UPPER SVANETI, Georgia, Feb 20 (Thomson Reuters Foundation)
- F or the people of Upper Svaneti, a remote sliver of land
nestled high in the gorges of Georgia, the last words uttered by
the dying are portents of the future.
And the future looks bleak.
Residents say the same ominous rattle has echoed over so
many of its death beds this past year - "The Svans are in
danger, be careful" - that villagers are now braced for battle.
The source of their deep unease - electricity.
They say a dam and hydro power plant proposed for the region
could threaten the livelihoods of 17 villages perched among
valleys and flanked by mountain peaks that soar to 4,000 meters.
In the Chuberi and Nakra communities, some residents fear
flooding, others predict the loss of ancient stone houses that
have been home to six consecutive generations of their family. A
UNESCO World Heritage site, Upper Svaneti boasts spectacular
mountain scenery, mediaeval villages and tower houses fit for a
The Svans - as the local people are called - actively
nurture links with their ancestors and their isolation high in
the Caucasus has cocooned its people and cemented traditions.
The dead are buried in their own front yards and every
January, a seven-course feast is cooked for 'lipanael'
celebrations when the souls of the departed are invited back
into their old homes for a week.
More than 1,000 Svans live in Chuberi, another 400 in Nakra,
and many fear the 280 megawatt Nenskra dam will destroy their
Plans put the dam on the Nenskra river, using additional
flows from the Nakra river brought in via a tunnel that would
cut through the mountain separating the two communities.
Giorgi Tsindeliani from Nakra, whose family owns land near
the tunnel path, is bitterly opposed.
"This is a severe aggression against nature: they are
diverting the whole river," he told the Thomson Reuters
Foundation. "We already have mudslides here and, with no river
to clean them, our lands will be covered in mud. We will be
forced to move away."
Projected to cost $1 billion, the dam is just one of about
100 new hydro facilities planned by the Georgian government.
Georgia's Deputy Minister of Energy, Ilia Eloshvili, expects
electricity consumption to grow as the economy expands. He said
the government must meet demand with domestically produced hydro
power to avoid increased reliance on Russian imports.
"UP TO THE SKY"
A 2015 impact report by the dam's major investor, the Korean
state-owned K-water (Korea Water Resources Corporation)
identified a need to relocate just two inhabited homes in the
power house area.
The report said the reservoir would also flood almost 400
hectares of land, most "state forests" used "intensively by the
local population for grazing, collecting firewood, gathering of
wild fruits and other purposes."
In the earliest phase of planning, the Korean investor did
not refer to the villagers' traditional land rights as these
were not formally recognised by the Georgian state.
However the Svan communities soon united and while very few
had property deeds, they argued that the two valleys belonged to
them, historically and culturally.
Tradition dictates that households own their land from the
fence round their house right 'up to the sky' while they shared
forest lands on nearby mountains to graze animals and for
The villagers' campaign to protect their livelihood was also
supported by the European Investment Bank (EIB), which pressed
the Koreans to recognise the Svans' traditional land rights.
A spokesman for JSC Nenskra Hydro, the consortium in which
K-water is majority stakeholder, said supplementary studies
required by the EIB were complete and would be made public for
consultations "in the first quarter of 2017".
Natia Turnava, Deputy CEO of the Partnership Fund, the
Georgian investment fund with a minority stake in the project,
said investors would offer compensation to all affected
residents, whether they had official property rights or not.
Turnava said the project had also been slightly modified to
avoid relocating the two homes identified for the power house
area and that all those who had been offered compensation "were
WHAT'S IN A NAME?
The Thomson Reuters Foundation has learned that late last
year, when investors were negotiating compensation packages with
locals, all the land identified for the dam was registered by
the Georgian state under its own name.
This included 600 hectares of pasture and forest beneath the
reservoir used communally by the Svans, the two homes in the
power house and land owned by families. A law passed by the
government last year allowed people to register up to five
hectares based on historic use by communities.
However Minister Eloshvili told the Thomson Reuters
Foundation that land registration by individuals takes time and
"for the government to start construction, it cannot just sit
around and wait until people get property rights".
"But we will compensate everyone who uses the land," he
Rekaz Tkavadze, a Partnership Fund lawyer, said the state's
was "a primary registration" and the land belonging to the two
earmarked houses would be given to families once they registered
He said the promise to re-register lands in the name of
local families was not in writing, but would be upheld. Land
flooded by the reservoir would be given by the state to the
consortium "if not today then in one of the following weeks", he
PANDAS IN A ZOO
In Upper Svaneti, residents described the difficult and
costly registration process.
They confirmed they had been offered compensation but did
not know by whom while those who use land communally for pasture
felt most vulnerable as they fear the loss of their livelihood.
School teacher Tamar Chkhvimiani called it "shameful ... We
rejected the compensation. We depend on the animals and, if we
can't use that area, where will we go to feed them?"
At the time of publication, no information had been made
public about compensation or provision of alternative pastures.
Manana Kochladze of the Georgian environmental campaign
group, Green Alternative, called the process "land grabbing".
"On the one hand, the state acknowledges that this is
people's land and they need to be compensated. On the other, it
puts the land under state ownership leaving people no choice but
to take the compensations offered or be left with nothing."
Ombudsman Ucha Nanuashvili, who oversees the observance of
human rights in Georgia, said he would launch an investigation.
"They are using the old methods again ...previously (in the case
of another dam, Khudoni) they gave it to the company not to
Nato Subari, headmaster of the Chuberi school, questioned
the state's right to decide the fate of communities built by
"our Svani ancestors".
"We are indigenous and our lands should get protected
status. Otherwise, we will end up like the pandas: a few of us
left in a zoo."
(Reporting by Claudia Ciobanu, Editing by Paola Totaro and
Lyndsay Griffiths.; Please credit the Thomson Reuters
Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers
humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, property rights
and climate change. Visit news.trust.org)