With a loud boom, the gavel came down and the defendant hung his head. From the moment the rangers in Borjomi-Kharagauli National Park caught him illegally cutting firewood in the park, he had hoped some sort of procedural error would help him avoid punishment.
He knew he was guilty, and with the sound of the gavel, it was now official. The 400 Georgian Lari fine won’t bankrupt his family, but it hurts, and he will think twice before going to a Protected Area to collect fuelwood.
Luckily for the accused logger, this was only a mock trial, part of a five-day experiential training program organized by the Forest Law Enforcement and Governance Program (FLEG II) as one of the IUCN activities implemented in Georgia. The training involved hands-on exercises from the field to the courthouse to help Protected Area rangers in Georgia enforce and prosecute forest violations more effectively. Portions of Georgia’s Protected Areas are strict reserves while others are managed to allow sustainable use of the forest resources. The problems come in making sure this use stays within the limits of what is truly sustainable and does not spread into the areas that have earned more strict protections. The training sessions were designed to prepare rangers to recognize violations of the law and to take timely and effective actions to both stop and prevent illegal activities. After approval from the High Council of Justice and even support from the Government of Georgia, two judges and an expert in forest management trained over 40 rangers and other representatives from the Agency of Protected Areas and the locally-controlled Tusheti Protected Landscape Administration. “The issues related to law enforcement are very important for us. We have serious problems in this context in our daily work. The involvement of acting judges as the trainers is very important as we are receiving the training from the very first hand. Besides, as the training covers the Protected Areas administration from western Georgia, I met my old colleagues and got to know new colleagues, which is also very important for me,” said Mr. Ivane Kupradze, head of the security division in Borjomi-Kharagauli National Park. FLEG II organized two trainings, one in Borjomi and one in Kvareli this July. The sessions were the first time Georgian natural resource law enforcement officials have received legal and practical training directly from active judges, one from the Tbilisi Court of Appeals and one from the Borjomi Magistrate Court, whose jurisdiction includes a significant part of Borjomi-Kharagauli National Park in southern Georgia. At the end of the five-day sessions, the two judges presided over mock trials which brought all of the pieces together in a realistic scenario that solidified the new knowledge for the participants. They did not let the rangers get by easily. Simple mistakes in data collection or processing paperwork were enough to allow some of the accused transgressors go free, and the judges explained both the laws that allowed it and how to avoid this happening in real situations. “During my more than 20 years of working for the Protected Areas Administration, this is one of the best trainings I have ever attended. Even when we know the procedures, the mock trials really helped me see how one simple mistake in the real world can be enough to unravel all of our enforcement efforts,” said Mr. Vaja Cherkezishvili, the head of security division in Vashlovani Protected Areas. “I am eager to start applying the new strategies we learned here so we can be even more effective enforcing the laws in the Vashlovani Protected Areas. But also, I will transfer the knowledge I received during the trainings to my colleagues.” The Legal Entity of Public Law, Environmental Information and Education Center of the Ministry of Environment and Natural Resources Protection of Georgia conducted the trainings with active cooperation from the Agency of Protected Areas of Georgia, under the same Ministry, and the High Council of Justice of Georgia. To show its support for the importance of the trainings, the High Council of Justice of Georgia authorized two judges to act as trainers, but that was not enough to secure their participation. To conform to rules about judicial participation in these types of activities, the Government of Georgia had to issue a special resolution allowing the LEPL Environmental Information and Education Center to hire the judges as the trainers. Doing this showed both the Government’s commitment to Protected Area law enforcement and its appreciation of the work done by the FLEG II Program. “The training is dealing with the issues which at the end will ensure that the process of revealing and addressing the violations and presenting the facts and evidences at the court is done in a proper manner. This in turn will guarantee that justice will be in place and none of the offenders stay without appropriate sanctions, which is also the best way of preventing illegal actions. The fact that the rangers and judges are sitting at one table and discussing all those legal aspects of the challenges and problems arising in daily work is very essential,” said Ms. Shorena Kavelashvili, the judge from the Tbilisi Court of Appeals who participated in the trainings. “The training serves to address violations in the field of forestry and environmental protection in general, which is essential for the country.” “I have heard from different sources that the ongoing training is very valuable, interesting and useful for the day-to day activities of the rangers. I thank the FLEG II program, IUCN and the Center for making this happen,” said Ms. Natia Kobakhidze, Chairwoman of the Agency of Protected Areas of Georgia. “This is the first case of cooperation between the Environmental Protection institutions and the Judiciary. Inter-agency cooperation is always crucial for solving the issues, and I strongly believe Georgia and its environment will benefit greatly if inter-agency initiatives like this continue,” said Marika Kavtarishvili, FLEG II country program coordinator for IUCN Georgia. In Georgia, many rural communities rely on a variety of small sources of income to survive, and forest resources such as timber, fuelwood, berries, mushrooms and nuts contribute a significant portion of many families’ annual household income. Large-scale illegal logging is not as rampant here as it is in some Eastern European countries, but evidence shows there is significant illegal harvest of fuelwood, like in the scenario used as an example in the Borjomi training, to be sold to or used by local communities for heating their homes. This illicit collection, and other illegal forest activities such as illegal grazing and overharvesting are all threatening the resources local communities depend on. The “Law Enforcement in Protected Areas Forests” training for rangers from western Georgia Protected Areas took place in Borjomi, on July 8-12, 2015 and rangers from eastern Georgia Protected Areas undertook the training in Kvareli July 22-26. The Austrian Development Cooperation, a subsidiary of the Austrian Development Agency, funded the training sessions and the efforts to organize them as part of its support for specific measures to complement the FLEG II work in Georgia and Armenia. “The cooperation between FLEG II, the donors, the Agency of Protected Areas, the LEPL Environmental Information and Education Centre, the High Council of Justice and all of the others who made these trainings possible really paid off,” said FLEG II’s Kavtarishvili. “The rangers and administrators managing our Protected Areas have new tools and new perspectives to help them enforce the laws in place to protect Georgia’s forests and ensure the resources communities need will be there for them now and into the future.”