Community groups mobilize to give Racha residents a voice and advocate for environmental protection
Georgia’s northwestern Racha region has long been recognized for its environmental allure. Largely untouched, the area boasts breathtaking mountain peaks, pristine lakes, and a sprawling forest that is enjoyed by locals and nature enthusiasts alike.
In recent months, however, residents have grown concerned about the status of their land after it emerged in April 2022 that the Georgian government had auctioned off more than 100,000 hectares of the Racha-Lechkhumi forest in a single bidder auction. The resulting 49-year lease to HG Capra Caucasus LLC, which is owned by a Georgian businessman with close ties to a sanctioned Russian oligarch, left many in the community concerned about how the development of the land could impact them.
In response to these concerns and through the assistance of a USAID Civil Society Engagement Program Rapid Response Grant, the Center for Civic Activities (CCA), in partnership with online media portal Mtis Ambebi, the Racha Community Organization, and environmental organization Green Alternative, began an advocacy campaign to hold the government accountable for its decision.
And less than a month into the start of the campaign, the issue is already gaining widespread attention, both at the local and national level. Through canvassing efforts, Racha Community Organization has already gone door to door in 10 villages, engaging with more than 300 residents to raise awareness and hear their concerns.
Eto Arsanidze, who leads the Racha Community Organization, says that she believes residents had a right to be informed and consulted before the auction took place. “The decision to transfer more than one-third of the land in Racha has a direct impact on the population of 81 villages that border the area. The local population should be engaged and have the right to make an informed decision about their environment. Since the government has not done that – we, the citizens, are taking the lead.”
Through a poignant online campaign, the project’s organizers have also been able to give residents a larger platform to bring attention to the issue. In addition to a Facebook group that already boasts membership of more than 2300 people, videos produced by Mtis Ambebi have interviewed segments of the local population, allowing them to voice their concerns about the development – one of which has already garnered a reach of more than 417,000 on Facebook. National media outlets have also taken notice of the issue, with Mtavari TV and Formula TV both picking up the story and featuring two of the videos developed by Mtis Ambebi.
Levan Kervalishvili, one of the residents interviewed by Mtis Ambebi, says that he believes it’s important that the local population have a say in matters that impact their daily lives. “For me, the environment is not just a geographic location, it is where I live. It is important for me and for others who have the same feelings towards Racha. Humans are so indivisible from the environment that it seems unacceptable to transfer the land to an investor, who will singlehandedly decide what to do with it.”
And in addition to giving residents a platform, the campaign is also taking action to help protect the local environment. The CCA has already begun advocating and plans to conduct legislative work for the establishment of a national park in Racha that includes the recently auctioned territory, a process that the government initiated more than 20 years ago and promised again most recently in 2019.
On June 9, as part of its campaign to increase transparency and accountability of the government, the Green Alternative and Mtis Ambebi also initiated a lawsuit against the Ministry of Environmental Protection and Agriculture to obtain information on the administrative proceedings related to the auction, which they contend took place before a legally mandated environmental impact assessment was conducted.