In Georgia’s patriarchal countryside, women are starting to take more leading roles in agriculture — but climate change threatens even the modest gains that women have made so far.
Lali Sukhitashvili inherited a number of beehives from her mother-in-law, one of the first beekeepers in the village, 14 years ago. She has worked as a beekeeper ever since.
‘My profession was maths, and bees are mathematicians too. I’m fascinated by their biology. When a lot of bees died in my first year [as a beekeeper], it didn’t discourage me but on the contrary, it fueled my enthusiasm to learn more.’
But despite Lali’s tireless efforts to increase honey production, in recent years, her harvest has been shrinking.
‘When I started years ago, each hive gave me about 8 kg of honey; last year it was 6 kg at most.’ Lali said she suspects warmer winters, fewer flowers, and deforestation to be the culprits.
Lali is one of many women in Georgia who have taken up agriculture and through the income it supplies has achieved financial independence, a rarity in rural Georgia.
But just as this transformation in gender relations is changing dynamics in the Georgian countryside, Lali also stands as an example of how a legacy of environmental mismanagement and climate change is threatening to undermine it.
The struggle for independence
When Marina Sirbilashvili’s husband passed away unexpectedly, she had no choice but to take over the family wine business. Now at 65 years old, she manages a vineyard of three hectares in the village of Gurjaani and is planning to continue expanding.
‘I learned that women can do anything’, she told OC Media. ‘A woman has the potential to do all kinds of farming work, and there is no time to lose.’
After taking over the business, Sirbilashvili started to organise training for women to inform them of their civil and economic rights, as well as training them in entrepreneurship.
In particular, she has tried to address the challenges faced by women who have married into the village and have no connections other than their husbands, own no property, and are as a result vulnerable to ‘physical, psychological, and economic violence’.
‘[Women] are often told — you’re no one and own nothing and if you don’t like it go back to where you came from’, she explained. ‘We are persuading women to stand up for their property ownership.’
Sirbilashvili also set up a gender equality committee in the local municipality.
‘[It] was laughed upon at first’, she said. ‘But now, no one dares do it, because our efforts to empower women are starting to work.’
But, Sirbilashvili warned, women’s control of their economic lives are endangered by the changing weather, and if women cannot make profits, they cannot become independent.
‘There are extremely hot and extremely wet periods’, she lamented. ‘After frequent rains, which give rise to pests, come months of devastating heat.’
Nato Kutaladze, an expert with Georgia’s National Environmental Agency told OC Media that over the last half-century, the average temperatures in the agricultural regions of Kakheti and Kartli have increased by 1°C. If current trends continue, they will increase by another 1.5°C–2°C in the next three decades.
She added that this is not an across the board increase of only a single degree, but rather an average and may hide a growing number of extreme weather conditions.
‘Presently we have a situation when summer, autumn, and winter go practically without precipitation’, Irina Pkhovelidze, the chair of Georgia’s Association of Women Farmers, told OC Media. ‘When the ground is ploughed in August, the seeds are then planted in dry soil in October and don’t grow out or are weak because of their small roots.’
Climate change, though obviously responsible, is not the only culprit according to Pkhovelidze. Farming practices made possible by the economic crisis of the 1990s have also played their part. From the cutting of wind-protective tree lines for fuel to over-grazing, much of the arable soil in Georgia has been damaged for a long time to come.
To begin reversing this situation, she said, will require ‘big procedures’ such as the mass-seeding of pastures and the re-planting of wind-protection tree lines — a process that individual farmers cannot do alone.
To lessen the impacts of climate change, on the other hand, Pkhovelidze recommends that farmers change all annual or seasonal dates for planting, harvesting, and other vital procedures.
‘These dates at the moment are not in line with the present situation. The winter now is almost as warm as the spring used to be — like we’re losing an entire season. The farmer can’t rewrite those dates [themself], this has to be evaluated at the scientific level, and it has to be a part of government policy.’
In addition to environmental problems, a mismeasure of women’s status in Georgian agriculture has also hindered the work of women farmers.
‘I am very proud we have so many women farmers — women are more creative and take risks wisely’, Pkhovelidze said. ‘They’re not paid for it but their labour is enormous. This should be recognised while evaluating family agriculture.’
‘Right now women are unseen’, she added.
A lack of property ownership is one of the reasons for this invisibility, Pkhovelidze argued, specifically, the ‘very bad tradition’ of property being passed down to men, without consideration for a woman’s agriculture talents.
‘So, if a woman wants to take a loan from the bank for her project, she needs her husband’s or father’s permission’.
Kakha Mdivani, a climate change expert who worked together with the Ministry of Environmental Protection on the latest version of the Nationally Determined Contribution (NDC), a document that determines the climate-related obligations of the country, said that issues of gender inequality are being worked on, though further research was required due to a ‘general lack of experience working specifically with gender and climate’.
Nevertheless, he assured OC Media that progress was being made and that for the first time, ‘gender-balanced policy development and gender-responsive facilitation’ is being stressed and women have been highlighted as ‘agents of change’ in education, health, and agriculture.