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Greens Protest Over Georgian Airport Plans

Environmentalists oppose controversial hub close to Black Sea nature reserve.
By Lasha Zarginava
Green groups have asked the Georgian authorities to reconsider their decision to build a major new airport outside the city of Poti, saying it could damage a priceless national park.



President Mikhail Saakashvili announced the plans for the airport in August when he visited Poti.



“In summer, this airport will accept more cargo than Baku, Yerevan and Tbilisi combined. It will be Georgia’s closest airport to Europe and large cargo shipments will pass through it. Large planes will be able to carry charter flights here. It is only three or four hours to Europe from here, and hundreds of thousands of tourists will come,” he said.



In October, the government approved the sale of 98.26 per cent of the shares in the project to the RAK Investment Authority, RAKIA, which is the sovereign wealth fund of Ras Al-Khaimah, one of the United Arab Emirates. RAK is creating a free industrial zone in Poti, a port on Georgia’s Black Sea coast.



Construction has yet to start but the government has already provided land elsewhere for the farmers whose fields will be used for the airport, which is due to be built within 18 months.



Ecological groups say the project could be catastrophic for the Kolkheti National Park, which borders the airport site and where the rich marsh habitat is home to dozens of species of bird and mammal, many of which are endangered.



“The territory, on which the biggest airport in the South Caucasus is planned, is protected by the Ramsar Convention. The Kolkheti park is a major site for the migration of birds between Africa and Eurasia. The airport will seriously disrupt this unique ecosystem, and this is a global environmental crime,” said Irakli Absandze, head of the Agromedia pressure group.



The Ramsar Convention, signed in Ramsar, Iran, in 1971, protects wetland habitats of international significance.



“Apart from this, an environment full of birds creates its own dangers for planes. It is absolutely unproven that there is an economic necessity for such a large airport when the other airports of western Georgia like Senaki, Batumi and Kopitnari are not overloaded. Apart from this, the authorities are completely ignoring public opinion, since if the airport is built it will cause social and transport problems for many residents of Poti,” Absandze said.



Some officials agree that the construction of the airport could have a negative effect on areas of the national park.



“The Kolkheti National Park and the marshes in this area, which have been preserved in their pristine form, belong not only to Georgia. They have international significance … The plan for building the airport needs more attention and work, since we are talking about major details,” said Sopho Akhobadze, deputy environment and natural resources minister.



“An airport with heavy traffic could completely change the conditions and environment of the unique Kolkheti marshes. And next year the congress of the Ramsar Convention is taking place in Georgia. I hope by then we will have answers as regards this project.”



Observers agreed with the environmental activists that construction of the project could prove very damaging to Georgia’s image.



“The airport’s operation will completely exclude rare species that winter in the park. Since this territory is protected by an international convention, I cannot rule out that construction of the airport could provoke an international scandal,” said Anzor Tkebuchava, a professor and expert on environmental issues.



He also said that the chosen site is not even very suitable for building an airport since the peat there is around 10 metres deep.



“Building such an airport there will be several times more expensive than building it in, say, Kutaisi, where there is already a facility,” he said.



Representatives of RAKIA are so far making no comment on construction of the airport.



However, Rakeen Developments, which is developing a range of projects in Georgia and is part-owned by RAKIA, says on its website, “Rakeen is committed to designing and building structures which are sympathetic to their surroundings and which preserve or add to the natural habitat wherever possible.”



The Poti government’s position, however, is that the environmentalists’ concerns are groundless.



“I see nothing scandalous here. There used to be an airport there, and if big planes fly there it will change nothing. The Kolkheti park is sufficiently distant from this territory,” said Ivane Saginadze, the mayor of Poti.



“The site of this airport will be unique [in Georgia], since there are no mountains for 35 km in any direction. Batumi airport, which is also on the Black Sea coast, is bad because it is surrounded by mountains, which interfere with arriving planes. This airport would also allow us to broaden transport coming through Poti.”



He said the price demanded of the investors had been kept low to entice them in.



“Of course, the land would cost more than a million [US] dollars, but it was sold at a symbolic price to gain investment. The construction of a new airport will secure investment in the region of dozens of millions, and also create jobs and bring in cargo,” the mayor said.



Teimuraz Tsurtsumia, the parliamentary deputy for Poti, said the authorities should not let the environmentalists’ concerns get in the way.



“A scandal about the Kolkheti National Park must not interfere with this project, since people and jobs depend on it, and this means money and a decent life not just for Poti but for all of Georgia,” he said.



“All over the world, countries develop and this development co-exists with nature reserves, with flora and fauna. The construction of this airport is linked with the creation in Poti of a Free Industrial Zone, which is important not just for Georgia, but for the whole region. The specialists will do everything they can to make sure this large project meets everyone’s requirements, including those of environmentalists.”



Lasha Zarginava is editor of Poti’s Resume newspaper.

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