Kintrishi Protected Area in Kobuleti, Adjara. Photo: facebook.com/protectedareas.ge
Georgia is today deriving a major part of its GDP from tourism. That tourism is driven in large part by the country’s diverse and beautiful natural environment. Georgia’s environmental and cultural attractions are not only beautiful: they are a major economic resource. The Georgian government, however, treats environmental protection as its lowest priority. And that is not only bad for those who love Georgia’s pristine nature and historic monuments; it is also bad for the economy and for public health.
Late last year the Government of Georgia abolished the Ministry of Environment and Natural Resources, reducing its functions to mere departments in other ministries. If you were hoping that the intention of this re-organization was to reduce government spending without sacrificing environmental protection, you will be disappointed: according to the official commentary to the law abolishing the Environment Ministry, its purpose is to “ensure fast development of the country,” and to “make the country’s economic development more effective and result-oriented.” So much for environmental protection.
This official demotion of environmental protection comes on top of years of low salaries, high turnover, and staff cuts. The Agency for Protected Areas (APA), responsible for Georgia’s national parks, has had seven directors in six years. The Minister of Environment changed six times during the same period, and has now disappeared entirely. Employees of the (former) Ministry of Environment have told me they have frequently been discouraged and frustrated at not being able to convince colleagues in other ministries of the importance of their work. One, a senior employee of APA who has since left the agency, told me in a conversation about development threats to Georgia’s protected areas: “Give us statistics on the economic importance of the environment, so we have something to say when the other ministries say they are bringing in real money, while we are just protecting flowers and bunny rabbits.”
The argument about the relative economic benefits of state agencies is particularly acute when the subject of hydropower comes up. How can nature protection stand up against the economic benefits of building dams, employing people in construction, and selling electricity to Georgia’s neighbors for badly needed foreign exchange?
The answer: Easily. International tourism added over USD two billion to Georgia’s economy in 2017. Meanwhile electricity exports brought in a measly $18.2 million. The USD two billion that international visitors spend in Georgia counts for balance of payments purposes like exports and contributes to the plus side of Georgia’s economic ledger, strengthening the national currency and employing Georgians. Georgia’s hydropower exports, in contrast, bring in less than one percent of the value that its tourist economy brings. And these statistics do not even include domestic tourism – when Georgians travel around the country to visit national parks and protected areas, beaches and resorts. The tourism sector as a whole contributed GEL 3.7 billion to Georgia’s economy in 2016, the last full year for which the statistic is available, while the entire consumable energy sector – total output of electricity, gas and water supply – obviously an overbroad category – was less than half that number – GEL 1.5 billion.
Of course, not all tourists come to Georgia to see national parks. Many of them are here to have a good time in Tbilisi and Batumi. But it takes little time on the internet to see that the vast majority of international tourist publicity about Georgia focuses on its natural beauty, its cultural and historical monuments, and its wine and food. All of those things derive from Georgia’s natural environment, and they depend for their existence on the laws that protect Georgia’s nature, its cultural and historical monuments, and the purity of its air, water and soil.
And that is where we are in deep trouble. Georgia has not only signaled its lack of concern for the environment by abolishing the ministry responsible to protect it, the government has also embarked on a campaign of infrastructure and construction projects to actively destroy it. Aside from hydropower projects large and small, which the government is licensing with little concern for location, need, or environmental impact (with the enthusiastic assistance of international development banks), it has also embarked on a major campaign to build new roads through wild and protected areas that have never before seen cars.
One such project raises a particular alarm. The Roads Department is well on its way to constructing a road that would cross pristine high mountain areas in Khevi, Pshav-Khevsureti, Tusheti and Pankisi. The road would cross two Protected Areas and a Strict Nature Reserve, threaten and diminish already endangered species of plants and animals, and severely damage the prospects of an eco-tourism industry, which has been growing in these regions over the past few years, employing locals, creating small enterprises, and attracting Western tourists. All of that will be replaced with cars, pollution, trash and uncontrolled development – not to mention the enormous financial costs of constructing and maintaining the new road over the rough mountain terrain. A far more sensible plan is to upgrade the existing north-south mountain roads – to Juta, Shatili, Omalo and Pankisi -- and maintain them, something which the government presently does not do.
The Georgian government’s lack of concern for the environment is also shown in the persistent weakness of regulation and enforcement. Laws against poaching are essentially not enforced, as exposed in an investigative piece by Tsira Gvasalia in iFact last year, about the refusal of prosecutors and judges to convict poachers brought in by park rangers. The same is true of illegal timber cutting. The problem is not only insufficient numbers of rangers to patrol large areas of protected lands, but also low salaries and the frequent involvement of local police and public officials in illegal hunting.
And when it comes to air and water pollution, those of us who live in Tbilisi know only too well the lack of government action here. Sewage receives only minimal treatment before it is discharged into the Mtkvari River, and Tbilisi’s air quality is treacherously bad. Successive national governments have repeatedly postponed automobile inspection, emissions controls, and regulation of fuel quality. Meanwhile, zoning regulations in Tbilisi are enforced only against those who lack the political connections or economic power to get around them. The huge modern projects now being constructed on the hills over Old Tbilisi and on Freedom Square – Mt. Tabori and Panorama – sponsored by affiliates of Bidzina Ivanishvili – are the most blatant examples that Georgia’s environmental and cultural protection laws are merely words on paper to be disregarded when convenient. The former UNM government was no better, as illustrated by the gargantuan “Biltmore Tower” on Rustaveli Avenue, or the garish Shangri-La casino next to the Patriarchate in Old Town, both of which, like the Mt. Tabori and Panorama projects, violated long standing zoning laws in the capital.
In recent years the Georgian government has made important steps towards European integration, but not on environmental and cultural protection. If anything, it is going backwards. And that is not only bad for those of us who love Georgia’s beautiful nature and historic monuments; it is bad also for the economy and for public health. It is high time that Georgia’s government got serious about protecting the environment and controlling pollution, to protect the public, to increase employment for the many rather than profits for the few, and to truly set it on the European path to development that it has long desired and deserved.
Ted Jonas is a lawyer in private practice who has lived in Tbilisi for over 20 years. He also serves on the Board of Directors of an international environmental organization.