the team had already reached the water table.

The men were loading the sand they had dug out onto a truck. A mature fig tree, heavy with ripe fruit, had been ripped up by the roots to make way for the truck. All that remained was a spider’s web of roots in the hole.

The men said they get paid between 10-20 US dollars a day for their labour.

The owner of the land where the excavation was taking place, a bearded man of about 40 wearing shabby clothes, told me, “I have to sell sand from my own front garden just to feed my family. There are no jobs here.”

Another man, in his late forties, whom everyone called Mashadi because he had made the pilgrimage to the Shia shrine of Mashad in Iran, was picking figs off the felled tree. He offered some to IWPR’s contributor - they were truly delicious.

“What do you think?” asked Mashadi, and answered his own question, “They’re sweet as honey!”

He tried to justify what his neighbours were doing to these valuable orchards, saying, “What can we do? We have no choice. It’s true that figs fetch 2,500 manat [approximately 50 US cents] a kilogramme at the market, but the season only lasts one month. There’s demand for sand all year round.”

Despite having no official licence, the team carried on working in the pit, uprooting the remaining trees.

But when they heard voices from above ordering them to stop, they ran off in different directions. Two police officers stood at the top looking down into the pit. They were swearing and waving threateningly, demanding that the workers get out.

"They are completely brazen about it. No matter how many times we come after them, it makes no difference. These people don’t even sleep at night ", said Sergeant Ali Azimov.

Azimov said that there were over 70 illegal sand-pits around Nardaran alone, and that while their owners are detained repeatedly, they just pay the fines and start again.

“We do our best to fill in the pits using tractors but the local residents just dig them up again and excavate the sand,” he said. “We have very little leverage over them. All we can do is fine them, and that isn’t a sufficient deterrent.”

Sergeant Azimov showed IWPR several illegal excavation sites to show how much harm this illegal plundering does to the natural environment. There was illegal quarrying going on in eight of them.

Although Azimov dispersed the workers, no one was arrested. Asked why this was, Sergeant Azimov indicated that police had adopted a hands-off approach to avoid a repetition of the violence seen in Nardaran in 2002, when one civilian was shot dead and 37 others were wounded after security forces moved in to break up crowds of demonstrators.

At the time, the Azerbaijani government blamed Islamic extremists for provoking the trouble. While Nardaran’s 8,000-strong population are known to be particularly devout Muslims, the protests appeared to be driven by the economic difficulties they faced.

In particular, they were concerned that questions were being asked about activities, including illegal fishing and stealing electricity from the national grid to heat local greenhouses, to which people had turned in the face of high unemployment.

“We’re dealing with the same problem again today, but in a slightly different guise,” said Sergeant Azimov. “If we increase the pressure on them there’ll be demonstrations and disturbances all over again.”

Tahir Poladov, of the Baku Revival Union, a non-government organisation which does ecological research, accused police of failing to take action to stop the pillaging of Apsheron’s sand.

“We’ve written letters to the police authorities and to all other official bodies. They simply turn a blind eye to the problem,” he said.

According to Poladov, one 50 kg bag of sand fetches 4,000 manat, about 80 US cents. An estimated 150-200 truckloads are shifted from the Apsheron coastline every day, meaning that the business is worth close to three-quarters of a million dollars every month.

Poladov believes that if quarrying continues at this rate, the Apsheron peninsula will become a “dead zone” in a matter of years.

Where there were once beautiful orchards there are now bogs overgrown with reeds. The holes that scar the beaches lie below sea level, so they quickly fill up with water and turn into marshland.

The head of the Centre for Ecological Forecasting, Telman Zeinalov, said that excavation of sand from the Caspian coast could have much wider consequences, with complete flooding of these coastal areas.

During a visit to the area, Azerbaijani president Ilham Aliev instructed the Baku mayor Hajibala Abutalibov to address the illegal sand excavation problem.

But many local people are unconcerned that their sand is disappearing. “Some people sell our oil and live like kings, and we sell our ancestral sand to make a crust,” said 52-year-old Alibala Agababaoglu from the village of Mashtaga.

It may be a profitable business, but according to one expert, Apsheron sand is not the right grade for the construction industry, raising questions about the strength of the buildings in which it is used.

“Caspian sand contains salt, and sometimes also soil mixed in from the dacha gardens too,” said Shakir Agaev, a 47-year-old construction expert. “Baku is an earthquake-prone zone and using this kind of sand for construction is not advisable. Sand from riverbeds is made entirely of ground stone and is regarded as the highest-quality building material."

Mursal Guliev, a 39-year-old refugee from the Agdam district, close to the disputed territory of Nagorny Karabakh, is building himself a house in Sulu-Tepe, a village in the Binagadi district of Baku. He has neither the time nor the money to heed such expert advice.

Breaking off a piece of hardened plaster from a wall, he said, “What can an earthquake do to this? It’s as hard as rock. Besides, one truckload of sand from the river is almost twice the price of Nardaran sand. River sand is for millionaires."

The ministry for ecology and natural resources refused to comment publicly on this situation. However one official there who wished to remain anonymous told IWPR that the ministry is simply unable to control or stop the illegal sand trade.

Idrak Abbasov is a correspondent for Aina-Zerkalo newspaper in Baku.

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