By Umberto Bacchi
TBILISI - Oil-rich Azerbaijan planted more than half a million trees on Friday to celebrate a 14th century poet, an initiative the government said would help tackle climate change but some environmental activists called "a waste of money".
The Azeri ministry of ecology said 650,000 trees were being planted across the country to mark the 650th anniversary of the birth of Seyid Imadeddin Nesimi, whose work touched on the relation between man and nature.
"(The campaign) will have a positive impact on further greening of our country, reducing the effects of global climate change, as well as absorbing carbon dioxide," the ministry said in a statement.
Countries from India to Malawi have launched large-scale tree-planting efforts, but scientists have warned that such initiatives are not a panacea against global warming.
Protecting existing forests and restoring damaged ones is key to preventing flooding and limiting climate change by storing carbon, environmentalists say.
Photos released by the Azeri presidential office showed President Ilham Aliyev and his wife, Vice-President Mehriban Aliyeva, handling a shovel as they helped to plant pine trees in the city of Shamakhi - Nesimi's birthplace.
New trees there were being aligned to form the words "Nesimi 650", the presidential office said in a statement, adding that a drip irrigation system would be put in place to help them grow.
But not everyone was impressed.
"Planting new trees is just waste of money and loss of agricultural areas," Javid Gara, founder of environmentalist group Ecofront, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
"With the same amount of money we can strengthen the protection and restoration of the existing and degraded forests."
Elsewhere in the country, thousands of hectares of bushlands and forests were being cleared to make way for hazelnut plantations and farms, he added.
Others were more positive.
Islam Mustafayev of environmental group Ruzgar said tree-planting was beneficial, particularly in cities, and authorities had stepped up efforts against deforestation in recent years.
"In Baku, soil and climatic conditions are such that it is vitally important to increase green spaces," he said referring to the capital of the former Soviet country on the Caspian Sea.
Urban vegetation is credited with cooling and cleaning the air, along with absorbing planet-warming gases and creating a healthier environment.