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Giorgi Sanadiradze: A Regional Leader in the Caucasus

The WWF Caucasus Programme coordinated an intensive process to develop the Critical Ecosystem Partnership Fund (CEPF) ecosystem profile for the Caucasus biodiversity hotspot. The Programme will now act as the hub of CEPF strategy implementation in the region, ensuring integration of the WWF and CEPF approach, helping local groups develop grant proposals, disseminating information and assisting in monitoring of the CEPF portfolio.

In this interview, we talk with WWF Caucasus Programme Director Giorgi Sanadiradze about himself, the coordination challenge and the future.

CEPF: How did you get involved in conservation?

Sanadiradze: I am a lucky person because I am a biologist. My target in life was science. I went to the Biology Department of Tbilisi University and my main idea was to become a scientist. I worked 10 years in science. I completed my thesis in 1986 – a Ph.D. – on high mountain ecology.

My work was mainly dedicated to the human impact on high mountain ecosystems. It was one of the best times of my life. It was a very interesting study: we compared the human impact in the Caucasus and the Alps in Austria. It was a joint project over 10 years. It was a very popular UNESCO program. During the Soviet times, this was a project that was financed by the state. It has absolutely collapsed now unfortunately because the government in Georgia has been very weak but during Soviet Union times it was financed well.

In 1991, I heard that WWF had decided to enlarge their activities in Georgia. They asked the different experts in the country to propose a strategy for environmental education. I was an employee of the Academy of Sciences at that time and I produced and submitted a strategy. Fortunately for me they approved this as the best one and they took it as a strategy for implementation and asked me to coordinate the program. And since then, we have slowly expanded from environmental education to a regional conservation program.

CEPF: Your team led the CEPF ecosystem profiling process in this region, including involving more than 130 experts in the six countries of the Caucasus. What kind of challenges did you face in this process?

Sanadiradze: I’m sure everybody thinks their ecoregion or hotspot is the most difficult one, but in our case it is really difficult. We have six countries that are very different politically because the Soviet Union was an absolutely closed country during the last 70 years while Turkey and Iran were outside this. It’s a complex mixture of very different countries, ethnic groups and cultures.

The biggest challenge was in Armenia and Azerbaijan. Three countries—Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan—are the heart of the Caucasus but Armenia and Azerbaijan were in a state of war. On the other hand, you would be surprised that even from these nations with problems, the scientists and experts sit together, nobody thinking about politics and problems. They are thinking about science, planning and the future. They are working together. This gives us real possibility to believe that the future will be much better than we have had before.

The other challenge is the general situation in the region – all the countries are in very poor condition. I would say the same about Russia because it’s a huge country with a lot of problems. All the countries have big social and economic problems, which is a major threat to nature. The easiest way to survive today in the countryside is through the use of natural resources and this is usually logging, poaching or overfishing.

It’s a big problem because it is very difficult to discuss the environmental problems with poor people who do not even have heating or something to eat. But on the other hand, I would say that everybody is ready to discuss something.

Generally, the people in the Caucasus are for nature protection, not against it. But, of course if you put them in a corner, people will find it difficult to find a way to discuss these issues. We are conservationists but we need to find a way to create alternatives for these people, how to help them and not to fight with them.

I think this is very important: not to fight with the people for conservation but to help them and work together for conservation. If you fight, it is absolutely impossible. You could establish a national park, do the demarcation, put the staff in, you could put 500 or 1,000 rangers there, but it would never work if there is no consensus or assistance and understanding from the local people.

CEPF: Was it difficult to achieve consensus about which places are priorities and which actions should be taken?

Sanadiradze: Yes. The first barrier you have to cross is to show people that nature very close to their village is not only their resource. In their mind, ‘it’s my nature, my forest, my animals.’ The first step is to explain that it is not only for them but also for the country and the world. This takes some time.

Very often I have had meetings with whole villages, 100 or 150 people—people without electricity, no jobs, living in very poor condition—and have faced the challenge of explaining and discussing with the people how we would like to protect this area because it is of global importance.

The second step is to explain and to show that this is one of the ways they can help themselves: it’s not just protection but also one of the ways to have a good future. All the main benefits today are not for the local people—local people receive 1 or 2 percent of the benefits—the main benefits are going to the people from other regions, from the city, the forest mafia or the hunting mafia so we try to show how this existing small amount of money is not a solution for the people.

The next biggest problem from the Soviet Union times is that there is no leadership in the communities. The whole Soviet Union system was against leadership so nobody would have any new idea or promote any new idea. This is a result of those times in the communities. You will find people sitting in the village and there is a big hole in the road right behind them. It’s very easy – they could go and find two or three big stones and put them in the hole and the road would be immediately better but nobody will do that. There is no initiative.

Many problems at the community level could be solved by the communities. This is the other thing you show them: that conservation is one of the ways we propose to help development. If you reach the people, there will be something for the future. Everybody needs to think about the future and their children and grandchildren. You have to leave something for the future. This is one of the most sensitive parts of the human spirit that you have to touch.

CEPF: What kind of opportunity do you think the CEPF approach represents for the Caucasus?

Sanadiradze: This is what I like very much. I mean working together with NGOs and community-based organizations and having the chance to assist them in the creation of leadership – the group who will lead the people to a target. In our case, the main purpose is conservation but it is also joining the people under one idea. It is very important. Very often big organizations are allocating a lot of money but grassroots organizations are out of the focus.

The main thing that interests me about the CEPF approach is that we will be able to reach these local people and organizations, and make a difference.

- July 2004
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© WWF Caucasus
WWF Caucasus Programme Director Giorgi Sanadiradze in one of the programme's many meetings with stakeholders to determine conservation priorities in the hotspot.

You can learn more about the CEPF strategy for this hotspot in the Caucasus section of Where We Work.

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(Blue and yellow macaw) © André Bärtschi