by Giorgi MeladzeJuly 07, 2021
The country of Georgia is stumbling towards local elections this autumn, against a complex backdrop of political violence and discord. Amid the disarray, a number of nonviolent campaigns for environmental protection are percolating all over the country, from small towns far from the capital of Tbilisi to the capital itself. Although some of these campaigns—“Shukruti” and “Namokhvani” to name just two of them—are successfully galvanizing support from civil society allies to counter harmful mining and damn-building activities, the road to long-term success will no doubt be a long one.
For one, the campaigns are often isolated and inward-looking, making it difficult to achieve unity with—and thus gain strength from—other social causes in the broader movement for justice and democracy in Georgia. And some even go against the grain of social justice, repelling potentially cross-cutting allies: Just days ago, activists of the Namokhvani campaign against the construction of a hydropower plant openly joined homophobic groups and protested against the gay pride movement.
Earlier this year, I had the opportunity to discuss my country's ongoing crisis with a few environmental campaign leaders, activists, independent observers, and researchers. In this blog post, I dial in on one local campaign for environmental justice, describing its nonviolent tactics and analyzing the present challenges. In a follow-up post, I will situate environmental campaigns in the broader movement for justice and democracy in Georgia.
Last May, protests erupted in Chiatura, Georgia, a mid-sized city known worldwide for its rich manganese ore deposits. Residents of the nearby village Shukruti sewed their lips together and went on a hunger strike in May to protest the environmental destruction that manganese mining activities are causing. Made up of local residents and employees of Georgian Manganese and its affiliates, the campaign’s objectives were to improve both working and living conditions.
As their last hope, on the 100th day of mobilization, activists traveled to Tbilisi to escalate pressure on the Georgian government by protesting in front of the U.S. Embassy. In response, U.S. Ambassador Kelly Degnan publicly stated that the Embassy could play a “connecting role” in the negotiations between protesters and the Georgian government, and that activists’ demands should be heard.
Chiatura miners also went on strike. The city—a true example of the resource curse—is in fact the world’s largest exporter of manganese: its residents suffer from poverty, inhumane work conditions, and environmental deterioration. Miners coordinated their strike with a local group called the Eco-Club, which, among others, convenes residents, government officials, and companies to public discussions on local environmental problems—and how to address them.
“Chiatura is the most polluted city in Georgia,” notes Nodar Tchatchanidze to me in a recent conversation. Nodar is a local activist who leads the Eco-Club in Chiatura. He has been active for the past few years and even ran in local elections on an independent ticket, which is very rare for young people in Georgia.
“It was a symbolic step. We could not change anything with just having one seat in Sakrebulo [a local representative body]. But even there the pressure was immense,” Nodar tells me. The government won the interim elections, but local miners and Nodar’s team also scored a victory. Following days of negotiations, miners obtained a salary increase, and the environmental protection issue made its way onto the public agenda. Georgian Manganese LLC has since made several proposals to clean the river and recultivate the mining sites.
As things stand, the struggle is continuing both in the field and in the formal corridors of power. Activists in Chiatura are preparing for their next battle: the local government elections this autumn.
Running a nonviolent campaign for environmental protection is not an easy task in Georgia. The groups engaged in such campaigns have a long history of political isolation. The environmental concerns lack adequate representation in politics, and they never make into the top list of priorities for the broader Georgian society. Unemployment, ongoing land occupation by the Russian military, crime, and violence are overshadowing environmental problems.
Despite these challenges, some activists do manage to mobilize people around single issues. However, the “Namokhvani” campaign made it clear that it is impossible to stand together if there is no unity on social values, such as respect for human rights and dignity for all. Environmental campaigns cannot be singled out from the bigger picture; rather, they are an integral part of the struggle for justice. Understanding this basic concept will enable organizers to build unity, such a vital ingredient of success.