Photo: Natela Grigalashvili
The article was originally published by Entrepreneur Georgia.
SABUKO (Society for Nature Conservation) is committed to preserving and protecting Georgia’s wild species and their habitats. Through various activities in the Kakheti region, the organization supports local farmers, conserves biodiversity, implements sustainable pasture management approaches, and strengthens local communities. The project “Kakheti Steppes: A Fragile Balance between a Living Landscape or a Future Desert” is a continuation of the first phase of the project: “Restoring Gallery Forest and Grasslands in the Iori River Valley”. The activities of the first phase have been undertaken in 2019-2022, based on which the need and potential for the extension of the project were identified. Correspondingly, the team developed a new project proposal, the implementation of which commenced on 1 October 2022. The second phase of the project runs for five years (2022-2027) and has a budget of $4.5 million.
The project mentioned above is being implemented within the framework of the Cambridge Conservation Initiative and funded by the Arcadia – the Endangered Landscapes Programme. The Ministry of Environmental Protection and Agriculture of Georgia, the Agency of Protected Areas, the administrations of Vashlovani Protected Area and Chachuna Managed Reserve, CNF – Caucasus Nature Fund among others are valuable partners.
The geographical area of activity includes the Vashlovani Protected Area, the Chachuna Managed Reserve, the Samukhi Multipurpose Use Protected Area, and the Kotsakhura Emerald Network. The project’s second phase promotes creating a harmonious environment for human-wildlife coexistence.
With the purpose of ensuring the unity of the protected area, SABUKO has developed the plan for the Chachuna Managed Reserve, while together with its partners, it has updated the management plan for the Vashlovani Protected Area. Within the bounds of the second phase, it is intended to develop a management plan for Samukhi and Kotsakhura.
Since 2019, SABUKO has been consistently conducting different activities in the above areas, including socio-economic surveys among farmers as well as a study on local people’s attitudes towards wildlife. Within the framework of the first phase of the project, the project team put in place a number of innovations. Particularly, rotational grazing, which helps to restore pastures and preserve the diversity of species. Additionally, a gabion has been arranged to help raise the river level and support flooding of forest. The Dali Mountain Reservoir dividing the floodplain forest into two parts, differentiates the upper and lower part of the reservoir by the floristic composition of a floodplain forest.
Photo: Mariam Nikuradze
“The project area is very important from a biodiversity point of view. There are pastures and floodplain forests in the project area. The aim of the project is to preserve and restore the mentioned landscape for various wildlife”, – Aleksandre Mikeladze, Project Manager said.
SABUKO supports sustainable pasture management in the project area as the area could be converted to arable land, which would favor monocropping and change the existing landscape.
“Our project area or the semi-arid landscape, is a very vulnerable area affected by a number of natural and anthropogenic factors. SABUKO makes every effort to implement activities aimed at restoring the area or mitigating natural or anthropogenic factors affecting the local habitat. At the current stage, mammal survey methodology is being developed. We intend to set up camera traps in the project area to monitor animals, respectively. The research serves to identify the habitat of lynx and wolf and to observe their behaviors with regard to changes in environmental conditions. Moreover, it is planned to attach a GPS tracking device to the lynx in the future,” – Zurab Gurgenidze, Conservation Manager noted.
Sustainable pasture management is a big and complex task. SABUKO cooperates with government agencies in this regard. The Working Group also considered the vision of the Agency of Protected Areas in the project proposal and activities. One of the priorities for the Agency of Protected Areas is the sustainable management of pastures, while for municipalities the preservation and management of pastures by local farmers is a priority. The pasture management plan document developed by SABUKO was one of the first examples of how to manage pastures in a sustainable way, dividing pastures into plots, rotation, defining capacity rates for pasture plots, etc. Within the project’s first phase, SABUKO developed a sustainable pasture management plan for over 4,000 ha. Within the second phase of the project, a pasture management plan is being developed for an area of 25,000 ha.
“It is important that the involvement of the government was considered at the beginning of the project because it deepens the cooperation, raises awareness, and improves the quality of participation. Before implementing the initiative, we conducted research and explored the opinions of all potential stakeholders”, – Alexander Mikeladze, project manager stated.
Additionally, SABUKO maintains an active relationship with local people within the scope of the project. However, constant communication with the local community and gaining their trust still remains a key challenge. SABUKO aims to raise awareness of the project benefits through diverse activities.
“Our communication with local residents is mainly done through individual meetings, as mobile communication in the project area is practically non-existent. We plan to prepare information brochures and place them in the administration offices of protected areas. We aim to use short text messages (SMS) as well to provide them with daily information – be it amendments to the law, suggestions on sustainable grazing, or information about weather forecasts. The target audience is decision-makers/government officials on the one hand and local people and farmers/shepherds on the other hand. Apart from in-person meetings, we are going to utilize our digital communication channels for information dissemination purposes,” – Londa Beria, Communications Manager noted.
SABUKO has been able to make positive changes by involving local farmers in the project and taking their needs into consideration. The organization’s socio-economic research also considers local factors, coexistence between farmers and wildlife, biodiversity, and gender.
“Local people may perceive the new initiative as something strange. Since 2019, SABUKO has been in constant communication with these people, so the moment of strangeness has been already overcome. What’s more, the readiness and willingness to introduce our approaches, such as rotational grazing, comes from the farmers themselves,” – Alexander Mikeladze, Project Manager highlighted.
Within the process of developing sustainable management, the involvement of all stakeholders and consideration of their interests is paramount. The approach of farmers to have more heads of sheep means active utilization of local pastures, which increases the risk of land degradation. In turn, this leads to higher expenditures for the farmer, as the farmer has to buy additional animal feed if there is no or little pasture cover.
“In the socio-economic surveys we have carried out with farmers, you can clearly see their attitude that grass cover is getting worse every year and they have more expenses for sheep feed. Unsustainable use of pastures also leads to erosion. Having analyzed the problem mentioned above, we decided to empower farmers so that increasing the number of sheep is not their goal. We focused on developing the value chain, which means facilitating the sale and export of products produced by farmers”, – Alexander Mikeladze, Project Manager noted.
SABUKO cooperates with the Export Development Association (EDA) on the issue of product sales in the EU countries. At the current stage, the export potential of Georgian sheep cheese is under research and evaluation. Although the sale of sheep wool involves more costs than profit, the research also takes this part into account.
The project’s sustainable goals are of significant importance. During the project period, SABUKO plans to introduce and integrate activities into daily life, which farmers will be able to continue independently upon completion of the project. The systemic approach will contribute to the harmonious human-wildlife coexistence in Kakheti.