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GEORGIA | ECF Team Field Visit to Dertseli Community in the Adigeni Region of Georgia

The Eco-Corridors Fund held the annual meeting – the Regional Consultative Forum – in Borjomi, Georgia on June 19th, 2018. The meeting was attended by all key members of the ECF programme and featured private meetings and group presentations. This meeting provided an opportunity for the whole ECF team – from National Coordinators to community members and caretakers – a chance to meet in person and discuss the conservation agreements and accomplishments of the past year, as well as recent developments and strategies.

After the meetings adjourned, ECF affiliates from all three Caucasus countries were offered the chance to travel to Dertseli, a small Georgian community participating in ECF, to meet the locals and experience ECF on the ground. This opportunity was a special chance for the team to get out of the office and into the field and prompted discussions and observations on how ECF operates in the Western Lesser Caucasus Eco-Corridor.

On June 20th, the group traveled by hired vans through theAdigeniregion of southwestern Georgia.Included in the party were the national coordinators from Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan, community members from Areni, Armenia, including the mayor of Areni Municipality, managers of the Gnishik Foundation in Armenia, ECF Georgia administration staff and project coordinator and Chief Technical Advisor Jernej Stritih. The goal of the day trip was to give everyone a chance to see how one community in Georgia is working with ECF and provide tangible background to those team members and participants who have not seen ECF’s work in action.

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The Community of Dehrseli & ECF

The Adirgeni region of ECF’s Western Lesser Caucasus Eco-Region is known for historic monasteries and ancient metallurgy. Dehrseli is a small community within the region that was identified as candidate for the ECF programme. Over a year ago the community took part in ECF’s Financial Participatory Approach (FPA) a process which aids ECF administration to evaluate if a community is open to, and capable of, committing to a conservation agreement.

The FPA offers financial incentive to the community to take specific steps preparing them to enter into a conservation agreement in the future. Some of these steps include creating a collaboration with a partner NGO or institution to oversee progress, developing a capacity for community leadership and ensuring there is community involvement on multiple levels – from school children to community decision makers. The FPA also helps develop a level of trust between the community and ECF, demonstrating that ECF isn’t about policing or reducing economic activities related to land use, but about fostering a friendship and trust-based partnership where the good of the community is integrated into wildlife conservation objectives. The goal of ECF as a whole is to contribute to ecological conservation in the Caucasus without reducing the income of rural populations and the FPA has proved to be a key stepping stone to reaching this goal.

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Borjomi-Kharagali National Park Office

On the way to the community of Dertseli, the group stopped at Borjomi-Kharagali National Park Office, for a short, guided tour by one of the park interpreters. During this tour, topics like tourism, key species conservation, and relationships with local communities was discussed.

Borjomi-Kharagali National Park was the first National Park in Georgia, established in 1995, through a collaboration between WWF and the government of Georgia. The park represents the roots of nature conservation in the Caucasus, as the land that makes up the park was originally set aside by ruling Russian Emperor Mikhail Romanoff as a place for summer homes with strict rules against hunting and logging, a historic form of nature conservation.

The current-day park covers 1% of the Georgia and features a variety of geography and ecology, including mixed forests, sub alpine and alpine ecosystems. It provides refuge for over 200 migratory and nesting birds and links a variety of parks and protected areas. This tour provided an opportunity for ECF staff and national coordinators to experience tourism and nature conservation working hand-in-hand; a form of inspiration and encouragement.

Journey to Dertseli Community

Driving along the Larebi River, Dertseli Community Union board member Zaza Shavadze,

spoke through translation to share with the group that the river is a popular rafting tourism location and hosted a Euro Cup rafting race in the past. They also drove past the Green Monastery, another popular tourist destination, further revealing the region’s potential for a well-rounded tourism package.

As the paved road turned to dirt, the varied greens of the mixed forests rolled past, giving way to patches of field atop the low, rounded mountains. Taking a break to stretch legs, the group pulled over and wandered across one of the fields designated by locals for summer grazing. Small wooden cabins peppered the neighbouring mountain flank, creating a 360-degree vista of blue sky meeting emerald forests. These mountains mark the start of the Armenian high plateau, Zaza explained, an ancient volcanic highland that is home to many of the regions threatened species, notably the Caucasian chamois, Caucasian red deer and the brown bear which ECF’s conservation agreements in the country are focused on protecting.

Continuing on by car, the road leveled out and the convoy drove past fields of wildflowers, hay and grazing animals. Separated by traditional fences made of brush or wood, each field was a tangible example of ECF conservation objectives in action. Zaza explained that some fields are reserved for livestock grazing and hay making, while some fields are being left in a natural state as habitat for local key species, contributing to valuable eco-corridors being developed in the region. These land management practices have been established through collaboration with ECF and are a clear example of how the community can access science-based knowledge and the expertise of ECF national coordinators while ensuring local economy does not suffer. It’s proof that conservation and local economy can function in unison.

With the road too steep and muddy for the vans, the group walked the final stretch of road, while Zaza explained how potatoes are a common crop for the area, pointing out his family patch, but that in the past fruit trees were the primary crop. His family garden held beans, corn and peas, with bright medicinal flowers like calendula, bordering their rough-hewn wooden porch of their traditional two-story family home.

Traditional Meal and Gathering

Upon entering, the party was greeted by the whole family including Zaza’s parents, wife and two young children. A spread fit for royalty was set up at the long dining table, including cheese made in the village, local meats, fresh bread and cakes baked in the downstairs kitchen, roasted and spiced potatoes grown just outside the door and fried fish. Zaza spoke about his work as a Dertseli Community Union board memberand the positive impacts ECF has had on his community. Although his speech was translated to English and Armenian for the international group of guests around his table, it was clearly evident by his tone, energy and emotion that he was is an extremely proud, passionate and dedicated ECF team member.

Drinks were poured, toasts were made and conversation around the table ran in four languages discussing experience and victories from the past year’s conservation efforts across the Caucasus.

One of ECF’s primary goals is to help traditional users manage wildlife habitat in a more sustainable way. It was clear by the day spent in the mountains of Adigeni, Georgia, that ECF’s hard work, innovation and collaborations are yielding lasting results.

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