“I suffer from gastro-intestinal tract problems and my kids suffer from allergies. All of it is because we are surrounded by poison.”
Kamal Jamalov, 55, is a refugee from Kalbajar who says he moved to the Yevlakh region in Azerbaijan in 1994 during the Nagorno-Karabakh war. He has three children and two young grandchildren, ages 3 and 1.
He doesn’t know which poisons surround his home. He and his neighbors think it is DDT and magnesium chloride. He says he didn’t realize there were obsolete Soviet-era pesticides until he started raising cattle.
“To be honest, there is not much normal grass; there is mostly shrubbery,” Jamalov said. “The main source that poisoned cattle is the water they drank from the ponds after it rained.
“We realized that something is wrong here. After a while we heard rumors from local people that this place used to be a pesticide storage area.”
A reporter traveled to 11 sites in all corners of Azerbaijan. The stories mostly sound the same: soil, air and well water that make people feel sick, and little or no local knowledge of what poisons have been stored.
There is also a failure of government to act. The Ministry of Ecology and Natural Resources and the Ministry of Agriculture’s Food Safety Agency disagree on who is responsible for monitoring and cleanup.
The Soviet Union used pesticides heavily against viruses, weeds and rodents in a socialist economy based on reaching production targets.
According to a 2004 report entitled “WHO DID THIS? The International POPs Elimination Project “Pesticides: A Real Threat”, aldrin, chlordane, DDT, dieldrin, dioxins, endrin, furans, heptachlor, hexachlorobenzene (HCB), mirex and toxaphene were the main agricultural persistent organic pollutant (POP) pesticides used in Azerbaijan during the Soviet Union era. (POP) are sometimes called “forever chemicals” because they don’t break up and dissolve easily.
During the 1970–1990s, cotton plantations of 100,000–300,000 hectares received intensive applications of POPs pesticides (IPEN 2006). These pesticides have migrated through water and air to the remote areas in small agricultural villages and provincial towns throughout Azerbaijan.
A 2019 Toxic Site Identification Program (TSIP) identified 70 agricultural pesticide pollution sites in Azerbaijan, 20 within residential areas and 50 actively being used as pastures. There are five sites that were used for crop dusting planes. These sites are in rural areas and now being used as crop fields, pastures and playgrounds. TSIP samplings confirmed that at many sites, winds readily carry dry DDT powder and dust over houses and water sources.
The TSIP assessments confirmed that there are high DDT concentrations at rural sites varying between 1,000 and 9,500 milligrams per kilogram of soil.
Investigations since the breakup of the Soviet Union state that adults regularly exposed to pesticides get sick twice as often and face a life expectancy 7-10 years shorter than adults not exposed.
There are higher rates of infertility, birth defects and cancer. There’s higher risk of allergies, anemia, gastrointestinal tract diseases, hepatitis, cirrhosis, and immune and endocrine system diseases. The risks of serious disease double if the pesticides are outdated. Children under 14 also face higher illness rates .
The International POPs Elimination Project has done huge research on Soviet-era pesticide use. Olga Speranskaya, director of the Chemical Safety Program for Eco-Accord, wrote that due to poor safety rules for pesticide use, transportation and storage in Azerbaijan, gastrointestinal disorders, skin diseases, nervous disorders and respiratory diseases result. Women and children are particularly affected.
According to the report, these health problems are caused by consumption of contaminated drinking water or agricultural products. Rural residents, who cultivate cotton, vegetables, grapes, vegetables, tobacco and other crops are the most heavily affected.
The European Union has set a goal to stop using pesticides by 2050.
Jamalov knows it is a dangerous place to live. “The poison is right at the surface,” he says. “There is a horrible smell when there is wind or rain. It’s impossible to breathe.”
Sayat Ibrahimova, 59, lives nearby with her sister, who has an 11-year-old child.
“My eyes are watery all the time,” she said. “If you check, you will find allergy medications in every corner of the house. No one should live in this kind of place.”
There are five families living close to the 3-4 hectares of polluted land in Yevlakh along with farm animals and poultry. During the Soviet era this land was known as the Rural Chemical Union.
The Gilan Tannery Leather produces leather nearby. It’s a branch of Gilan Holding, a huge conglomerate whose ties to the two daughters of Azerbaijan president Ilham Aliyev were uncovered in an OCCRP investigation.
The Yevlakh regional governor’s office said it has no information on the polluted land. Mahabbat Humbatov, deputy head of the Yevlakh Regional State Committee for Refugees and Internally Displaced Persons, said this land belongs to the State Property Committee.
“These places are unsuitable for living; they are very poisoned,” Humbatov said. “New buildings will be constructed so these people can move out of here. We already have sent photos of the place to our head office.”
Pure Earth is an international organization that identifies contaminated sites where public health is at risk. A 2018 report on Azerbaijan focused on abandoned storage sites.
According to Pure Earth, there was a reading of 12.1 milligrams of pesticide per kilogram of soil at this Yevlakh site.
Other sites checked by a reporter:
There are two major sites. At present one is still used as a storage base for the Agrolizing Open Joint Stock Company (OJSC), a Ministry of Agriculture subsidized corporation founded in 2004 by decree of president Ilham Aliyev.
The company specializes in sales, leasing and rental of agricultural machinery to individuals and companies. The company also sells pesticides, agrochemicals, natural seeds and genetically modified seeds. Between 2005 and 2016, Aqrolizinq received approximately 360.1 million manat (about $US212 million) from the national budget.
There are dozens of employees. Fariz Nuriyev, deputy chief at the site, knows residents are unhappy. “People complain that children and elderly people suffer from nausea and dizziness due to the smell,” he said.
Another employee interviewed says he doesn’t know what the land was used for originally. He says that about six months ago, employees from the Food Safety Agency (FSA) came and asked questions: “They told me they would take some samples for examination; I have no idea what they talked about with the administration and what they actually did.”
A second old storage site is located within 50 meters of houses in the village of Mususlu. Residents call it “the poisoned area.” But they do not know how toxic it is.
“All what we have heard so far from our fathers was that this place is poisoned. We don’t know who has done it,” says Elkhan Mammadov. He says kids play all day on the site and cattle walk through on the way to pastures.
Mususlu village chairman Tahir Karimov says the site was used for pasture before the Soviets began storing pesticides. One large building remains.
The odors seem to be a combination of chemicals and dead animals. “The smell is unbearable,” Karimov said. “Nothing really grows there. It’s also alongside a railway.
“Years ago, Ministry of Emergency Situation employees came here and covered the area with fresh soil. But the storage ruins are still here.”
According to Pure Earth, there was a reading of 870 milligrams of DDT per kilogram of soil at this Mususlu site.
Ahmedli village, Beylagan region
There’s a 14-hectare site with homes, farms and cattle raising surrounded by old pesticides that were stored there.
“This entire territory was used for storage,” says 32-year-old Elmaddin Khudiyev. “All of it is polluted. We do our farming in a very small area. I tried cleaning the ground for 5-6 years. I hauled out the poisoned soil and put manure in. It is still not very productive. But we can plant barley, wheat, clover for the cattle, and raise chickens.” According to the International Pops Elimination Project report, it is not safe to grow food here.
Khudiyev and his family moved here in 1994 as refugees from the fighting in the Fuzuli region during the Nagorno-Karabakh war. Khudiyev says there once were 25 families in the village. Now there are only 15 people, five of whom are children.
“For 25 years, we have lived in this poison,” he said. “No one cares. There is no place that we can go and tell anyone our problem.” He says the poison is worse during the summer when the hot sun is baking the soil. It smells like bathroom cleanser and the closer you get, the more it burns your throat.“All of us suffer from bronchitis and allergies. When it rains, the cattle can drink water from ponds and die due to the poison; we have to keep them inside.” According to the International POPs Elimination Project, it’s not safe to eat this beef.
Khudiyev said that the last time local government officials visited the village, he heard them say they have soil seven meters deep dug up, trucked away, and replaced with new soil. He finds it hard to believe they would move 14 hectares of soil.
“We ordered a tractor ourselves and covered the surface soil. But every time there is wind or rain, the poison spreads through the soil again.”
He remembers barrels being buried on the property about 10 years ago. “I’m not sure from which organization they came from. Maybe it was the local governor’s office. There were about 200 barrels. There was some black liquid. Now nothing grows where they were buried. In summer that field gets softer and almost boils. You can see the steam come through the soil.”
Khudiyev is convinced the poison is mixed into his drinking water, which he pumps up from his own well. It tastes old and bitter and can make your eyes water.
“The water in some houses is not suitable for daily use. People here carry the water (from neighboring villages) by horses or donkeys, or buy it from water trucks — 1 manat (about ($US 0.58) per 50 liters. We hear all the time that it’s very dangerous to live here, that we should move from here as soon as possible.”
Khudiyev says officials came several years ago and took samples of meat, milk and plants for testing. “They came back last summer, and they didn’t tell us anything.” he said. ” Maybe the test results were good.”
Rafig Eyvazov, an employee of the Beylagan governor’s office, confirms that field located at the entrance to the village is state property — and that it smells.
“The Food Service Agency employees came here last August,” he said. “People raise cattle and grow crops on that land. on August of this year. People do cattle breeding and they grow plants in that filed. They took milk, soil, plants and water for testing. But we have never heard anything from them.”
According to Eyvazov, there are still many pesticides stored in an area uphill from most of the village. He says that when it rains, the old pesticides buried in sacks by the Soviets reach the water supplies the villagers drink. (Photos 15, 16, 17)
“The water is not suitable for drinking. In old times, there were very strong chemical and toxic substances. It made your eyes water. Even now when you pass by, you can’t avoid that horrible smell.
“It gets into the water wells. We warned local people not to drink it. A lot of people don’t drink it and instead buy some, but they use it for their other daily needs. We are working on this issue, and I hope it will be solved soon.”
Horadiz city, Fuzuli region
This 3-hectare site is located only 20 meters from water wells. It’s now used for homes and gardens. Orkhan Mammadov says it was worse several years ago, a terrible smell like cleaning fluids.
“During the summer the poison was more active. It was really bad for cattle and chickens. The Azerbaijan National Agency for Mine Action (ANAMA) came and covered the soil.” ANAMA has an office adjacent to the site.
Mammadov says there was no smell for two years. But last summer it returned. “It seems the (hotter) weather conditions affect it,” he said.
“I think it should be solved at the national level. It can’t be solved short-term. People live here, they have cattle. It is dangerous to every living creature.”
A Fuzuli regional governor’s economics department employee says the poisoned area is state property.
Ali Abdullayev, who has worked in the Horadiz city government for five years, says that he doesn’t know much about the site: “I guess there were a lot (of poisons) before I come here. Now there are just the remains of the storage building.”
According to Pure Earth, there was a reading of 1,546 milligrams of DDT per kilogram of soil at this Horadiz site.
There are two pesticide storage areas in this region. One of them is along Tofig Ismayilov, a main street in Imishli city. The Soviet-era storage building is near a railway. It is still in use, even though people live less than 15 meters away with only a fence in-between. Few know that it is hazardous to their health.
According to Pure Earth, there was a reading of 4,652.11 milligrams of DDT per kilogram of soil at this Imishli site.
Jafarli village, Imishli region
The second site is in the village of Jafarli. Resident Mahammad Mirzaliyev says there is chlorine and DDT and it is dangerous.
He says he has written to government agencies and asked for help several times, but nobody seems interested.
“This is Soviet-era poison,” he said. “The building is old and ruined, and everything in it was spread around close nearby. Cattle are feeding here, people live nearby.”
There is another Agrolizing OJSC storage base near this site.
According to Mirza Guliyev, a department head in the Imishli governor’s office, the building on the site is 40-50 years old and falling down. “The second building is in better condition and is used for fertilizer storage,” Guliyev said.
Koliyar village, Samukh region
Residents live inside this plot of about 3 hectares. There used to be a storage building, but it exploded more than 15 years ago. No injuries were reported, and the local government sold the land to several different people. At present there are eight houses, a school and a kindergarten.
There are the remains of a pesticide storage shed located 20 meters from houses with their own water wells. The residents have no idea about the contents of the shed.
“Children play all day long on the old train engine that is in that area. To be honest, we don’t know whether there is something dangerous or not; we don’t know what was there years ago,” says resident Gulchohra Aliyeva.
An employee in the Department for Work with Documents and Complaints of Citizens in the Aghstafa regional governor’s office confirms the territory is unused state property located about eight kilometers from the city center.
According to Pure Earth, there was a reading of 33.1 milligrams of pesticides per kilogram of soil at this Akstafa site.
Dallar Jayir village, Shamkir region
There are tomato, potato and cucumber greenhouses on the site of a former pesticide storage building. The greenhouses are surrounded by the residues of old pesticides.
“These greenhouses have been here eight years. The vegetables we grow here we export to Baku, Shamkir and to the Russian markets,” says the owner, who wants to remain anonymous. He says he rented the 10-12 hectare site when it was state property and was the first to offer to buy it when it was privatized.
“I have all necessary papers that proves it belongs to me,” he says. “I don’t know for what purposes this field has been used before. The only thing that I know is that there was some kind of office, and this is what remains of that office. We are not able to clean it properly. We don’t have that amount of money.”
Charkhi village, Khachmaz region
Yusif Mammadov, a representative of the village governor office, says that he has no information about it, “but if it wasn’t clean, people wouldn’t plant wheat here.”
Mammadov says that his family moved to the village in 1988: “There was pesticide storage,” he said. “It was the end of the Soviet era and it was unused. But the surrounding field has about 160 hectares, and it was planted.”
He said the storage building was 50-60 square meters and the actual storage area was 2-3 hectares.
“After independence, the land was privatized,” he said. “In 1992-93, people bought this land and started farms. For a long time cattle were raised on it.
“Until two or three years ago, cattle were kept here in the winter and moved nearby to Gusar in the summer. But now there are no cattle here. It’s just became an empty place.”
A former government official who wants to remain anonymous says that until a few years ago he was responsible for taking test samples from polluted fields. He said that every sample he tested had high levels of toxic substances. He says he never informed residents because local governments wanted to hide it.
In response to a reporter’s questions, the Ministry of Ecology and Natural Resources confirmed that there are sites in the Azerbaijani regions that are poisoned by pesticides. But the Ministry official states that The Ministry of Agriculture and its Food Safety Agency are also involved in this issue.
According to Agriculture Ministry spokesman Vugar Huseynov, pesticide control is the responsibility of the Food Safety Agency:
“There is a decree and statute from the President that states the responsibilities and duties of the Food Safety Agency. Many responsibilities (such as veterinary, agriculture control, etc.) were given to the Agency when it was founded. The Agency also controls everything that is related to pesticides, such as territories that are poisoned, the determination of those areas, the destruction of toxic substances, pesticides imported into the country, their composition, an etc.”
Huseynov adds that The Ministry of Agriculture controls only hazardous waste landfills: “FSA determines the dangerous and toxic substances, and takes them to the landfills to be neutralized.
FSA spokesman Aysel Farziyeva says his agency is only responsible for issues related to food products:
“How much pesticide there can safely be in food products, and what rules should be followed, etc. We control those processes. But the pollution of the environment and the cleaning of areas that were polluted years ago are not our responsibilities.”
|Rural Chemical Association of Agstafa region||New residential area of Agstafa, 2nd kilometer of Agstafa-Ceyranchol road – total pesticides 33.1 mg/kg|
|Chemical Union OJSC, Kolayir village in Samukh region||Kolayir village|
|Shamkir district, Dallar Jair village Chemical Union||Deller Jayir village|
|Rural Chemical Union – Yevlakh region||Yevlakh site — DDT 12.1 mg/kg|
|Ujar Regional Chemical Union OJSC||Ujar, Aqrolizing supply base|
|Musulu village, Chemical Union – Ujar region||Mususlu village — DDT 870 mg/kg|
|Inter-district chemical supply base for Siyazan region||Siyazan city, 100 km of Baku-Rostov highway — total pesticides 1,420 mg/kg|
|Chemical Union at village of Charkhi, Khachmaz region||Charkhi village|
|Interregional material and technical base, Salyan region||Salyan region, 20 January Street|
|Rural Chemical Open Joint Stock Company, Dayikend village, Salyan region||Dayikend village — 1,875.2 mg/kg|
|Imishli region rural chemical union I storage||Jafarli village.|
|Imishli region rural chemical union II storage||Imishli, Tofig Ismailov Street.|
|Rural chemical union – Beylagan region||Ahmedli village — DDT 1,074 mg/kg|
|Rural chemical union – Fuzuli region||Horadiz town — DDT 1,200 mg/kg|