Oil and gas economies are often perceived by conservationists to have diminished sensibilities towards the environment. However, the wealth generation in such economies can also create opportunities for conservation, as there is less incentive for excessive land-use and mineral revenues can lead to investments in environmental education. Some earlier research by Sven Wunder on oil economies and forest conservation indicated this prospect for countries such as Gabon. In other cases, oil economies such as the United Arab Emirates (UAE) have invested in niche projects which are meant to be prototypes for sustainability. For example, the UAE’s Masdar city initiative provides an example of linking higher education and research into sustainability with a residential development that is subsidized by extractive industry rents. Ultimately, the key success of such efforts will emerge if the lessons garnered through such initiatives can be up-scaled.
In this vein, there are some interesting lessons which can be garnered from Azerbaijan – a small post-Soviet country of around 10 million people nestled between the Caspian Sea and the Caucasus mountains. The country is often considered the cradle of human oil exploration as ancient fire-inspired faiths emerged from witnessing natural combustion of near-surface oil in the region more than 2 thousand years ago. However, the country’s oil is fast depleting and even optimistic estimates suggest that the most lucrative reserves will be depleted within the next 30 years. Azerbaijan’s government knows that in order to diversify its economy it must have a clean environment for other natural resource usages, and for attracting a service sector economy, particularly around transport and tourism. Cheap fuel days are also limited and so public transport infrastructure in the capital Baku are being developed alongside major infrastructure projects from ports to theaters that can support a service economy.
Alongside these brick and mortar projects, there is also a vitally important softer side to the country’s engagement with a more sustainable future – one which is being fostered through core environmental education and conservation projects. Through the patronage of Leyla Aliyeva, the Vice President of the Heydar Aliyev Foundation, the International Dialogue for Environmental Action (IDEA) initiative has been operational since 2011. This is a unique public-private partnership effort which involves conservation organizations such as the Worldwide Fund for Nature (WWF) and the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) to inculcate environmental education across the country. The initiative’s five-year progress report is a highly detailed document of accomplishments which are also aligned with the UN Sustainable Development Goals for the country.
IDEA’s programs start at the earliest levels of education and work their way up to secondary schooling and tertiary education. Its brand is now recognizable across the country from bicycle stands in cities to ministerial meetings. The campaign’s effectiveness is also demonstrated by the support for conservation areas being created across the country, including particular attention to the habitat for the highly endangered Caucasian Leopard, which was also the subject of a 2014 National Geographic Wild expedition and documentary.
Perhaps the next step for IDEA may well be to expand its dialogue to neighboring lands and to also realize the potential for environmental peace-building of its activities across borders. In particular, Azerbaijan’s fraught relationship with Armenia may be healed through environmental dialogue as noted in a recent book by Šárka Waisová since interactions on ecological issues inherently transcend political conflicts. More than a decade ago, Azerbaijan was the first country to be deemed compliant with the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (EITI). This heralded a bold commitment to citizen participation in using extractive industry revenues for more sustainable development and led to the development of important policies and procedures for managing the country’s Oil Fund. Although in March 2017 the country decided to withdraw from this process owing to some differences with the EITI board, the government’s commitment to programs such as IDEA is a hopeful sign of sustainable investments and citizenship engagement. Indeed, the IDEA campaign shows that Azerbaijan is very capable of engaging with public interest non-governmental organizations as demonstrated by its partnership with WWF, Panthera and IUCN. Scholars and practitioners such as myself who have visited the country recently are heartened by progress at multiple levels but there is no room for complacency. As the country further develops its plans for a post-carbon economy, the IDEA initiative in Azerbaijan has potential for much broader impact across various sectors of the economy and society — both nationally and regionally.