EVENT

Can democracy save the environment?
Voices of Nature at the 9th World Forum for Democracy

Conservation
in the Caucasus:

how a network of protected habitats came to life in 21st century Georgia

March, 2021 | Photographs by Green Alternative

Covered with rugged mountains and ancient forests, Georgia is home to many of Europe’s unique plants and creatures. But in the last couple of decades, the government has had to balance the preservation of this natural heritage with other social and economic challenges. Now, through the Bern Convention’s Emerald Network of protected sites, Georgia has found a space for dialogue between policy-makers, scientists and civil society.

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ature alone cannot express its needs and preferences, so we humans have the responsibility of raising our voices on its behalf. The Voices of Nature campaign has highlighted the inextricable connection between wildlife and people, especially from the point of view of democratic participation. This 2021 the campaign culminates in the World Forum for Democracy on 8-10 November.

The Forum, organised by the Council of Europe in the city of Strasbourg in France, encourages citizens to participate in open debates on environmental challenges to answer the question: “Can democracy save the environment?”.

Follow the event

The Voices of Nature campaign and the Bern Convention will join the World Forum for Democracy in two activities, both taking place on Tuesday the 9th of November in the Palais de l’Europe and livestreamed on the Forum’s website.

  • A Forum Talk called “Linking biodiversity, climate change and a healthy environment” at 11:30 a.m. (CET), a debate focusing on how the connections between the concepts of climate change, the environment and biodiversity can be made accessible to all.
Watch livestream (Room 9)
  • A Forum Lab with the title “Better together: Engaging communities for nature conservation and protection” at 2:30 p.m. (CET) showcasing initiatives around Europe that have achieved democratic responses to environmental challenges. These include two success stories presented in the Voices of Nature campaign: the Burren Programme, an initiative encouraging and rewarding farmers in the Irish region of the Burren for the sustainable management of their lands, and NACRES, an NGO that coordinated the establishment of the Emerald Network in Georgia along with the Council of Europe and the Georgian Ministry of Environmental Protection.
Watch livestream (Room 8)

Join in and spread the word!

We invite you to amplify the message about the World Forum Democracy and the Voices of nature campaign on social media, using the hashtags #VoicesofNature and #CoE_WFD. Let’s ensure that the important role of democratic participation in nature conservation and protection doesn’t go unnoticed!

I

n the place where Europe, Asia and the Middle East collide, a great mountain range towers between two seas. On the southern slopes of the Caucasus system lies Georgia, a country of just under four million people that boasts some of the richest biodiversity in Europe — a country where lynx, bears and wolves coexist with leopards, antelopes and even striped hyenas.

Today, many of Georgia’s endemic and rare species are recognised and protected by domestic and international regulations, thanks to the country’s integration of National Parks with new protected areas belonging to the pan-European Emerald Network. But it wasn’t always like this. Current standards are the fruit of a scientific, political and social effort nearly three decades in the making.

Dams and eutrophication

According to Wulf, one of the biggest problems were the three hydropower plants situated along the Doubs and their dams along the river. “These dams make abrupt and spontaneous changes of the water table, and they cause a lot of fishes to die, especially young ones,” Wulf explains.

Apart from the three large dams, there are also small ones that do not produce much energy and have changed the original structure of the river, an issue which Pro Natura also denounces. “In this case, we even had local opposition. Some local people all of a sudden thought that it was much more beautiful like that. But they block fish movement along the river,” Wulf says.

When Georgia declared independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, there were only a handful of strict wildlife reserves, unemployment was rife and many people exploited the rural environment, unchecked. Frantic plans for economic growth, both public and private, caused nature conservation to become an afterthought.

“A huge number of scientists left because the salaries were very low, it was impossible to support a family,” biophysicist Kakha Artsivadze recalls. This was a problem, because there was a void of scientific and biogeographical data that needed filling before anyone could decide what to do with Georgia’s wild places.

Dams and eutrophication

According to Wulf, one of the biggest problems were the three hydropower plants situated along the Doubs and their dams along the river. “These dams make abrupt and spontaneous changes of the water table, and they cause a lot of fishes to die, especially young ones,” Wulf explains.

Apart from the three large dams, there are also small ones that do not produce much energy and have changed the original structure of the river, an issue which Pro Natura also denounces. “In this case, we even had local opposition. Some local people all of a sudden thought that it was much more beautiful like that. But they block fish movement along the river,” Wulf says.

A huge number of scientists left because the salaries were very low, it was impossible to support a family.

Filling the blanks of Georgia’s biodiversity

During the 1990s and early 2000s, Artsivadze and his colleagues, specialising in biodiversity research and conservation, became pioneers in mapping Georgia’s rich natural heritage, thanks in part to international support for their projects. The NGO where he works, NACRES (Centre for Biodiversity Research & Conservation), created new databases of Georgian wildlife and ecosystems.

The Ministry of Environment asked NACRES to present scientific evidence that could inform nature conservation decisions as early as 2003. However, those efforts didn’t translate into actionable policy at the time, partly due to the lack of financial and administrative resources.

The country became a Contracting Party to the Bern Convention in 2009. By signing the treaty, members commit to designating Areas of Special Conservation Interest: this is their contribution to the international Emerald Network. “Georgia acknowledged and approved that nature protection is the priority in the country,” says Carl Amirgulashvili, the Head of Biodiversity and Forest Department at the Ministry of Environmental Protection and Agriculture of Georgia. Since then, “environmental regulations and institutions are forming and evolving each year,” he adds.

Dams and eutrophication

According to Wulf, one of the biggest problems were the three hydropower plants situated along the Doubs and their dams along the river. “These dams make abrupt and spontaneous changes of the water table, and they cause a lot of fishes to die, especially young ones,” Wulf explains.

Apart from the three large dams, there are also small ones that do not produce much energy and have changed the original structure of the river, an issue which Pro Natura also denounces. “In this case, we even had local opposition. Some local people all of a sudden thought that it was much more beautiful like that. But they block fish movement along the river,” Wulf says.

Bearded vulture
Gypaetus barbatus

The bearded vulture is the only known vertebrate whose diet consists almost exclusively of bone. In Europe, its population is declining and consists of a few isolated groups that live on crags in hight mountains in southern Europe and the Caucasus. Therefore, it has been classified as Vulnerable on the IUCN Red List. Non-target poisoning, shooting, habitat degradation, disturbance of breeding birds, inadequate food availability and collisions with powerlines are the main causes of this decline.
Fortunately, conservation actions are underway and captive breeding and reintroduction programmes have been carried out in some countries. In Georgia, this species is included in the Georgian Red List, but it isn’t specifically contemplated by the Emerald Network yet. Vulture populations are ’biological indicators‘ of the health of natural landscapes, so more work is needed to guarantee the survival of this animal.

Caucasian leopard
Panthera pardus tulliana

One of the biggest and rarest of the eight recognised subspecies of leopard, the Caucasian leopard is found in Iran, Armenia Turkmenistan, Afghanistan and Georgia. They live in remote, mountainous habitats which can range from arid areas to forested regions. But their population is estimated at fewer than 1300 mature individuals and, in Georgia, there are fewer than five left in the wild. Habitat fragmentation, reduction of prey, deforestation, over grazing, conflict with livestock owners and trophy hunting are the main threats this animal has to face.
Fortunately, the Caucasian leopard was listed as endangered on the IUCN Red List and governments have enlarged enlargement of protected areas and maintained of habitat corridors. The species is listed in Emerald Network Resolution No. 6 (1998), but much more work is needed to raise public awareness on the plight of the leopard.

Caucasian whortleberry
Vaccinium arctostaphylos

This shrub species is native to Western Asia, the Caucasus and Bulgaria. It traditionally has been a medicinal plant used to treat diabetes patients, and in modern medicine it’s found to be effective for cardiovascular disease. In the Caucasus, it grows at different altitudes, starting from sea level, but most often it is distributed between 1000 and 2000 m. In Georgia, this species is quite widespread.
However, in other areas the local populations of the species are small in number and occurring in limited ranges. That’s why it has been included in the Emerald Network Resolution no. 6 and has been subject of restoration activities in several countries such as Bulgaria. More efforts are needed to asses its conservation status and carry out the proper actions for its preservation.

Goitered gazelle
Gazella subgutturosa

The goitered gazelle is a charismatic species that has appeared in the folklore of the Caucasus’ countries. It inhabits territories from Mongolia and northwest China through Central Asia to Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan and also the South Caucasus, where they live in sands , gravel plains and limestone plateaus. Unfortunately, the population of gazelles in the Caucasus declined from tens of thousands to 200 specimens in the 1960s. Hunting and poaching were the main causes of this decline. Now, illegal hunting is still a threat, together with habitat loss and increasing livestock.
Fortunately, the goitered gazelle is legally protected in most of its range states — its population is increasing and it has been reintroduced in different countries. The species is listed as Vulnerable on IUCN Red List and in Emerald Network Resolution No. 6 (1998). All these initiatives are making the return of this beautiful animal a possibility.

Strandzha Oak
Quercus hartwissiana

Quercus hartwissiana is a rare and large tree found in Bulgaria, Georgia, North Caucasus and Turkey. In Georgia, this species is a pre-glacial relict that occurs in the Colchis lowland forests and currently is threatened due to logging and land conversion for agriculture and grazing.
It is included in the Red List of Georgia as a vulnerable species and has been proposed to the Government of Georgia for the inclusion into the Emerald Network Resolution No. 6. However, much more effort is needed to protect the areas where this plant occurs and to establish a well-developed agriculture in the region that will guarantee the survival of this tree.

West caucasian tur
Capra caucasica

This mountain-dwelling goat-antelope is native to the Western half of the Caucasus but it is known from fewer than five locations where inhabits subalpine and alpine zones. Unfortunately, its population have declined from around 12,000 individuals in the late 1980s to around 2,500 specimens. Habitat loss, livestock grazing and poaching are the major threats facing this animal.
Conservation actions must be taken, not only to guarantee this species’ survival, but also for protecting other species such as wolf and lynx which are predators of the West Caucasian tur. In Georgia, it has been included in the Georgian Red List as Endangered, so it is legally protected. However, increasing the level and effectiveness of protection in existing reserves is needed. This species hasn’t been included in the Emerald Network Resolution yet.

Artsivadze’s NGO was once again tasked with scientific support of the government’s decisions. As part of this assignment, fellow NACRES forester Sophie Gogibedashvili worked in updating a botanical atlas of Georgia’s ancient forests. Because older maps focused on the trees with valuable timber, they had neglected many species growing on slopes too steep for logging.

“We found four forest types that are not part of the EUNIS [EU standard] habitat classification system, there was no data about them before,” Gogibedashvili told Global Forest Watch. Although scientists were aware of Georgia’s endemic species, now they have documented the country’s unique woodland habitats, ranging from spiny Mediterranean heaths to beech forests — and found that around one quarter of the Caucasus’ flora species exist only on that mountain range. They must be preserved.

Dams and eutrophication

According to Wulf, one of the biggest problems were the three hydropower plants situated along the Doubs and their dams along the river. “These dams make abrupt and spontaneous changes of the water table, and they cause a lot of fishes to die, especially young ones,” Wulf explains.

Apart from the three large dams, there are also small ones that do not produce much energy and have changed the original structure of the river, an issue which Pro Natura also denounces. “In this case, we even had local opposition. Some local people all of a sudden thought that it was much more beautiful like that. But they block fish movement along the river,” Wulf says.

A clash of stakeholders

While fieldwork for the Ministry of Environment progressed, two problems became apparent. First, it seemed that private developers — especially those looking to flood forested valleys with reservoirs to supply Georgia’s highly profitable hydropower stations — were ready to lobby the government.

The second problem was more surprising: conservationists from other organisations were sceptical about the value of implementing the Emerald Network, according to NACRES Chair Irakli Shavgulidze. “Some people thought that Georgia should focus on its own protected area system, which had been largely based on IUCN recommendations and categories. They thought that the Emerald Network was not necessary and would divert our attention and resources,” he says.

In reality, the Network was an ideal tool for connecting strict existing reserves with new protected areas, allowing for greater flexibility in management and land-use than the national plan would permit. “It creates so-called eco-corridors”, says Amirgulashvili, from the Georgian Ministry of Environmental Protection, “connecting previously protected areas with each other”. Scientists at NACRES shared this reasoning, and you can hear Shavgulidze explain their motives for backing the Network’s implementation in the clip below.

Even in territories where the Emerald Network overlaps with nationally protected areas, it reinforces their conservation status. That’s because the Georgian Constitution ranks applicable international law above the national legislation.

One organisation which also saw the value of this international scrutiny and protection was Green Alternative, an environmental think-tank and advocacy group. “Our system of justice is weak,” explains zoologist Irakli Macharashvili, who has worked as biodiversity programme coordinator for Green Alternative since 2005 (Macharashvili served as Georgia’s Deputy Minister of Environment for 11 months before working at Green Alternative, and was Governing board member of NACRES before that). He considered — and still does — that the added pressure of international society and donors facilitates upholding environmental law.

Dams and eutrophication

According to Wulf, one of the biggest problems were the three hydropower plants situated along the Doubs and their dams along the river. “These dams make abrupt and spontaneous changes of the water table, and they cause a lot of fishes to die, especially young ones,” Wulf explains.

Apart from the three large dams, there are also small ones that do not produce much energy and have changed the original structure of the river, an issue which Pro Natura also denounces. “In this case, we even had local opposition. Some local people all of a sudden thought that it was much more beautiful like that. But they block fish movement along the river,” Wulf says.

Some people thought that the Emerald Network would divert our attention and resources.

Science and society, the recipe for change

The initial phase of the Emerald Network’s implementation, consisting mostly of gathering and evaluating evidence, ran smoothly. The Bern Convention played a key role in maintaining fluid communications between NACRES and the government, as successive administrations were voted out over the years. But when push came to shove, the time of actually drawing new protected areas on the map, private interests surfaced in strong opposition.

By 2013, the science was no longer enough, Macharashvili claims: “Only perfect work from scientific organisations will not be productive without advocacy work,” he adds. In the clip below, the former politician explains why public participation in policy decisions is crucial to conservation success.

Then in 2014, Georgia and the European Union signed an Association Agreement. This bilateral accord provided the definitive push for implementation of the Emerald Network (recognised within the EU as the Natura 2000 network). Although Georgia already had to fulfill this obligation under the Bern Convention, establishing the sites suddenly became paramount for the country’s efforts towards European integration.

The Government of Georgia officially designated the first three Emerald Network sites (Lagodekhi, Vashlovani and Batsara) in 2017, marking the first precedent in the Caucasus region. Thanks in great part to the advocacy of Green Alternative and other citizen groups, several new Emerald Network sites have been proposed and established. The German Agency for International Cooperation (GIZ) also stepped in to fund fieldwork and later support biodiversity management.

However, there is still enormous pressure from private developers to prevent protection of the most profitable territories. To this day, around 80% of Georgia’s electricity comes from hydropower and the country’s main rivers lie mostly or entirely outside protected areas.

One candidate Emerald Network site, in the mountainous province of Svaneti, was actually withdrawn from the Network proposal after plans for building a large hydropower dam on the Nensrka river came to light. Green Alternative appealed the case to the Bern Convention, and while no definitive decision has been taken regarding this area, the government has established several other sites in compensation.

More importantly, the Standing Committee to the Bern Convention has acted on this public concern by requesting, in April 2020, a national plan for the protection of rivers from the Georgian government. Advocacy groups like Green Alternative consider this international mechanism for public participation vital in Georgia, as they point to a lack of other legal channels for citizens to speak with their government directly.

Now a draft law on “Water Resources Management” has been elaborated. “It is planned to be submitted to the Georgian Parliament in 2021,” says Amirgulashvili, from the Georgian Ministry of Environmental Protection, “and the draft law establishes regulations for the sustainable use of water resources.”

Dams and eutrophication

According to Wulf, one of the biggest problems were the three hydropower plants situated along the Doubs and their dams along the river. “These dams make abrupt and spontaneous changes of the water table, and they cause a lot of fishes to die, especially young ones,” Wulf explains.

Apart from the three large dams, there are also small ones that do not produce much energy and have changed the original structure of the river, an issue which Pro Natura also denounces. “In this case, we even had local opposition. Some local people all of a sudden thought that it was much more beautiful like that. But they block fish movement along the river,” Wulf says.

Perfect work from scientific organisations will not be productive without advocacy work.

Saving unique species through habitat protection

Because Georgia was not part of the Bern Convention at its inception, many of the Caucasus’ iconic and endangered species are not considered under Resolution No. 6 (1998) of the treaty, including the endemic Western tur (Capra caucasica). However, conservation experts argue that the Emerald Network’s protection of whole habitats indirectly benefits these national jewels. NACRES has also prepared a list of vulnerable plants, which includes two rare species of snowdrops (Galanthus platyphyllus and Galanthus krasnovii), for the government to put forward for inclusion in the Bern Convention’s resolutions.

A win for nature, people and politics

Currently, the Emerald Network of Georgia contains 46 officially adopted sites — 33 of which overlap with the country’s own Protected Areas. Together, they cover around one million hectares, or 15% of the country’s surface area. This is in contrast to the roughly 6% surface of protected territory that existed in 2004.

According to Kakha Artsivadze, from NACRES, establishing the Network has completely modernised Georgia’s approach to biodiversity research, not just conservation: young researchers and technicians in government and academia have adopted and adapted the EUNIS classification system for Georgian habitats. They share a standard scientific language with the rest of Europe.

The Network has also increased national capacity for management and development, “including the institutional capacity of the Ministry of Environment Protection and Agriculture of Georgia as well as national expertise in habitat classification, species and habitat assessments and reporting to the Bern Convention,” Artsivadze says.

The Ministry also reports benefits: “Many species and habitats were added to the already existing sites, and an additional seven sites were proposed to the Bern Convention for inclusion in the list of Emerald Network sites. All of the above significantly changes the insufficiency statuses for many species and habitats,” claims Amirgulashvili. “And at this moment Georgia is working on the draft law on Biodiversity, which envisages the requirements of the Bern Convention and issues of management of Emerald Network sites,” he adds.

Of course, controversial plans for developing energy and infrastructure haven’t disappeared overnight. In the last few years, discussions have been ongoing regarding a notorious mountain road project in the High Caucasus, which would allegedly attract tourism to remote areas.

Many locals remain unconvinced, as this road would cut through pristine mountain and forest landscapes (including several Emerald sites), potentially harming wildlife and the emerging adventure tourism industry. But citizens have a channel of appeal, through the Bern Convention: they have the voice that nature lacks.

Dams and eutrophication

According to Wulf, one of the biggest problems were the three hydropower plants situated along the Doubs and their dams along the river. “These dams make abrupt and spontaneous changes of the water table, and they cause a lot of fishes to die, especially young ones,” Wulf explains.

Apart from the three large dams, there are also small ones that do not produce much energy and have changed the original structure of the river, an issue which Pro Natura also denounces. “In this case, we even had local opposition. Some local people all of a sudden thought that it was much more beautiful like that. But they block fish movement along the river,” Wulf says.

Implementing the Emerald Network has increased our expertise in habitat classification, species and habitat assessments.

Timeline

1989
Creation of NACRES as a citizen group
1991

Georgia becomes independent from the USSR

NACRES becomes registered as an NGO

2003

Council of Europe asks Georgian government to prepare habitat and biodiversity database, NACRES is appointed

2009

Georgia signs the Bern Convention, phase I of Emerald Network implementation starts

2013

NACRES is appointed to lead phase II of the Emerald Network implementation

2014

Signing of the EU-Georgia Association Agreement

2015

German development agency GIZ starts collaborating with Emerald Network implementation

2017

The Government of Georgia officially designates the first three Emerald Network sites (Lagodekhi, Vashlovani, and Batsara), marking the first precedent in the Caucasus region. Shortly after that, another 43 sites were added to the list of officially designated sites.