The sound of money in the mountains of Georgia9 min read

Futa Dadeshkeliani was a Svan prince from the Becho Valley during a period of independence for upper Svaneti in Georgia. He wished to consolidate power in all thirteen communities of the principality, and after much effort and conflict he succeeded in this task. Unsurprisingly, many villages were opposed to this, among them the community of Ushguli (today the highest settled village  in Europe) who decided that Dadeskheliani must die. He was invited to feast with them and sat in a position of honor. Prior to his arrival, a rifle had been set in place, aimed at his soon to be filled chair. It was agreed that all families in the village would share responsibility for the assassination, so one member of each household sat near the hidden weapon and a string was tied to its trigger. When the time came for Dadeshkeliani to meet his end, the string was pulled by all so that blame (and credit) would be equally spread throughout the valley.

Stories like these are part of the rich oral history of Svaneti, capturing the mountainous region’s history of independence and violence. Svaneti was once an almost mythical place within Georgia; it is nestled deep in the Caucasus with villages and cities hugging the border of modern-day Russia and is home to a culture that has developed parallel to, but independently from, the rest of country. The language is removed from that of the lowlands (described to me as being as different as Portuguese is to English), the religion is historically separate from Georgian Orthodoxy, and the isolation of its valleys gave rise to a legacy of powerful famila’ clans, blood-feuds, and bride-napping up through the 1990s.

Last year there were three homicides in the province’s capital city of Mestia. However, these murders did not occur in the Svaneti described in ancient tales or advertised to tourists; they happened in 2018, in a city that houses more outsiders than it does locals for much of the year and is the epicentre of Georgia’s future energy plans. This sudden flurry of tragic violence, once commonplace, serves perhaps as an overly grim juxtaposition for a region defined by its history and culture that has simultaneously modernized and further integrated with the rest of Georgia.

The Rose Revolution and the mountains

Since 2004, the isolation that molded Svaneti has been rapidly eroding. Mikheil Saakashvili’s Rose Revolution government made it a priority to develop the region, particularly the capital Mestia, paving roads through the mountains, building a small airport, (half) developing the city center and initiating work on new ski-fields. Now, tourists flood Mestia and surrounding villages year-round to ski, hike and inhale the dramatic landscape.

It is not only tourism that has come to Svaneti; increased access and exposure has resulted in the region being identified as a prime location for Georgia’s energy development goals. There are currently thirty-four proposed or under construction dam sites in the province aimed at converting the powerful rivers that emerge from the high mountain passes into energy for the country. Georgia is already an energy exporter, so these developments provide a means to increase energy revenue. This marks a significant economic opportunity for the country but many worry about the cultural, environmental and human cost of these developments.

Nakra, Nenskra and Svaneti

I first learned of damming projects in the summer of 2017. I had been hired to lead trail-building crews for the Transcaucasian Trail (TCT), a project which aims to link the Black Sea with the Caspian through continuous hiking trails. The week before the first volunteers arrived, I had spent time examining the work done in years past, meeting locals, and scouting potential new routes.

One of these visits had been to the valley of Nakra, a steep, wooded valley that provides much of the timber for neighboring villages. After looking at some of the work done the year prior, my team and I sat with a local family eating bread, potatoes, melted cheese and toasting home-brewed chacha. Over the course of the meal, our hosts expressed concern over what would happen to them if a hydro-power plant in the neighboring valley of Nenskra went ahead with development.

The Enguri hydropower. Source: Bankwatch

The Nenskra site is one of two mega hydro-power projects proposed in the region, with the other being in the Khudoni Valley.  Both will further dam the Enguri river already home to the giant Enguri dam. The developments will minimize the power generated from this site. Furthermore, the environmental group Green Alternative expressed disappointment at what they deemed a lack of environmental assessments undertaken and filed a complaint with the European Investment Bank (EIB), one of the backers of the project. This, combined with significant local protests, has slowed development for Nenskra, leading to work being suspended in mid-2018. However, the length of this suspension is unclear.

For some locals, the legacy of damming projects in Svaneti is already a checkered one. Many blame the development of the Enguri Dam in the late Soviet years for causing a series of harsh winters in the mid-1980s. One man I spoke with in the remote and largely unknown village of Khishkoldashi attributed the desolation of his village to the winters that he believed to be caused by the dam’s construction. The village is 1200 years old and had been home to eighteen families in his lifetime. However, now only he and his wife remain.

Khishkoldashi itself will not be flooded by dam developments. Nevertheless, it faces a precarious future with the elderly couple residing there being the only thing that keeps the ancient settlement from abandonment. Khishkoldashi’s challenges are indicative of the fact that it is not only the 34 proposed dam sites that are harbingers of change for the region – a modernizing economy, growing tourism and infrastructure and the allure of bigger cities for young people all contribute to the inescapable environment of change sweeping through Svaneti’s valleys.

Educational (and haunting) hitch-hiking

The degree of change occurring was made particularly clear to me at the end of my first week with the TCT. Volunteers had started to trickle into our base camp in Mestia. The day before I was scheduled to lead the first crew, I took a half day and disappeared for an afternoon hike to clear my head and work out my plan for coming week.

Part of the trek towards the Chaaladi Glacier. Private photo, courtesy of Nick Baigent.   

I walked out of the city towards the popular Chaaladi Glacier. I had made this walk years ago and remembered it well. The first leg required a long walk down a dirt road that runs along a river, a harmless, yet boring, segment of the trek. This time, however, the road was packed with semi-trucks hauling rocks in a continuous loop for a small dam site near the city that I had been previously unaware of. This meant that every three minutes for about 5 kilometers, I had to jump off to the side of the road and shelter myself the best I could from the inevitable dust shower caused by the passing trucks – a less than ideal addition to one of the more popular day hikes in the region.

After some time, I made it past the construction zone and completed the hike I had set out to do. On the way back, I planned to hitchhike past the construction area and was soon picked up by an American. When he asked what I was doing in Mestia, I told him about the TCT and the plans for the summer. I returned the question and he told me that he was some variation of a manager for the Nenskra hydro-power project.

I, a little taken aback by the odds of being picked up by someone directly involved with the project that could displace (if completed) the families I had so recently spent time with, mentioned that I had recently been in Nakra. He nodded and said without a hiccup, “yeah, we are going to take all of their water.” This time I was actually taken aback, the casualness with which he talked of removing people’s water supply, shocked me – perhaps naively.

He continued, speaking with confidence that the project would move forward due to the huge investment already made by K-Power, a Korean state utility company, and happily jabbered about how you can’t hire Svans to do the work needed on site and that there was a lack of coordination between the government and the project. I, unsure of what to do, made polite noises when appropriate and asked questions when he seemed to run out steam.

As we drew near the end of the road , without warning, pulled over. Leaning over to me, he muttered: “Do you hear that?”

“Uh, what?” I asked, bewildered.

“The river,” he replied.

“Ohh yes, it is very powerful,” I said, awkwardly fishing for words, confused as to where this was going.

He took a beat, flashed a look at me like he was about to let me in on some high secret, and said, “That, that’s the sound of money!”

Despite his choice of words, he was not wrong. Like a poor metaphor in teenage poetry, the rivers of Svaneti echo in change as they pass through its ancient villages. Money, tourists, government and big business all have a growing place in the region and bring with them, what seems to be, an unstoppable wave of change. However, whether this benefits the people of the province in the long-term is yet to be seen. There is certainly potential for sustainable development in the region. Unfortunately, what is instead occurring seems to be another example of a rush for resource exploitation. Perhaps the American’s choice of words was particularly apt. To me, he sounded like a prospector who had just arrived in town after hearing of a “gold rush” sometime in the 1800s – always a signal for change in a place, for better (money and development) or worse (money, development – then abandonment).

Nick Baigent is a graduate of the University of Glasgow’s CEERE program who is currently living in Tbilisi, Georgia working on developing the Transcaucasian Trail and occasionally writes things for Lossi 36.