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© 2000 PAT O'HARA, ALL RIGHTS RESERVED
 
Paata Shanshiashvili outlines the goals of the Protected Areas Development Centre with Eleanor O'Hanlon.
 

Even before its rebirth as a independent nation in 1990, Georgia has always had a viable and vocal environmental community. Their commitment to an improved national environment was guaranteed in the New Constitution of 1995, which stipulates in Article 37 that "everyone has the right to live in a healthy environment and to use its natural and cultural resources. Everyone has the duty to protect the natural and cultural environment."

However, the conservation ethic is not a recent development in Georgia. Some 300 years ago hunting reserves in forested regions provided protected areas for game animals as an amenity for the upper classes, similar to those reserves found in other European countries. And the first modern reserve was created in 1912, to protect the wolves and endemic goats of the Lagodekhi Gorge.

Although this new parks system soon confronted the political impact of the Russian Revolution, the results were mixed. Industrial pollution under the Soviet regime had a decidedly negative impact on the environment on the whole, but the designated parks system grew to include 15 reserves, about 2.4% of the country's territory, in addition to more than 30 other protected forests and nature zones by the end of the 1980s.

World Wildlife Fund
On the eve of the Georgia's independence and the Soviet Union's collapse, the World Wildlife Fund set up offices in Tbilisi to begin advising on the creation of a Western-style national parks system. The proposed national parks were to include not only the existing system of nature reserves, but incorporate principles of sustainable development for communities living in "support zones" around the parks. The parks would protect representatives of all important ecosystems and their associated flora and fauna, not just the dramatic alpine and sub-alpine territories, but lowland deciduous forests, wetlands and other life zones as well.

If the WWF-supported national parks are all approved, about 10% of Georgia's land area will be protected, and another 20% covered by support zone policies. Despite the political challenges Georgia has faced since independence, there are strong indications its environmental awareness is high in high places - President Eduard Shevardnadze, on the launch of the WWF's Living Planet Campaign, pledged that his country would increase protected area coverage to 20% of its land area as a "Gift to the Earth."

The first national park on the WWF model was approved by the Georgian Cabinet in 1995, and the Borjomi-Kharagauli park was created. Plans have been completed for two other national parks, in the Eastern Caucasus and the Iorian Wooded Steppe; management guidelines for a proposed Kolkheti National Park have also been drawn up, and a number of other parks projects are underway as well. A cross-border protected area that would incorporate the Lagodekhi Nature Reserve in Georgia and the Gutonski Nature Reserve in Dagestan is also in the works.

The World Bank and USNPS
In the spring of 1999, a reconnaissance mission to Georgia was undertaken by the U.S. National Parks Service, with the assistance of the World Bank. The group was interested in assessing Georgia's capacity to protect and manage its natural and cultural resources, and in offering help and guidance from the USNPS in particular. A number of recommendations were made, and as a result a partnership between the National Parks Service and Georgia's Department of Protected Areas was undertaken.

The recommendations of the World Bank reconnaissance focused on the point that a single Georgian agency or department should handle all such heritage areas, reportable directly to the President or his council. The department should be responsible not only for resource preservation, but visitor use and education - including both foreign visitors and citizens of Georgia themselves - as well as revenue generation.

The World Bank has also funded a Tourism Assessment and Work Plan for nature and culture tourism to explore the final element of their recommendations - revenue generation. The draft report of this study recognizes Georgia as having medium to high potential as an ecotourism destination, with its primary attractions being the Caucasus mountain area and its people, culture and history. The Lagodekhi - Tusheti - Kazbegi region of the Eastern Caucasus was singled out as the region with the greatest potential as a nature/adventure attraction in Georgia.

Department of Protected Areas (PAD)
Perhaps not coincidentally, the Tusheti, Lagodekhi and Vashlovani Nature Reserves are all a part of the Eastern Caucasus Protected Areas management plan, proposed by Georgia's Department of Protected Areas, Nature Reserves and Hunting, or PAD. PAD has been leading the effort to simultaneously protect and develop Georgia's natural resources since independence; they helped create the first Georgian national park on the WWF model at Borjomi in 1995, and continue to work tirelessly to integrate environmental protection into Georgia's national development.

Paata Shanshiashvili, currently director of Georgia's Protected Areas Development Centre, speaks eloquently of the need to preserve Georgia's natural resources, and the role ecotourism can play. "Ecotourism is a very critical ingredient of protected areas development in any developing country, especially Georgia.

"Our umbrella idea is preservation and development, not preservation or development," he says. "Ecotourism is the most important functional side of protected areas development, very much related to building awareness and support for the sites This is very important too for revenue generation not only for the protected areas themselves, but for the communities around them -- to use the American term, the 'gateway' communities."

Hopefully, as the protected areas projects continue to evolve and grow, Georgia will take its rightful place among the world's most important environmental resources and destinations.

To find out more about Georgia's Protected Areas Development Centre, and to learn what you can do to help, contact Paata Shanshiashvili.

Learn more about the Protected Areas Plans of the International Union of Nature Conservationists.


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