Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Georgia: Despair of Landslide Villagers

The government is accused of failing the victims of environmental disaster.
By Tedo Jorbenadze
Thousands of Georgians are being displaced by landslides from the Black Sea region of Ajaria, only to be resettled in an area where the locals greet them with open hostility.

Landslides are destroying houses, pastures and farming land in three mountainous districts - Khulo, Keda and Shuakhevi - in Ajaria, the autonomous republic in south-western Georgia.

Close to 5,000 families, around 30,000 people in all, are expecting resettlement any day now under a new government programme. However, they are worried by the sight of neighbours who were resettled and have now returned home.

Residents from the village of Jalabashvilebi, which has all but disappeared under huge landslides, say they were offered a move to Tsalka in southern Georgia, but when they arrived with their children and belongings, there were no houses or land plots for them there.

"We were driven around like cattle,” said one villager who did not want to give his name. “How long could our new neighbours have fed us? We finally understood that no one would take care of us. We borrowed some money and came back.”

Landslides first began causing problems in Ajaria, a mountainous but densely populated region of Georgia, in the Eighties. Since then, 97 villages have been affected, with 1,500 houses collapsing and roads and fields becoming unusable. Around 100 people have died and more than 5,000 families have been relocated.

"Active logging over a number of years has brought the region to the current environmental crisis," explained Tariel Tuskia, head of Ajaria's geology department, saying the land was simply overpopulated.

"Not a single inch of land remains uncultivated,” he said. “People cut wood in order to earn a living and it is impossible to blame them for this. Preventive measures against landslides are so costly that it is better to spend the money on buying houses for people somewhere else.

“In short, the only way out is to lighten the demographic load on the region.”

According to Georgia’s ministry for housing and refugees, last year 252 houses were bought for people resettled from Ajaria to other parts of the country. However the houses still belong to the government, not the migrants.

In March, Georgian president Mikheil Saakashvili participated in a ceremony to mark the resettlement of ten families from the Khulo district to the Akhmeta region of north-east Georgia. He made his official helicopter available to transport the group, and was filmed holding two-year-old Anri Ghorjomelidze in his arms.

Two months on, the settlers - Anri’s father among them - are still asking for help to get their belongings transported to their new places of residence.

"The former owner of this house left nothing for us,” said Jambul Ghorjomelidze. “Even little Anri sleeps on the floor. We have not been given land, either, and you cannot even rent it, as all of it has already been distributed. We now have to go round our neighbours and persuade them to allow us to cultivate their land and share the harvest."

Most of the migrants have been settled in areas with predominantly Armenian or Greek populations, causing resentment in the host communities.

"Everyone understands this policy here," said Sevak Yeranosyan, an Armenian resident of Ninotsminda district in the southern region of Javakheti. “They [the Ajarians] should without fail be resettled to Armenian villages so that there will be a larger Georgian population here. Their programme is to populate our region with Georgians and Ajarians."

Yeranosyan voiced locals suspicions about the incomers, "These people come here unexpectedly. We residents know nothing about them. We don’t know who they are or where they come from. Some people here even believe that most of the new settlers are convicted criminals who get sent here after doing a deal where they are told, ‘You go and settle among Armenians and we will stop legal proceedings against you.’"

In March, fights broke out between local Armenians and incomers in Tsalka. One person died and the local government offices were badly damaged.

As a result of all these problems, many families have gone back to Ajaria and are now living either with relatives or in their half-ruined homes.

Kakha Guchmanidze, head of the Ajarian department for refugees and housing, admitted to IWPR that the resettlement programme had gone badly.

"Yes, there was no preliminary work for the programme. No land plots were prepared for the settlers. No one calculated what each family would need to set up its own farms and adapt normally to the new situation," he said.

Zaza Imedashvili, a high-ranking official in the ministry of housing and refugees in Tbilisi, admitted that the resettlement programme is still at a very early stage, and that only now is a database being created to show who has been resettled to date.

This year, the ministry’s budget for purchasing houses for families that have suffered from environmental disasters is only 1,227,000 lari (around 500,000 US dollars). Imedashvili said this was meant to cover victims of various disasters across Georgia.

"We still think Ajarians can be resettled in high mountain districts, such as Tsalka, Tetritsqaro, and Akhalkalaki,” said Imedashvili. “Houses are a lot cheaper there and it is possible to keep within our price limits - 5,000 lari.”

Vepkhia Beridze and his young wife, who left their destroyed house for the village of Koreti in Tsalka district, are not impressed by these arguments. "The floor in one of the rooms of this new house of ours collapsed on the very first day, and the wall cracked later,” he said. “We will soon have a child but neither doors not windows are good for anything in our house."

Settlers also complain that they are given a one-off sum of just 50 lari (27.50 dollars) per family to help with the relocation.

However, allocation of land is the biggest problem in a region where the locals already complain of not having enough land for themselves.

Ninotsminda journalist Levon Vartanian predicted, "There will be big problems, as all the land plots have already been occupied and their owners will not give up anything to anyone so easily.”

"This year, we will purchase houses with land plots for settlers," said Imedashvili. "We will probably buy around one hectare. It is not much but the issue is still being considered. Ultimately, there will probably be two or three hectares for each family.”

"If this problem is not solved, I agree that it is not worthwhile for these people to move."

Aslan Chachanidze, a lawyer in the Ajarian capital Batumi, said the law was too vague and that the people affected did not have adequate welfare provision.

Experts are worrying that Ajaria’s environmental problems are getting worse. Apart from the mountain landslides, the Black Sea coastline has advanced by 300 metres in the village of Adlia, destroying a dozen houses. Nearby Batumi airport is under threat too, and in stormy weather waves reach its runway, as well as a railway line near the town of Kobuleti.

Geologist Tariel Tuskia also predicts more problems in the mountains. "Disasters will become more frequent… when the snow starts melting," he said. "In fact, the whole of mountainous Ajaria is already in the danger zone."

Tedo Jorbenadze is a reporter for Batumelebi newspaper, in Ajaria. Olesya Vartanian is a reporter for the IWPR-supported Southern Gates newspaper in Samtskhe-Javakheti.