10/19/2011 10:52 am ET | Updated Nov 25, 2011

Border Tensions Sit Uneasy With Enviromental Challenges

Azerbaijan celebrates 20 years of independence from Soviet rule this year and has made giant strides in this time. The priority has been economic growth and securing the prosperity of the country for the future. The economy has boomed to the benefit of both Azerbaijan and our trading partners. But one great challenge still remains: the protection of our rich and hugely diverse environment. This is true not only of Azerbaijan but also of our neighbours who make up this region.

Azerbaijan shares its borders with many different nations - Russia to the north and Iran to the south, with our western neighbours including Georgia and Armenia. A slim border strip joins the country to Turkey. And to the east, Azerbaijan shares the Caspian Sea not only with Russia and Iran but also with Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan.

Nonetheless, within all these borders, we all share this one common challenge.

As Professor RL Johnston, a leading British geographer, put it: "The environment knows no borders, but states do." A striking juxtaposition that captures the essence of the challenge facing the Caucasus and Caspian regions.

The challenge is complex. Border tensions sit uneasily with a shared dependency on and responsibility for natural resources.

Consider first the dominant environmental features of the region: the Caucasus Mountains (Greater and Lesser), vital for the safety and sustainability of water supplies for agriculture and industry as well as for drinking; and the Caspian Sea, on which five countries depend for trade routes, important commercial fisheries, and leisure.

Add to this a web of border tensions including Russia's with Georgia, Armenia's generations-old grievances against Turkey, and Azerbaijan's 1m internal refugees ejected from their homes by Armenian occupying forces and settlers. Not to mention the generally (and in some cases literally) poisonous environmental legacy of the last days of the Soviet Union, across the entire region.

Then take one highly specific issue: the near-extinction of the Caucasian Leopard. Once a common sight across the Southern Caucasus and beyond, this fabulous creature now exists only in small, isolated pockets.

The issues around the preservation of the Leopard are representative of the geo-political issues facing our entire region. With a natural territory of up to 80 square km, leopards may survive but cannot thrive in isolated safe areas. The flexibility to follow changing patterns of prey, or to make contact with other leopards and refresh a group's genetic pool, are essential. This requires substantial safe corridors linking different core habitat zones. In a region with extremely high levels of military presence at borders, the idea of safe cross-regional wildlife corridors is an immense challenge to the regions policy-makers.

On top of this add habitat destruction in the face of human development, the continued evidence of poaching, and the natural instinct of human rural populations to see these creatures as dangerous enemies and there is little wonder the Caucasian Leopard is in grave peril. In the face of such a mountain of difficulties, the rational question must be 'why bother?' Why not simply accept that this species may be on a one-way journey to extinction, like the Caspian tiger (once famed throughout the same region but extinct since the 1950s)?

There are two reasons why action on environmental issues of this kind matter. The first is a simple argument around preserving biodiversity. The leopard and other members of the 'Caucasian Big 5', gazelle, eagle, wolf and bear (some would add sturgeon to the list to make a big 6), are important species and their healthy survival should be seen as a litmus test of our ability to live in harmony with nature.

The second is that concerted multilateral action on environmental issues can be a precursor to joint agreement on issues which divide nations and threaten our economic prosperity and security. Earlier this month the five countries bordering the Caspian Sea agreed shared responses to potential oil spills and improved environmental monitoring across national borders. The agreement between Azerbaijan, Iran, Russia, Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan is legally-binding under a United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) Secretariat.

Ultimately it is only with such changed attitudes - not just in one country, but across our region's cultural, political and military dividing lines - that we can create the conditions for a sustainable future.

The international community - political as well as scientific - needs to understand that without true international dialogue, the scope for environmental action is dramatically limited. But with that dialogue comes unlimited opportunity that goes far beyond the future of one species.