Ogtay Ganiyev finds it hard not to live in the mountains. “These people are simple, honest and hardworking. From birth the mountains have been my home. If I don’t see them, I am missing them,” he says.
Ogtay remembers skittering around like a mountain goat as a youth in his remote village of Burovdal, in Azerbaijan’s Caucasus Mountains. It requires sure-footedness to reach Burovdal, which has a single road so narrow that it looks more like a small driveway. But the reward upon arriving at the foot of Babadag, one of Azerbaijan’s tallest mountains, is breathtaking views.
Hills and mountains have historically been home to the most equitable societies in terms of wealth distribution; as a result, some of the world’s harshest environments are, for humans, some of the most nurturing.
Farmers in the region use their pastures and forests for cattle breeding, making honey, foraging for wild plants foraging, and producing berry and fruit juices. Many of these resources come from the commons. Unfortunately, rural families face serious constraints in making money from their products and marketing them successfully. There is also a lack of certification processes and marketing skills.
Historically the communities of the Ismayilli and Shamakhi regions have relied heavily on animal husbandry as their primary income — and this led to overgrazing.
A viable alternative
The GEF-funded Sustainable Land and Forest Management in the Greater Caucasus landscape (SLFM) project has been addressing this.
To help farmers to diversify, the project promoted other ways of making a living, such as beekeeping. In partnership with the Ministry of Ecology and Natural Resources, and through the Azerbaijan State Agency for Public Service and Social Innovations — Support to Family Business (ABAD), the project offered small family businesses new ways to broaden their economic pursuits and deliver goods to the market.
Sixteen families received help to develop their businesses. With support from UNDP and ABAD, these family businesses also got critical new equipment and have become officially registered businesses, complete with six newly-certified brands.
Through ABAD’s wide range of sales and distribution channels, these families will continue to capitalize on their produce not only within Azerbaijani markets, but internationally. At present, six honey brands that are produced are stocked by both the ABAD handicraft stores and the Bravo hypermarket chain.
What’s in a name?
“As our business is growing, we have now reduced the number of animals we normally kept,” Oqtay says. “We no longer feel that we should necessarily depend on cattle breeding that much, as we get more profits by producing and selling honey.”
Zahid Mammadov, a beekeeper from the Ehen village in Ismayilli concurs: “Throughout several generations, our family was engaged in beekeeping. But this was not enough to support us financially, and we had to use other means, such as cattle breeding, in order to meet the family’s growing needs. When the news reached us that UNDP and ABAD were organizing community groups to help promote local business practices, we contacted them right away and started our co-operation.”
According to initial estimations by ABAD, each family will earn around US$234-$350 per month during the first farming season for the honey products sold through ABAD distribution channels, with a dramatic increase in the following year as the honey reaches international markets.
UNDP estimates that through additional distribution beekeepers may earn US$1000-$1500 per month.
As well as earning extra money, having connections to national markets also means the villagers feel less cut off from the world.
New co-operatives were provided with specialized equipment, including hive tools, bee gloves, frames and boxes, among other beekeeping supplies. To diversify income streams, farmers are taught to trap pollen, and produce beeswax with wax processing machines provided by the project. The additional equipment has increased efficiency and quality.
“To me, the best part of this project is in its ability to transform the lives of ordinary people. The social factor, so to speak. In the past, rural farmers were heavily dependent on cattle breeding as their only source of income, but now they have learned how to make a living by doing a less labour-consuming job than before. By helping communities explore opportunities within the agricultural sector, it’s fascinating to see people becoming happier and the planet greener,” says Zaur Aliyev, SLFM Project Manager, UNDP Azerbaijan.
Blossoming mountain potential
In the mountains surrounding Burovdal a broad array of flowers bloom from May to September dotting the countryside with delicate splashes of color.
Two hundred hectares were planted with seeds that help limit erosion and help the bees thrive. High mountain flowers are known for their high fructose content and result in tasty honey.
Five other families in Oqtay’s small community have also shifted to beekeeping rather than the intensive and destructive livestock overgrazing. A viable beekeeping industry means villagers don’t have to leave home to find work.
“My son used to work at a factory, but now he’s come back. Helping and learning,” Oqtay says.
The project helps communities in the high mountain villages of Ismayilli and Shamakhi, primarily farmers and pasture users, diversify and reduce pressure on pasture. The villagers now have the marketing skills to sell their products both domestically and internationally.
In addition to economic benefits, the connections to national markets also means remote villages are more connected to the outside world.
For more information on the project, view the project profiles for the Sustainable Land and Forest Management in the Greater Caucasus landscape and the Clima East Pilot Project in Azerbaijan.
For more information on ABAD -http://abad.gov.az/en
Photos by UNDP Azerbaijan/Andrea Egan. Photo Editing by Rico Cruz, photography intern at UNDP New York.