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CARE offering helping hand to villagers in Lechkhumi and Kvemo Svaneti

Friday, July 15
Those who have never been to Tsageri should not expect to see traditional stone tower-houses in the area. True, Tsageri belongs to the Racha-Lechkhumi and Kvemo Svaneti region but the name of Svaneti should not create erroneous expectations. The Lower Svaneti is dotted by villages featuring mixed wooden and stone two-storied houses with hanging wooden balconies. But much like its upper lands Kvemo Svaneti is a land of stunning beauty as ski-high mountains covered with wild forests rise along the Tskhenistkali River. A curvy steep road from Kutaisi, the nearest biggest city in West Georgia, follows this river up deep into the mountains to lead to Tsageri and Lentekhi and offers enough of an adrenaline rush to adventure lovers. If you manage to take your eyes and mindset away from the ravine at some points unfolding right beneath your feet you can enjoy the trip.

The gorgeous wildlife and nature of this mountainous region is a source of inspiration and attraction for short-term visitors. But its geographic location can be a bane for locals in winter. Frequent landslides and heavy snowfall in winter blocks roads cutting some remote villages from Georgia proper for weeks. Income opportunities are scarce here and people mostly depend on earnings from agriculture and state aid benefits. The nature does not always pay due tribute to long hours of human labour.

“We did a survey here and found that over 70 percent of farmers in this region do not generate any cash income from agriculture and are completely subsistence farmers,” says Tamuna Melkadze, a representative of CARE, an international development and relief NGO. CARE is implementing a project titled Strengthening Community-based Initiatives for poverty reduction in Racha-Lechkhumi and Kvemo-Svaneti Region of Georgia (COMBI). With an overall budget of almost EUR 0.5m the project seeks to benefit to around 4000 people in 5 targeted communities in Tsageri municipalty. The project is funded by the European Union (EU) and the Austrian development Cooperation and Cooperation for Eastern Europe (ADC).

“We picked these five communities based on a baseline research which revealed the poverty level was highest here and the outside intervention was most needed and critical to these communities,” says Tamar Melkadze.

COMBI project tries to bring relief to impoverished communities by spreading knowledge of new technologies in agriculture among farmers, making access to agriculture inputs and empowering local communities to learn how to take care of themselves.

Irma Mushkudiani, 39, with a family of four, is now growing apple trees and garlic in her plot in the village of Okureshi with the help of COMBI’s agriculture specialists. She moved from Kutaisi to Okureshi two years ago as she was jobless and decided she would rather grow food to support her family. A monthly state benefit of 102 GEL [around 60 USD] for the poor is the only cash income for her family. A Soviet-era bus, most probably even older than Irma herself, serves as official public transportation for the village twice a week and drives to the ultimate drivable point of the road, which is about 5 km away from Irma’s house. But Irma has to grow enough harvest first and think of transportation and possible markets later.

“Life is not difficult in the village if you plan it properly. I feel at peace here. We grow food just for ourselves and the crops are not sometimes enough for the family. A lot depends on weather. Severe drought destroyed maize and bean crops in our village last year. People had to buy everything, even those food products which they grew on their farms before,” says Irma.

She looks at her little apple an orchard and garlic leaves tied at the top and says: “Our house lies in the centre of the village and a lot of people come to see how our garlic is growing. It seems we will be having good harvests this year and will sell some in the neighborhood.”

Irma is one of those farmers who are receiving agricultural consultations and other support from CARE’s project. She learned how to process seeds, how to plant them and how to take care of the plants later.

According to Tariel Saginadze, an agricultural expert at Abkhazintercont (AIC), the project’s partner organization, the demonstration plots are the best examples how to receive the maximum output that will become the income for the households in the future.

“From 10 kg of garlic plants, Irma will yield 150 kg of garlic as a minimum. In the winter season, the average price for a kilo of garlic is 6 GEL, totaling 900 GEL [around 500 USD],” Saginadze explained.

118 demonstration plots were set up last year, including apple, garlic, nut, plural raspberries, potatoes, corn, chicken and bee-keeping, as part of the project to encourage poor farmers to uptake new technologies which will produce richer crops and improve livelihoods. An evaluation shows the plots increased household incomes by average 25 percent. This is expected to spur replication of new farming methods by other farmers and have a ripple effect on the communities.

Such forward-looking farmers can buy new seed varieties and fertilizers and learn about new technologies in an agricultural input shop in Tsageri, also established under the project. Previously the farmers had to go to Kutaisi to buy the materials. But buying local does not mean paying more. The shop sells inputs even lower price since the supplies are from first-hand vendors.

The input shop sits next to Community Resource Center which provides space for networking, access to knowledge, training and information (including internet) for local community-based organizations (CBO). These CBOs on their part also contribute to spreading knowledge in the communities. The improved access to information and services is expected to lead to the use of improved practices, boost production and quality of farm products.

AIC”s Tariel Saginadze believes the agriculture shop and demonstration plots will not only increase access to materials and incomes but has more important implications.

“This shop is bringing about revolution in farmers’ mentality. This is what matters. The farmers still apply century-old methods and fertilizers and some of them are no longer effective in fighting crop deceases. Here they learn what new materials are available and what they should do to grow more. This knowledge will pay off overtime,” he added.

For Irma and her family CARE’s efforts are already paying off. When asked what CARE changed in her life she says: “I now have hope. Humans need hope to live.”

The views expressed in this publication do not necessarily reflect the views of the donor organizations.