2019 December-January Analysis

If you build it, they will come – back. Repopulating Georgia’s mountains

Georgian mountain regions have lost up to 30% of local residents to urban migration – the government’s strategy on the development of high mountainous settlements is working to bring them back, and the moutnain regions into the fold of the larger Georgian economy.

Georgia’s mountainous terrain is both a boon and a bane. Accounting for almost 70% of the topography, the country’s mountains may inspire awe, but their isolation, lack of infrastructure and everyday amenities has certainly not inspired highland settlement dwellers to remain in the area.

That is, until recently: the government’s Strategy on the Development of High Mountainous Settlements is working to bring people back home.

Timed with the tourism boom in Georgia of recent years, during which locals have been able to set up guest houses and offer services to tourists, mountain settlements are starting to see signs of recovery.

The first round of the Strategy on the Development of High Mountainous Settlements was implemented in 2015, and was largely limited to the creation of social and tax benefits for the residents of Georgia’s 1,700 high mountain settlements.

Deputy Minister Mzia Giorgobani told Investor.ge that the ministry is carrying out an internal study on emigration from Georgia’s highland areas, but that evidence so far seems to suggest that the first wave of the Strategy on the Development of High Mountainous Settlements has not only stemmed the flow of people out of the area, but is slowly bringing people back.

“What we see is that the first wave of the programme [launched in 2015] has helped people a lot – grant programmes in particular have been successful in giving people work. Many people have been able to open up guest houses, which has worked well not only for them, but has given jobs to their neighbours as well. And this has timed well with the boom in tourism in Georgia we’ve witnessed in recent years”, Giorgobani says.

But the ascent ahead is a long one.

Data from 2004-2018 shows that Georgia’s rural mountain regions suffered serious depopulation, losing on the low end up to 10% of local residents to emigration in regions such as Guria, Mtskheta-Mtianeti and Kakheti, or up to a staggering 31% in Racha-Lechkhumi/Kvemo Svaneti and Samegrelo-Zemo Svaneti.

The new five-year strategy, announced by then-PM Mamuka Bakhtadze back in July, plans to encourage the trend of return, and takes a fresh look at what can be done to improve the quality of living for the more than 300,000 residents of these regions: almost ten percent of the country’s total population.

The scale of the new plan attests to the importance of the project: the new-five year development strategy has been allocated 700 million GEL ($246 million) – almost eight times more funding than the original package of 86 million GEL ($50 million at the time).

Under the first wave of support, the government allocated a series of benefits to residents of highland settlements and inhabited areas 1,500 meters above sea level, although some lowland settlements or borderlands have also been included in the programme, in order to tackle the same issue of depopulation.

This package included a range of social benefits:

  • monthly support for one year of 100 GEL and more per child birth
  • pension supplements of 20%
  • salary supplements up to 35% for doctors and teachers
  • tax exemptions for individuals whose annual income is lower than 6,000 GEL
  • tax exemptions and reductions for businesses
  • discounts on utility fees

The new package seeks to do more than allot social benefits, however.

“We need to give the people a way not just to sustain themselves – but to progress. Not just to receive benefits, but to make use of them to achieve long-term goals. The first package gave people a fish – this one will give them a rod,” Deputy Minister of Regional Development Giorgobani told Investor.ge.

Tourism has indeed been a crucial source of income for households in mountainous areas of the country, especially in the last few years as new roads have made mountain areas more accessible for tourists, and the country’s ski resorts have grown to such proportions so as to support the surrounding villages.

Riding this wave of increased tourist numbers, the ministry has identified several key areas to bolster independence and self-sufficiency in the country’s highlands.

“Our top five priorities include put- ting in roads, ensuring proper water sup- plies both for irrigation and drinking, re- habilitating and renovating buildings that have cultural and historic significance, renovating people’s homes and setting up hiking trails and other eco-tourism attractions,” Giorgobani said.

As for job creation, the new five-year plan will focus intensively on developing agriculture in the region.

“There are many unexploited possibilities in the mountaims, particularly in dairy production, because there is so much unused, available land. In the past it was hard to get ahold of the proper equipment – particularly for pasteurization, which is a very expensive process”, Giorgobani noted, adding that other perspective industries include dried fruit production and honey, the growth of which will be stimulated by small grants and microloans by the development strategy, in addition to other government institutions such as Enterprise Georgia.

Deputy Minister of Agriculture Giorgi Khanishvili confirms that dairy production is indeed one of the most promising industries in Georgia’s mountainous regions.

“The state’s ‘Rational Use of State-Owned Pasture in Highland Regions’ program enhances the capacity of dairyfarmers, increases their income and produces high quality and safe dairy products through agricultural coops in the regions,” Khanishvili said.

The program has already brought together some 1,200 farmers and 39 cooperatives, leasing over 12,000 hectares of pasture land and agricultural machinery, including equipment needed for pasteurization, at advantageous rates.

Moving forwad sustainably

While development of these industries and regions should bring more independence and a higher quality of life to the area, there are some concerns of the environmental and human impact on these otherwise largely untouched areas.

The Georgian Ministry of Regional Development notes the importance of communicating closely with local communities to ensure that development takes place at a reasonable pace and that the concerns of locals are addressed before projects go through.

“Often we have to have discussions about building roads with local communities. The roads in some of these areas are so poor that in the winter the communities are entirely isolated. Better roads would help the locals retain their connection with the outside world and let tourists and medical help in as well. But I want to stress that we’re not talking about highways in these areas. We’re just talking about decent roads. If we’re going to ask people to return to their homelands in the mountains, we have to at least provide them with decent enough infrastructure to get there,” Giorgobani says.

Before starting any such project, the ministry holds public discussions with the local population.

“It’s difficult to satisfy everyone. But we only put in the road if the majority approves. They have various fears. Some say landslides will become more common. But this is the 21st century – we have many ways of preventing landslides. We work with international contractors and consultants. We receive financing from the EBRD, the ADB and KfW – therefore, we use their procedures, and we hire international consultants when we look into environmental issues. We play things on the safe side, and know that we are providing good quality roads.

“Meanwhile, others are less altruistic. Some people have their own cars and provide driving services, they feel threatened by the new roads. But there are more opportunities if you open up, instead of trying to monopolize the area,” Giorgobani noted.

Another concern is over-tourism and the lack of necessary infrastructure to handle increased traffic – human and machine. Here, too, the ministry wants to empower local communities.

“Increasing the capacity of local municipalities to provide the appropriate services by themselves is more effective. If they manage resources correctly, they can build parking spaces, clean markets, and other facilities. Spatial planning is very important, and we are hire professionals to create cadastral maps for these villages,” Giorgobani says.

It will be some time before Georgia’s highland settlements become an attractive alternative to city life, especially for youth. But many already want to come back, says Giorgobani:

“With careful planning of infrastructure, business and agriculture development and the provision of several modern necessities – such as internet and recreational facilities – the liveliness and productivity of Georgia’s mountain settlements can be restored.”