Off the RECord


Off the RECord

REC Caucasus Regional Mandate Covering the Topic of Ecosystem Services in the South Caucasus

Natural heritage is precious and irreplaceable. Restoring and conserving our unique ecosystems needs our significant efforts and daily attention. We also need environmental actors, professionals to implement targeted efforts conserving the ecosystems and the natural heritage of the region. REC Caucasus is one of the key players behind numerous projects when it comes to environmental issues in the Caucasus region. Regional Environmental Center for the Caucasus (REC Caucasus) was established back in 1999 by the EU and the Governments of Armenia, Georgia, and Azerbaijan in the frame of “Environment for Europe Process.” The primary goal of the center is to work towards the solution of environmental issues in the region and serve as a bridge among the stakeholders to achieve maximum efficiency. The development of civil society in the three states is another mission of this regional organization. We talked to Ms. Nune Harutyunyan, Executive Director of REC Caucasus about the regional mandate of the organization with a particular focus on ecosystem services.

Interview : Margarit Mirzoyan    Photo : REC Caucasus


What are the results achieved by REC Caucasus on the regional level with a particular focus on ecosystem services? 

In 2009, we started implementing the “Support development of biodiversity conservation policies and practices in the mountainous regions of the South Caucasus” (TEEB) project. This was a pilot project, which was one of the first initiatives to introduce the idea of ecosystems in the region. The project was implemented in close cooperation with governments, civil society and scientific sector with a primary goal to build capacity in local communities to address biodiversity loss in forest ecosystems of the South Caucasus, and to raise awareness about the possibility of sustainable use of these ecosystems. It was financed from the grants of the Foreign Affairs Ministry of Norway. We analyzed the spectrum of ecosystem services we could have in Armenia, Georgia, and Azerbaijan and conducted several national and regional trainings, conferences and discussions, which resulted in the emergence of the idea to have a comprehensive regional platform. All three countries included in the project had the issue of biodiversity conservation in the mountainous regions, and in all of them there was a lack of awareness regarding EU environmental projects methodologies. Besides, there were very few economists\ecologists who could understand the valuation models of ecosystem services. In the last meeting in the frame of the project we discussed how we could promote ecosystem services and in which directions. One of the proposed ideas was about starting to use the non-timber forest products and the development of small and medium businesses in the communities, which would create work opportunities for the locals who, in their turn, would be eager to conserve nature from the economic perspective. In the three countries, afforestation and reforestation operations were initiated. We have also prepared the mapping of ecosystem services represented through GIS mapping tools. These are quite actual for more precise forest mapping in communities where we have actually worked and restored the forest.


Are these three countries the only participants in the projects?

In most of the cases all three South Caucasus countries are participating in the regional projects and this is the main idea behind cooperation platforms of RECC. We had another project on community forest management, which was again financed by EU. The project was called “Fostering community forest policy and practice in mountainous regions of the Caucasus” and, this time, Russia was among the participants. The overall objective of the project was to initiate a discussion on legal, technical and institutional systems of community forest management. It also aimed to demonstrate the best methods of reforestation and restoration of the areas damaged as a result of various natural disasters and undertake climate change adaptation in selected communities. Finally, the project had a mission to conduct capacity building and awareness raising initiatives for the ones who are responsible for the forest management. 


Interestingly, you have involved countries that are in conflict with each other: Georgia and Russia, Armenia and Azerbaijan... 

Indeed, however, cooperation succeeded. Adygea, Shahriyar, Racha and Tavush regions were selected, and together with our colleagues we conducted afforestation and reforestation measures as well as many visits and hands-on trainings on recovering the forests. We also developed a national guideline on community reforestation models, indicating how to manage forests and what practical knowledge is required for that. We also had a community forest management model regional guideline, which we developed with Mike Garford, who is an English specialist with profound experience. With the support of GIZ, we organized experience exchange study visits to the Hessen region, Germany, where we had a practical opportunity to study the model of community forest management used in there. The forest management model in their country is integrated into economic mechanisms and we can use these methods if we decide to have planted forests for business purposes. The main idea behind conservation and forest use is having a balanced approach, which allows foresters to plan and restore forest and limit its use for industrial purposes within legal and logical framework beneficial for society. We also have to keep in mind that the model is applicable for industrial forest use, while in our case, most of our forests have extreme biodiversity value in South Caucasus, since our region is one of the most unique biodiversity hotspots on this planet.


What are the challenges of working with the communities? 

First, it’s the lack of awareness regarding the importance of biodiversity and forest conservation. Then, there’s the lack of enforcement mechanisms for professional institutions which deal with control, monitoring, and data collection. 
Well, if we try to make the principles related to ecosystem services more practical, it might begin to work in some areas. People should understand that nature can help to upscale the economic conditions such as development of tourism and ecotourism. Environmental protection is not merely the function of the relevant ministry – it should be a process integrated across different bodies such as the RA Ministry of Territorial Administration and Infrastructure, the Urban Development Committee, the local self-government bodies, just to name a few. In terms of ecotourism, the RA Ministry of Emergency Situations should also be involved to ensure the safety of tours around the country. The Ministry of Agriculture, farmers and companies dealing with agribusiness: they all can take part in the successful organization of the community life. There is a need for an integrated and multifaceted approach. Another challenge is the condition of forests. Forests play a crucial role in helping us to adapt to climate change. We need to remember how vulnerable are forests. They get burned and it's hard to recover the forest cover. Decades are required to plant new trees, improve the soil, ensure watering and protection from diseases. Here again, the awareness plays a huge role for security and safety of forests, and protection from man-made disasters. So, there’s a massive importance of community involvement and ownership. For this purpose, we developed informative packs which we handed over to all the stakeholders, working with them for 8 years and explaining the value of forests and opportunities for small and medium business development for neighboring communities. Also, we produced a social video clip on the topic.


Did any of your projects in the region address the issue of land degradation? 

Yes, we had a regional project addressing this issue. Three countries teamed up to collect and examine the problems connected to soil degradation. Eventually, we came up with a report on the Analysis of Soil Erosion, where the causal link is described as well as the agricultural aspect and the soil pollution. The report was presented during our regional meeting. In the frame of the project, several other pilot initiatives were conducted in cooperation with several NGOs. As a result, Sustainable Land Management for Mitigating Land Degradation and Reducing Poverty in the South Caucasus Region report was compiled which later served as a basis for many other pilot initiatives. The report covered policy planning and regulatory policies, sustainable land use, socio-economic factors analysis, integrated natural resource management practical models and so on. We also developed sustainable land management plans, discussed them with LSGs and adapted to the needs and specificities of the communities. We study the EU’s experience in relation to land-use and land degradation. There are bilateral action plans that comply with EU documents and guidelines, which we tried to employ in 16 communities. In Tumanyan, Alaverdi and Aghtala communities in Armenia and several other communities in Georgia. 12 pilot projects have been implemented. 


Tell us about the purpose of the conference in Georgia and the results of this regional meeting. 

In 2017, in cooperation with GIZ, we conducted the “Media workshop for environmental journalists on land degradation topics.” As a result, journalists from all three countries learned about the concept of integrated biodiversity management. The issues related to soil erosion, degradation and further needs for professional training of media journalists were discussed. Representatives from the Ministry of Nature Protection, UNCCD and national UNCCD focal points attended the conference. The event also enabled many professionals to connect strengthening the network among them. 

Nune Harutyunyan, Executive Director of REC Caucasus


What about agrobiodiversity, climate change? Are these concepts of your particular focus in the frame of the regional mandate? 

We had a project related to agro biodiversity, involving several trainings and pilot projects. REC Caucasus has been one of the pioneers in the region of South Caucasus in terms of support to conservation of agro biodiversity. This initiative was funded by the EU and received support from GIZ through the IBiS regional programme The most important output of the project was the development of vulnerability profiles for climate change adaptation for South Caucasus countries and communities representing vulnerable points related to climate change and agro biological diversity. Later became a part of Georgia’s 2nd National Communication of climate change. We also had the document in our Armenian 3rd National Communication prepared by UNDP and in the 2nd communication of UNFCCC. The project was designed for arid and semi-arid regions. In Armenia, we implemented it in Vayots Dzor and in other three communities. In terms of climate change, we worked on “Regional Approaches on Climate Change” which is an interesting platform, addressing the identification and implementation of adaptation response to climate change impact for the conservation and sustainable use of agro biodiversity in arid and semi-arid ecosystems of the South Caucasus. However, the studies would need an updated data to restart the works, and conduct new pilot projects practicing new adaptation ideas for agro-biodiversity conservation.


What about the upcoming and ongoing projects? What are you currently up to? 

Recently, we had a project related to Green Economy, again a regional one. “Regional Resource-Efficient and Cleaner Production Demonstration” programme, which was funded by European Union in collaboration with UNIDO. The project took place in 2014-2017 and currently the project is launched again. Overall, the objective of the project was to improve the “environmentally responsible” performance and productivity of businesses and other organizations in the target industry sectors of the Eastern Partnership Economies. On more practical level, the purpose is to have clear production, which is a strong side of REC as we have a list of companies which have implemented and went through resource efficiency and cleaner production audits. More than 90 audits have been implemented, and we also worked on the creation of agricultural, chemical, and construction products using cleaner methodologies, technological change, improved environmental and health conditions. Based on our experience we produced many publications, among others a guide for producers called “RECP Primer” which serves as a guide for those interested in green economic tool and practical approaches ensuring resource efficiency, economic savings and reduced waste. We also created Green Clubs in the regions and the members of these clubs had participated in trainings on various environmental topics. The last component was the assistance in the development of action, which would enable to integrate efficient resource management in the production. Based on our recommendation, new innovative products and approached were developed from the side-products and waste, which resulted in the revenue upscaling of the given company. We have an upcoming regional project of UNDP GEF covering the mapping of forest areas and the establishment of information database on forest cover in all three countries. Key partners of this project are the World Resource Institute, Ministry of Environment, Forest Committee, and “Hayantar” SNCO. Two stakeholder discussions regarding this project have already taken place in each of the countries, we have included suggestions and recommendations of our stakeholders, and will follow-up on them during the project implementation.

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