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Event dedicated to mountain inhabitants honors their struggle against depopulation

By Levan Abramishvili
Friday, December 13
An event under “#MountainsMatter,” was held in Tbilisi to mark the International Mountain Day, organized by the Government of Georgia in partnership with the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), the European Union (EU) and Austria, Sweden and Switzerland, the main idea was to raise awareness of the needs of mountain communities while honoring the contributions of mountain residents.

The overall message of the celebration was that Georgia’s mountains are priceless resources, but residents need targeted investment and support to combat depopulation and underdevelopment.

“Today, we salute custodians of mountains, people who work hard to preserve our unique natural resources and cultural traditions,” said Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Regional Development and Infrastructure, Maia Tskitishvili.

“Nearly half of settlements in Georgia are in high mountainous areas, but only nine percent of Georgians live in the highlands. We need to improve services and expand education and employment opportunities to ensure a brighter future for all highlanders,” she added.

In appreciation of their struggle to stop depopulation of the highlands of Georgia, nine families from high mountain communities received People of the Mountains awards.

Moreover, a beloved Georgian poet Besik Kharanauli, and a well-known photographer Natela Grigalashvili, were also recognized for their works which document life in remote mountain villages. The awards were presented by ministers, diplomats and heads of international organizations.

UNDP Head Louisa Vinton handed over the prize to the Gabejishvili family from the village of Gona in the Racha highlands.

“Georgia is defined by its mountains,” she said, “but it’s important to temper romanticism with realism. Highland residents face high rates of poverty and the devastating weather extremes that come with climate change. It is reassuring to see such a strong coalition of forces, both national and international, joining hands to help provide the support needed to preserve the way of life in mountains.”

Prime Minister of Georgia Giorgi Gakharia also addressed the gathered audience and noted that the highlands have had a tremendous importance in the history, culture and identity of Georgia.

Gakharia said that attention paid to highlands should double and high terrain regions should become sustainable, have their economy. They should incorporate companies that will render services to the entire country and gain export potential.

“Tourist destinations like Mestia, Kazbegi, Ushguli, Truso should not only be visited by every Georgian, but they should all know what they stand for. We should show them to the entire world. We should expose them to how the Georgian human nature got shaped, how traditions evolved,” noted PM Gakharia.

According to the Head of Government of Georgia, authorities of the country are implementing various initiatives to improve the living standards for highlanders, including the increased pensions. From January 1, 2020 highlander elders aged over 70 will get GEL 263 a month, while GEL 300 from July 1, 2020.

A recent study conducted by the ISET Policy Institute shows that there is a considerable lack of all types of resources in the mountains.

According to the study, natural gas, electricity, and tap water is limited in some municipalities. There are 88 high mountain settlements without electricity. Most of the high mountain settlements do not have access to the internet, and even mobile coverage is not available in some areas. Out of 1,730 high mountain settlements, 1,460 do not have access to natural gas.

The report discusses two critical aspects of consideration – the mountain regions’ geographic location and human resources. Since the majority of mountainous municipalities share a border with other countries, there’s a general tendency of the workforce to migrate away from the mountains.

The study particularly focuses on Lentekhi and Oni municipalities, where the majority of the population there (60-70%) is of retirement age.

“There are many abandoned villages in mountainous regions, while in some villages only a few people remain over winter. Current trends lead to the depopulation of mountainous regions and depopulation on Georgia’s borders poses extremely significant risks to the country’s national security,” says the ISET study.

Georgia adopted a Law on the Development of the High Mountainous Regions in 2016. The law attempts to pave the way for systemic policy efforts to address the challenges faced by the country’s highlands. In 2019, with assistance from UNDP and the governments of Switzerland and Austria, the Government endorsed the country’s first four-year Strategy on the Development of the High Mountainous Settlements, committing new funding of GEL 700 million (USD 240 million) to promote economic development, improve social welfare and expand access to services for the 300,000 people who live in Georgia’s highest mountain regions.

Since 2016, more than 1,700 settlements have received high mountain status and many have benefitted from projects implemented by UNDP through partnership with Switzerland and Austria. The projects aim to support local entrepreneurship, renewable energy, waste management and environmental tourism.