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

Georgia: Pipeline Protesters Demand Compensation

Residents of areas adjoining planned Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline fear construction work may trigger landslides.
By Rezo Saqevarishvili

For over a month, huge pipes over a metre in diameter have lined the roads leading to mountain villages in the Borjomi and Akhaltsikhe districts of Georgia. Destined to form a section of the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan, BTC, oil pipeline, they have become a focus of protest in surrounding villages, all of which lie in an active landslide zone.

"Heavy rain is enough to cause landslides that put our village at risk," said David Gogoladze, of Dgvari village in Borjomi. "Imagine what impact 40 tonne vehicles would have." Villagers are appealing for resettlement or an end to the construction.

When it is completed, the BTC will have the capacity to carry one million barrels of oil a day. Plans for the project began in 1995 and oil is scheduled to start flowing in spring 2005. Georgia has the shortest section, at 248 kilometres, but had the lengthiest and most problematic negotiations. Construction work has been met with constant hostility from the local population, both in Kvemo Kartli Samtskhe-Javakheti, eastern and southern provinces respectively.

The mountain villages of Dgvari, Sakire, Tadzrisi, Tiseli and Tkemlana sit on the landslide zone. A total of 300 families live there and they say the construction work has multiplied the risk to their homes. "Back under the Communists, there was a study on this but the documents have disappeared. There should have been a new geological study before this decision was made," said head of the Tiseli community Giorgi Chumburidze.

The ministry of the interior has registered seventy instances of picketing along the length of the pipeline. In June, riot police were used to disperse an action in the village of Sartichala, in the Gardabani district.

Residents of Dgvari village recently blockaded construction workers on the road adjoining their village, demanding resettlement. "We need money or a plot of land to enable us to go elsewhere. I love my village, but I cannot sacrifice my family for it," said villager Mamuka Gogoladze.

British Petroleum, BP, who will operate the pipeline, says it has already paid almost 24 million lari or 12 million US dollars in compensation to people living within the Georgian section of the construction zone.

In a letter to the villagers, BP manager Ed Johnson wrote, "The route that has been chosen for the pipeline is safe and landslide activity poses no threat to the pipeline. However, I agree that the situation is grave and needs an immediate response from the government."

The local authorities have become indifferent to road blockades, however, so villagers eventually resorted to taking local journalist Tsaulina Malazonia hostage, demanding that officials from Tbilisi come to visit. As a result, the head of the Borjomi municipality, Ivane Gelashvili, promised that the prime minister will receive some village representatives shortly to discuss their problems.

"If we are deceived again, we will reblockade the road. They have left us no alternative," said villager Levan Lomidze. "In 30 years, we have been offered no solution. We have no time for politics, cinema or the Olympic Games. All we care about is the weather. Rain is forecast for tomorrow, so I will spend today fixing holes in my house. It has already been destroyed once and I rebuilt it. But I will have nothing left if that happens again."

While the BTC has become a visible and dramatic focus of discontent, it has also offered villagers new leverage with authorities, which have been ignoring them for years. Two weeks ago, BP representatives succeeded in lifting a road blockade by promising to use their influence with the local authorities on behalf of the villagers. A precedent may have been set.

Rezo Saqevarishvili is reporter with the Imedi TV Company in Tbilisi.

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