Diversions: Becho, Svaneti

As a relative newcomer to the scene in Becho, 10 km closer to Mestia than my “home” village of Etseri, I am slowly learning the ropes as I spend a couple of days a week here teaching English in the main school.

The two villages are similar in size but, as I mentioned previously, Becho seems to be considerably more popular with the tourists, mostly because of the huge presence of Mt Ushba at the top end. Here the straight-on Etseri view of the south peak is slightly rotated, so you can just see the north peak peering at you over its shoulder. You’ll have to go all the way to Mestia, though, to see the two, differing in height by a mere meter, side by side, having moved around about ninety degrees from the “start” position of my village.

The main river in Becho is called the Dolra; there are also a few different mineral springs, no surprise as Georgia has around 2000 of these, all unique in content, a few even hot. The river has been the focus of furious discussion in the teachers’ room in Becho for my past few visits. And last week we even had an impromptu schoolyard meeting about it with some visitors from Tbilisi.

They were from the Ombudsman’s, or Public Defender’s, Office, and had come based on news of the great dissatisfaction of my colleagues and others over what has been proposed, and begun, as a project without their consent or even knowledge until seemingly too late.

Outsiders were being seen around the village, not connected with its road improvement scheme which has recently been retired until the spring. They were measuring and surveying here and there, and eventually it was discovered that they represent plans to move the Dolra entirely from its current position. The plans are actually to pipe the river underground, on the other side of the houses which run alongside it now, and then to use the force of its new course to power the turbine for a new small hydroelectric plant.

The amount of forest needing to be cleared for this? Apparently 40 hectares, useful land which is being used for firewood harvesting by the whole village; not to mention functioning naturally as an anti-erosion measure, holding the soil in place.

The digging and piping will also, the villagers believe, affect detrimentally the sources of a number of those precious mineral springs, likely cutting them off and destroying them. And, further, they don’t believe that there will be any economic benefit for the village’s population, that their location and resources will simply be exploited, the workers to come in from elsewhere, the electricity to go far away to much bigger concentrations of people, perhaps even abroad, to Turkey, for example.

My colleagues had begun the laborious process of collecting signatures for a petition to halt investigation or work until their curiosity as to the overall benefits to them of all this has been satisfied. I was mostly an observer at the brief meeting, at which the above grievances were aired. But I did quietly urge one of my colleagues to request an answer and some action from the Ombudsman’s Office, which apparently exists for just such purposes, and to let them know that something nebulous and non-committal would not suffice. Do you have their contact details? I asked. Then use them, and phone or email until you are indeed satisfied. These people are getting a salary to serve you, if you don’t know! It’s their job!

Quite a few new hydroelectric projects on different scales have been begun in Svaneti in recent times, only the most infamous of which is the long-delayed and restarted huge main Enguri dam. The growing need for electricity in Georgia does seem to be real. I just hope that greed and outside interests will not rule the proceedings at the expense of the people and ecology of magnificent Svaneti. These people have lived here for thousands of years and stuck it out in their isolation. They deserve to be an integral part of their province’s doings on all levels and in all spheres.

Tony Hanmer runs the “Svaneti Renaissance” Facebook group, now with over 1250 members, at

www.facebook.com/groups/SvanetiRenaissance/

He and his wife also run their own guest house in Etseri:

www.facebook.com/hanmer.house.svaneti

Tony Hanmer

26 November 2015 20:41
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