Azerbaijani activists score rare win against development
The seashore at Buzovna, once one of Azerbaijan’s iconic landscapes, had been closed to regular people as beachfront property owners fenced it off. Now locals have managed to get some beach back.
Buzovna, a seaside village on Azerbaijan’s Absheron peninsula, used to be known as Azerbaijan’s “Hollywood” due to the many scenes that the local film industry shot on its signature rocks. It also was a beloved local recreation spot, where people spent their childhoods playing on the beach.
But for nearly two decades, locals haven’t had access to the seashore: Owners of homes on the prime real estate along the beach have over the years erected a series of fences and concrete walls shutting off “their” section of the beach to anyone else.
“People couldn’t go to Karabakh for 30 years because of Armenian occupation. But these areas [along the seashore] are occupied by our compatriots – this is even more outrageous,” said Seyfulla Azer, a 34-year-old Buzovna resident.
It wasn’t the only such area to be blocked off. Other villages on Absheron, including Garadagh, Pirshagi, or Zagulba, also have seen the land become informally privatized. It is against the law: Azerbaijan’s land code stipulates that the Caspian Sea shore, 20 meters inland from high tide, “cannot be privatized and only by the decision of the relevant executive authority can it be utilized and rented.”
This summer, a group of local activists, led by Azer, was finally able to do something about it.
In early June the group posted a video report, appealing directly to President Ilham Aliyev. “We want to express our regret that this unique nature is being fenced, occupied, and more sadly, destroyed by various individuals,” the report stated. The video showed birds-eye views of 15 privately built fences and walls along the Buzovna shore. “Mr. President! We ask you to help us gain the freedom and rehabilitation of the sea rocks.”
Azer also met with officials from the presidential administration and presented them with their findings and appeals.
Shortly thereafter, on June 22, government workers began knocking down the fences along the seashore in Buzovna. Pro-government media – which had rarely mentioned the problem of the illegal privatization or the activists’ efforts to do something about it – covered the news enthusiastically.
In July, Aliyev himself touched on the issue. “Recently, a group of members of the public appealed to me that the Buzovna rocks, which have a long history, have been occupied by some people. I immediately instructed the head of the Baku City Executive Authority to investigate this matter and report to me. Very large violations were found. Who committed these illegal acts? Government officials and some so-called entrepreneurs! We have a list of them,” Aliyev said.
“It’s a crime against history, against our nature. These rocks are a symbol of Baku, these rocks reflected the beauty of our coast for centuries. People used to walk on these rocks, films were shot there. Someone invades it, breaks them, builds a villa for themselves,” he added.
Soon enough, many of the barriers indeed disappeared and Buzovna residents again were able to visit the beach. “We came here in the summer, dived into the sea, walked on rocks. We couldn’t do this for years. Some of us even cried,” Azer recalled.
There were some unhappy discoveries, too: There used to be a lake near the seashore, where various wild birds including swans lived. Years ago the land surrounding the lake was fenced off and made into a private resort. When the fences around the resort were knocked down, locals found that the lake had dried up or been drained, and the swans had disappeared.
"This shore is like an ill human,” said another of the activists, Elshad Asgarli. “There are times you could see someone you know, who is now sick but was very healthy and fit back then, and you feel pity for the person. This shore is just like that.”
And the work was still only partially done. Of the 15 barriers shown in the initial report, only nine had been completely torn down; two were partially demolished and four were untouched, the group said in a second report posted in October. “These structures are still imprisoning the million-year-old rocks that by law are state property,” the narrator says.
The activists told Eurasianet that those property owners whose fences weren’t knocked down might have somehow acquired documents allowing them to keep the fences. “The local government can’t say anything to these owners because they have documents. But no one asks them by what means they have acquired these documents,” Asgarli said. The activists’ work is complicated by the fact that property ownership records are not public, meaning that it’s impossible to identify who owns a particular house.
The press service of the Baku City Executive Authority did not respond to Eurasianet’s calls.
In addition, the authorities left the rubbish from the barriers they did knock down, leaving it to locals to clean up the debris. “The Executive Authority left this garbage here and left. But we, as Buzovna residents, cannot close our eyes to this immoral behavior done against our home,” Azer said. “I want to spend time with my family on these rocks. But I don’t want these pieces of glass to cut my kids’ legs when they play, I don’t want them to trip on these stones and bricks.”
Activists have been organizing cleanup events every Sunday where volunteers can come and help.
At the 18th such event, on November 6, a hardy group braved wind and rain. Every daily campaign has its own name, and this one was dubbed “I planted so my roots will remain,” a play on an old Azerbaijani proverb, “I built so my trace will remain.” The name was chosen because on this particular day, the activists brought trees to plant.
“We are planting trees that match the eternal soul of Buzovna – fig, olive, jujube, silverberry,” Azer said.
Azer estimated that at the pace they are going, it would take them six years to complete the cleanup. Another member of the group chimed in with a joke: “Six years from now, Seyfulla will post on Facebook: the 280th Cleaning Day! Join us!”
Meanwhile, other seaside sites where barriers have been built remain blocked to the public.
“Sometimes fellow residents from Shuvalan or Pirshagi would write comments like, “why are they [the authorities] not doing that [knocking down fences] in our villages?” Asgarli said. “What they don’t realize is, you can’t just sit back and expect action,” he said.
Heydar Isayev is a journalist from Baku.