Final mile in historic handover of Georgian forest protection to local control

16 April 2014 | Article

The first months of 2014 have seen IUCN and local authorities identify a new way forward to achieve a historic first for forest protection in Georgia: a total handover of forest to local control in the sublime landscape of Tusheti

The Tusheti Protected Landscape is located in Akhmeta, Kakheti, in the north-east of the country, covering 31 518 hectares. It constitutes part of “Tusheti Protected Areas”, together with Tusheti District Nature Reserve and Tusheti National Park.

Being classified as a category V protected area by IUCN means that the Tusheti Landscape is considered a unique “area where the interaction of people and nature over time has produced an area of distinct character with significant ecological, biological, cultural and scenic value; and where safeguarding the integrity of this interaction is vital to protecting and sustaining the area and its associated nature conservation and other values.”

As with all of Georgia’s Protected Areas system, the Georgian government is working closely with IUCN through the ENPI-FLEG programme* to follow guidelines on protected area management - particularly important when considering the delicate balance between nature and the local population in Tusheti. This is especially relevant in the case of managing the area’s forests, which cover 10% of the landscape; and discussions over the years have led to a gradual evolution in thinking about who should be managing Tusheti’s forests in order to achieve the best results.

Georgian forests are generally managed by the National Forestry Agency, but the forests within the country’s protected areas fall under the responsibility of the Agency of Protected Areas, within the Ministry of Environment and Protection of Natural Resources. “But the case of Tusheti requires special attention”, explains Marika Kavtarishvili, ENPI-FLEG Country Program Coordinator for IUCN Georgia.While it is a protected area, and therefore a place of outstanding natural beauty and value, it is also a residential area where local livelihoods depend on tourism, agriculture, sheep-farming, and cattle breeding. Management of the area is therefore as much about tourism and rural development as it is about nature conservation, if not more.”

With this dual need in mind – that of protecting both Tusheti’s natural environment and its extensive traditional human activities – over time, several rounds of discussions took place between community and government representatives, with the aim of identifying the most appropriate managerial arrangement for its forests. These discussions coincided with the 2005 adoption of the St. Petersburg Declaration on Forest Law Enforcement and Governance (FLEG) in Europe and North Asia (ENA), and then in 2006 an agreement was reached by all: that Tusheti’s forests should be locally-managed, with the Agency of Protected Areas providing support on technical matters when required. This move to locally controlled forest management was the first decision of its kind in Georgia.

In spite of this progress, almost a decade since the first agreement, a lack of clarity on the legality of the arrangement remains, which could threaten long term protection of Tusheti’s forests. In order for the area to become officially locally controlled, its status as such has to be registered with the national authorities. This is yet to happen.

But as part of the second phase of the ENPI-FLEG Programme*, IUCN has been working with all parties to go the final mile and complete the transition to local control. To do this – and to thereby complete the negotiations – the forest within the Tusheti Protected Landscape must be registered as a ‘Forest of Local Significance’. There is renewed expectation that this procedure can be completed in 2014, with full backing from the Georgian authorities.

Despite this hopefully being achieved very soon, there are other challenges to be overcome in order to guarantee a sustainable future for Tusheti. A major issue to be addressed is the absence of a strategic document on how to manage Tusheti Protected Landscape as a whole. For this, the existing Draft Management Plan must be approved. The draft document emphasizes the importance of developing a forest management plan, but the administration currently lacks the capacity for such work.

Through the ENPI-FLEG programme, IUCN – with its vast experience in work on Protected Areas – was considered the ideal partner to lead an assessment of current forest management practices in Tusheti. This assessment will provide the knowledge required to tailor a methodology for sustainable, multipurpose forest management that caters for both protection of the natural forest landscape and sustaining the local communities who depend up on it for their livelihoods.

If these remaining challenges can all be overcome in the coming months, then as soon as 2015, the newly empowered local managers of Tusheti’s forests will be politically and technically supported to successfully implement sustainable forest management practices for years to come.

Succeeding in our work in Georgia and other ENPI-FLEG 2 countries depends on us establishing a much better understanding of how the people who live in forest landscapes depend on healthy, functioning forests,” explains Richard Aishton, IUCN ENPI-FLEG Programme Coordinator. “As IUCN is now prioiritising the development of a detailed global picture on human dependency on nature, our work in Tusheti will be part of pioneering the early stages of that work, and is therefore of international relevance.”

*“ENPI-FLEG” stands for theEuropean Neighborhood and Partnership Instrument East Countries Forest Law Enforcement and Governance II Program (ENPI-FLEG 2), supported by the European Union and implemented by IUCN, World Bank and WWF. ENPI-FLEG 2 aims to promote sustainable forest governance, management, and protection of forests in Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Moldova, Russia and Ukraine, ensuring the contribution of the region's forests to climate change adaptation and mitigation, to ecosystems and biodiversity protection, and to sustainable livelihoods and income sources for local populations and national economies.

The Program builds on and further develops initiatives and activities undertaken during implementation of the first EC funded ENPI FLEG Program (2008-2012) and is part of the European Union's Eastern Partnership and a key part of the Environment Governance Pillar.

In Georgia, ENPI-FLEG 2 will work in 2014 across three main pillars of work: assessing forest management in protected areas, supporting locally controlled forestry, and assessing the extent of human dependency on nature (HDN) in forested landscapes.

For more information please, contact Marika Kavtarishvili from IUCN Caucasus Cooperation Center at: marika.kavtarishvili@iucn.org