In 2004 Manana Kochladze, the founder of the environmental watchdog group Green Alternative based in Tbilisi, Georgia, was awarded the Goldman Environmental Prize for her ecological campaigns against the construction of oil pipelines across sensitive areas.
The Goldman Environmental Prize is given to grassroots activists who have acted in order to protect the natural environment in the place where they live.
In this interview we have touched on many topics, from Georgian culture and history and the meaning of being an environmental activist, to the causes that her group is currently supporting.
Reading your biography on the Goldman Prize web page I found that as a daughter of scientists you were “on track for a career in physiology until political upheaval in your native country compelled you to switch course to become an activist.” Can you talk about the meaning of your experience as an environmental activist?
I started as a pure environmentalist with a very rational approach that derived from my background. I was convinced that people were rational and that decision-makers could make decisions based on rationality.
However, I soon found out that things weren’t as clear as I expected and that I had to start considering that economy, political decisions, social and human rights and environmental issues were deeply connected with each other.
In particular, each person is influenced or pushed in the decisions that they make by a variety of elements which fall outside the simple dichotomy rationality vs. corruption. Emotions, the psychology of the individual, one’s life condition, egotism, fear… All of these aspects play an important part at the moment of making a decision and cannot be neglected or overlooked.
In many situations, decisions are made for the sake of technological and infrastructural “progress”, which does not consider the effects on the environment and, rather, is often detrimental to it.
My idea is that technology has developed faster than society and people have forgotten the local knowledge to keep a balance with nature.
On the contrary, education towards a more ecological society should be based on the principle that the planet was not created only for us human beings, but that the flora and fauna have as many rights to exist as we do.
If we look at the situation in Georgia, in Svaneti there is a project of building a dam for a hydropower plant which will increase the danger of landslides and is likely to generate ecological refugees.
In certain areas of the Adjara region, cutting trees without a plan has led to several landslides. Moreover, several houses have been built along the river banks, something that in the past had been avoided for logical reasons.
The problem in these cases is that decisions about changes in a rural context are taken by people living in the city who lack the type of knowledge that, for example, has allowed Svanetian towers – included in the list of UNESCO World Heritage Sites, editor’s note – to stand for centuries and never to collapse under the snow.
In short, we might say that today there is a lot of technology but a lack of wisdom.
Where are your major efforts concentrated at the moment?
In Upper Svaneti, to contrast the Nenskra hydropower plant, a dam planned on the river of the same name. The project is being implemented by a joint venture of the Georgian state-owned Partnership Fund and the Korea Water Resources Corporation, while the Italian Salini-Impregilo company won the engineering and construction tender.
This dam is definitely going to have an impact on the natural environment in the region, in that it will increase the risk of landslides in a way that makes local inhabitants extremely concerned about the consequences.
We have been told that the situation will closely be monitored after the completion of the project, but geological risks are an element that you are going to have to calculate beforehand and not after things have been done and it’s too late to prevent disasters.
To make things worse, the public participation process was started only after the political decisions had already been made!
As I was mentioning earlier, problems are often interconnected: what seems to be only an environmental matter is first of all a fundamental problem of democracy.
Imposing decisions without consulting with the people who are going to be affected is certainly not an example of democratic attitude.
Georgia has always been famous for its cultural richness and diversity. In Svaneti, even the Soviet Union never interfered too much with local traditions and their land division system.
The problem is when the government has a top-down approach, which is what is happening here. The way this situation has been dealt with shows how little consideration there has been for the Svans, whose historical culture and traditions are a precious heritage for our country.
We doubt about the transparency of this project as the contract has not been made available to the public.
The problem, again, is that environmental protection is not considered important enough, despite the efforts from the European Union, who has made one of its priorities to keep an eye on the construction of new hydropower plants in Georgia.
What does the Svans’ struggle against the Nenskra hydroplant teach us?
The history of the Svans is very interesting and has a lot of elements that can inspire us.
First of all, they have a strong sense of unity, something that is normally difficult thing to create even though it is the key to achieve victory.
Back in the 1970s they had already had to fight against the construction of dams in their region, and they emerged victorious because they were persistent, resilient and united.
Svans have their own language, a proto-Georgian language, and their own traditions. For example, even in the past Upper Svaneti never had a feudal system as they used a communal system of governance.
Their idea of the public good is different from that of the bureaucrats who live in the city, in that it is a concept based on the preservation of nature and harmony between the community and the environment.
We need these types of examples. The paradigm that considers humanity as something apart or separated from the rest of the environment is a problem that we have to overcome if we want to move towards an ecological knowledge society.