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Authorities dispatched special police forces including riot police to Georgia’s historic region of Svaneti on Thursday after a group of local people protested a visit by the financial police to the villages of Khaishi and Chuberi. According to TV Imedi, residents refused to let the police search their properties and threw rocks and sticks at them. The authorities said no one was detained or hurt.
Khaishi and Chuberi are sites of frequent protests against the nearby construction of the Nenskra hydropower plant, which residents claim will disrupt the local environment and have a negative impact on their livelihoods.
Regional representative of the Public Defender Teimuraz Koridze told Netgazeti that the protest was triggered by locals’ perception that the special forces were being used to suppress their resistance to the hydropower plant. The project launched in 2015 and has since faced numerous protests from locals, including the latest rally on 26 April where dozens gathered in the village of Chuberi and vowed to stop the dam construction.
Local school teacher Zurab Nizharadze told OC Media the police had now backed off and that ‘the whole of Svaneti’ was gathered in Chuberi ‘demanding access to use forest trees as well as supporting alternative ways for the [region’s] development, like agriculture and tourism’.
Nizharadze said he did not think the day’s events were connected to protests against hydropower plants, saying that the root of the controversy was a lack of economic alternatives for the local population. ‘Tourism, fruit-growing, seed agriculture, animal husbandry […] there are a lot of areas that can be developed’, adding that former IDPs Minister Sozar Subari who was in Svaneti and met with locals had promised that the Environment and Agriculture Minister Levan Davitashvili would ‘reach out soon’ regarding these issues.
According to a statement by the Finance Ministry’s Investigative Service, the authorities were tracking down illegal logging, illicit timber trading, and illegal sawmills throughout the country. They have already detained 15 individuals this month in related cases. Authorities said that ‘local residents obstructed’ them from doing their jobs by blocking the street and throwing sticks and stones before the the special police forces were called in. The financial police claimed to currently be probing 39 factories, having already identified 20 sawmills operating without a license.
Commenting on the incident, Finance Minister Ivane Machavariani said that at present, ‘ecological problems are much more important than economic ones […] Forests need protection, and today is testimony to this — what is being done today in Svaneti is part of this strategy’.
Environment and Agriculture Minister Levan Davitashvili announced plans to submit a new forestry law to move Georgia towards ‘sustainable forest management’ at next week’s Cabinet meeting.
Sozar Subari told TV Pirveli that illegal logging was ‘huge’ in Chuberi and that the government currently maintains a ‘soft approach’ to the problem, as logging is ‘the only source of income’ for many in the area.
In early July, Chuberi suffered severe flooding after the Nenskra River swelled, reportedly due to a landslide, washing away 10 bridges and cutting off a community. Some local people and critics of hydropower projects in Georgia attributed it to the construction of the 130-metre high, 3 km2 reservoir for the Nenskra Dam. However, Nenskra Hydro, the company building the dam, insisted there was no link as ‘preparatory work has been completely put on hold since the start of 2018’.
On 6 July, during his visit to the area, Prime Minister Mamuka Bakhtadze promised to crack down on illegal logging, identifying it as a ‘substantial contributor’ to the flooding.
[Read more about recent Chuberi crisis on OC Media: River Nenskra flood cuts off 10 villages in Svaneti]
Following the 26 July scuffle with police in Svaneti, Bakhtadze stated that his government would be ‘uncompromising towards all involved in illegal logging’, including those who attempt to cover it up, ‘regardless of their positions’. Bakhtadze also said he planned to cancel VAT on timber imports, hoping to discourage logging in Georgia’s forests.