Batumi development would break Georgia’s biodiversity promise to EU

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The Chorokhi Delta, nestled between Batumi airport and the seaside village of Gonio on the Black Sea, is a hotspot for migrating birds, a quiet piece of shoreline, a grazing ground for cows and a key part of the plan of Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili. to make Georgia a financial hub, the “Eastern Luxembourg.”

One side of the river is a former Russian weapons testing ground; the other is a contemporary dump. Between trash and remnants of ammunition, the fields and shores of the delta have been mostly left to birds since the last Russian soldiers left the area in 2007. It’s one of the best spots in Georgia for bird-watching birds, with rare species such as the black-winged pralincole. and the critically endangered sociable lapwing.

Zura Gurgenidze, a conservation officer with SABUKOthe local partner of Birdlife International, describes the Chorokhi delta as “one of the most important parts of [Georgia’s] Black Sea coast.

Abandoned Russian military buildings stand before the skyline of Batumi.

For many years, the biggest threat to the delta has been illegal hunting; today is development.

Since at least 2010, the authorities have planned to extend Batumi Boulevard – a pedestrian promenade lined with resorts, casinos and modern kitsch – in this direction. Although these plans have not yet materialized, Garibashvili has in recent months sought to attract foreign investors to this part of the coast.

However, there is a catch in his plan: the Chorokhi delta is part of the Council of Europe Emerald Network of Areas of Special Conservation Interest protected by the Bern Convention, which Georgia signed in 2009. Under this agreement, the national government of Tbilisi is responsible for ensuring all development in this country preserves habitats, especially for migrating birds, and minimizes damage to wildlife. The convention also prohibits the “deliberate damage or destruction of breeding or resting sites” of certain species of wildlife, including 139 bird species that have been reported in the delta.

EU membership has been progressing slowly since Georgia signed a association agreement in 2014, but the Russian invasion of Ukraine this spring sped up the timeline. Georgia formally asked to join the 3 of March. The agreement, which lays the foundations for EU integration, specifies Georgia’s environmental obligations, mentions the Emerald Network and states that Tbilisi undertakes “to respect the principles of sustainable development, to protect the environment […] including […] implementation of multilateral international agreements.

A comprehensive biodiversity law that would more strongly protect Emerald Network sites is on Parliament’s agenda for consideration before the end of June.

“Because of this accelerated accession process, the EU is now demanding that this biodiversity law be put in place as soon as possible,” said Christian Gönner of German development agency GIZ, which works with the government on the Emerald network since 2013. .

Without national law, there is no enforcement mechanism to discourage developers, added Gönner, an avid birder and volunteer for eBird, an online database. He points out, however, that the government could overcome Emerald Network restrictions by arguing that construction is in the national interest.

A view over one of the many ponds in the Chorokhi delta towards the mountains of Adjara.
A view over one of the many ponds in the Chorokhi delta towards the mountains of Adjara.

Garibashvili has hired financial services giant Rothschild & Co to oversee the development of the financial hub, meeting with at least Rothschild chief executive Arielle Malard six times over the past year and pledging on April 20 to implement the project “in the most effective and efficient manner”. A spokesperson for Rothschild & Co did not respond to questions about how the Bern Convention might impact labor.

Garibashvili’s office, the Ministry of Economy and Sustainable Development and the Adjara region’s tourism department did not respond to Eurasianet’s requests for comment. A spokesman for the Ministry of Environmental Protection and Agriculture said the ministry could not comment because the delta development project has not yet been submitted for review.

Still, Tamar Diasamidze from the Adjara Ministry of Finance and Economy told Eurasianet that her office is finalizing an agreement with the Asian Development Bank to finance the expansion of the boulevard, including a bridge over the Chorokhi. The AfDB is a key investor in another controversial projectthe Nenskra hydroelectric damwhich resulted in a dramatic reduction of a candidate Emerald site.

The last public proposal for the development of the delta, dated 2014, said that 30% of the Gonio side of the delta would remain an “untouched” recreational and birdwatching area. SABUKO’s Gurgenidze says this is insufficient, as it would leave too little buffer to the bird population.

Death by a thousand cuts

On a recent afternoon, a group of fishermen went to the beach of Chorokhi to fix their lines. Davit Tavartkiladze, who has been fishing in the delta for a decade, dismissed Garibashvili’s plans: “Build the casinos at his place,” he said. “Batumi is full of casinos.

“It’s the place of the birds,” said another fisherman. “They are out of danger here, and if their nests are destroyed, where will they go?”

Tavartkiladze
Batumi resident Davit Tavartkiladze drops his line where the Chorokhi River empties into the Black Sea.

While the fishermen, bird watchers and conservationists interviewed for this story all spoke out against the development, most were also skeptical of the outcome of the plans, pointing to past efforts that have not borne fruit.

Yet Aslan Bolqvadze of the Batumi Botanical Garden says the delta and unique plant ecosystems, including fragments of Colchian forest, are already under attack. On a visit in April, he was surprised by the amount of human activity already apparent – excavators, downed trees and two quarries extracting gravel and sand.

“So maybe they won’t manage to build a bridge over the Chorokhi delta, they won’t manage to build huge casinos, buildings and hotels around the delta. But they build small commercial factories and mines, which is […] exactly as harmful as the grand scheme. They will continue to destroy the Chorokhi Delta, bit by bit.

At the same time, GIZ’s Gönner fears that the sudden influx of tens of thousands of Russians and Ukrainians following the war and the accompanying rise in local apartment prices, will leave investors eager to build more housing in the area.

Without a concerted effort to protect the delta is in danger, he said: “When you’re so close to a major tourist destination, like in our case Batumi, it’s probably a never-ending fight for conservation” .

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