Better Together: Conserving Species and Cultural Diversity in the Western Georgia Forest Landscape

This article originally appeared on the Lab’s Medium site From the Land and was written by Lab contributor Ben Riddle.

Conserving species and cultural diversity goes hand in hand in the Western Georgia Forest Landscape. In this article, the Landscape Finance Lab interviews Jernej Stritih, Chief Technical Advisor for Eco-Corridors Fund- Caucasus (ECF Caucasus). Through his story, we learn the importance of starting locally while working globally on landscape transformation.

Jernej, thanks for taking the time to share your story. To begin, how did you first begin working in landscape conservation?

To begin, I’m a forester by training and I was involved in scouts when I was young. I have basically been involved in formal conservation work starting in Slovenia in the late 80s and early 90s. In the last twenty years, I’ve been mainly working as an environmental and nature conservation consultant in a number of different contexts — from Slovenia where I come from to the Balkans and Cyprus. In the last three and a half years, I have been working on this eco-corridors program in the Caucasus, which is a WWF program supported by the German government.

Here, we are trying to pilot and establish contractual nature conservation initiatives with local communities in Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan in a way that combines nature conservation and rural development. On one hand, we are seeking to preserve the high biodiversity of the Caucasus, which is one of the global hotspots for biodiversity in the temperate zone. On the other hand, we are seeking to preserve the vast cultural diversity of the region — the people who have been managing the land, meadows, forests and cattle for millennia. The Caucasus is also a rich source of plants that produce fruit, wine, nuts and other cultural commodities, so we are trying to preserve the biodiversity and cultural diversity in a way that also helps the local communities to develop economically. That’s what we are working on at the moment, and the Landscape Finance Lab seemed like a great partner to help scale up the things that we are already doing on the ground.

How do you engage local communities in the process of creating a vision for the landscape?

We are working with remote communities which are struggling economically and are heavily dependent on their land, and they quite connected with one another. They understand their habitats and ecosystems and wishes much better than the “international experts” coming in from the outside. When we talk about the landscape with local communities, we don’t come in with a pre-cooked vision. We ask them about their perspectives and vision for the future. This is the most important component to innovative work in conservation — to engage with the communities on the ground through a simple, facilitated process, without the burden of big studies or complex analyses. Through providing small grants and funding, we were able to help the communities articulate their vision of the future of sustainable development and the conservation of species in the region. What we found was that the visions held by the community were very similar to the vision for the landscape held by WWF. By taking this approach, we haven’t encountered conflicts with the community when it comes to vision, or stumbled upon any challenging tradeoffs in the process.

How do you involve all of the key stakeholders in the process of designing a large-scale landscape program?

To begin, you have to start by listening to every stakeholder to discover their objectives, visions and abilities to do something. Then, you put these things together and present back a more comprehensive vision that covers a wider scope. If we can agree on this vision, then we can move forward. We are now at the stage in this landscape where we are putting the vision together into a comprehensive framework. So far all of the stakeholders are very interested in working together, but we will see how things work out moving forward, since the landscape is full of uncertainties related to differing priorities. When it comes to international organisations, these uncertainties relate to budgets and funding windows. Locally, the political situation and governments who are pursuing rapid economic develop have their own priorities, which also present various challenges. One of the most important issues that we are encountering right now is with land tenure agreements. Most of the land is state owned and the user rights have not been well documented or made very clear. This presents an obstacle that prevents people from investing in the land, and that is something that we are dealing with at the moment. There are a lot of practical challenges like this when you work on the ground. If there were no problems, than these countries would be much more developed already.

Tell us about a time when you learned resilience through your work?

It takes some time, often several years, until you can have an authentic dialogue with people. Local institutions and local communities traditionally fall into speaking from a script, especially if there is a donor organisation coming to the table. The early conversations often go like, “what kind of money do you have”, “what do you want”, “we will take whatever”, and so on. It takes quite a bit of time until you develop a dialogue where they actually can express their real concerns and issues. Once you cross this threshold, you become a part of the local politics in a way. At this stage, it is important to focus on the landscape vision and objectives and to keep with them rather than getting sucked into power games. There are always challenges like this to move through in the landscape, especially in remote communities where people are facing poverty. Investments in the range of hundreds of thousands of Euros mean a lot for them, and can be a life-changing thing, which means that the entire community has an interest in organising itself around the investment. This is one of the main challenges you have to overcome while working in development contexts.

In the Georgian landscape, our main objective is to conserve the mosaic of different habitats and the cultural landscapes within the forests. In Armenia, where there are largely grasslands, our objective is to increase the forest cover and to support the natural succession of wild trees and bushes in the former pastures. In the future we hope that the landscape will be a place where with many more wild animals, where different habitats are thriving and where people would claim to have a good life. In this context, a “good life” means moving beyond subsistence farming, where young people would want to stay behind and continue working and living in the countryside rather than leaving to the cities.

All three countries are experiencing tremendous emigration from the land into the big cities. In this sense, our project seeks to provide the initial investment and funding over 10 years for activities in the villages which should increase the productivity of their agricultural resources, while at the same time increase the resilience and biodiversity of the landscape. One of the main problems in the region is the persistent lack of financial capital. They often don’t own the land or have money to buy equipment, and they often cannot go to the bank and take a mortgage, so it is very hard to climb out of poverty. Our project seeks to give a financial injection to these villages, to bring cash to the table, and in some ways, give them discretion to invest it any way they want. They are coming up with very good ideas as to how to invest this capital productively in ways that increase their revenues, whether it be through farming or food processing.

What are some of the main economic investment and sustainable development opportunities in the region?

These countries are net importers of food, so bringing products from the rural areas to supply the local markets would be a great success. In some areas we already have success with this, but in others people are still practicing subsistence farming and producing food for themselves. In addition, the landscape features a number of globally interesting commodity products, like hazelnuts in Georgia and Azerbaijan and fruit trees in Armenia. These are products that could be interesting global exports, but the first opportunities we seek focus on catalysing economic development in domestic markets. There is great demand for these products in local markets which is not met, for example, wood from local forests. There is more than enough demand for wood in the countries themselves, so they don’t need to export it. To close the gap, they need to develop the processing facilities required to bring the wood to market rather than exporting the raw logs. This would allow for the local production of wood products, like houses, windows, doors, and so on.

Connecting all of these pieces into a coherent whole is why we are working here. We aim to bring biodiversity and species work together with the work of creating a sustainable economy. This is sometimes counterintuitive, because people often think that protecting nature means kicking people out, but if you kick some people out, other people will come in. This is what’s happening in the Amazon with the clearing of rainforests, where soy plantations are cropping up in the wake of the destruction of forests that could have been used for rubber production. Local people, with some investment, can develop a land use that is more sustainable than if outsiders were to come in and use the land for other purposes. Through this local-first approach, we can conserve the landscape in the long term by ensuring that there are people working on the ground who have land use rights that prevent other unsustainable actors from penetrating. Once the land is generating sustainable economic benefits, the incentive to sell out to less sustainable economic activities will go away.

How did you first engage with the Landscape Finance Lab, and how has the Lab had an impact on your work?

In recent months we have had two visits from Lab team members, and a number of exchanges with different experts involved in the Lab network. With the help of the Lab we have formulated a larger scale forest landscape program for Western Georgia and are also exploring the development of a grasslands landscape program for Armenia. For our team, working the Lab has opened us up to a whole new level of ambition. We thought we had quite a big project already, but when you start talking about tens of millions of Euros, it’s a different ballgame. When we work at scale, the public authorities become more serious about participating. This creates an increased responsibility for us, but we are thankful to work with the team to leverage their understanding and put together a bigger puzzle. We are in the process of identifying possible funding sources and exploring ways to present the landscape to different sources of climate funding. With this said, we are also seeing great interest from our existing funders to expand our funding in the future because of the ideas that we are developing through the Landscape Finance Lab.

What impact do you see the Lab having on the world of conservation?

The Lab is met with a huge opportunity, and if it succeeds it will transform the conservation community. On the other hand, the challenge at hand is to successfully integrate all of the international policies around climate change mitigation, adaptation, biodiversity, conservation and human rights and translate them into concrete frameworks that can help us take action on the landscape level. Many times all of the international processes are working in the same geographic areas in a siloed approach, rather than working together to leverage synergies. When you work on a local level, you see that all these things are interconnected, so someone has to be able to pull together all these different strands together and present them a unified vision. I think that’s where the Landscape Finance Lab can play a strong role, by promoting this approach and putting it into practice.

What do you need right now? How can others help your work?

At the moment, we are looking for different sources of funding and economic investment for our work in the region. There are many opportunities to invest in the value chains of the landscape. Some of these opportunities are related to different fruits, like hazelnuts, walnuts and tangerines. Other investment opportunities are related to commodities like wood, milk and wine at the processing level, which would create access to global markets for these products. There is also a lot opportunity around nature-based tourism, to develop hiking, mountain biking and kayaking trips along the rivers in the area. This is an emerging industry, but it is still far from maturity so there is a lot of space to develop new services and activities in the region.

If you could offer one piece of advice to someone getting started on a landscape program, what would it be?

Start with the locals. Start with the people who really work on the land, who use it and are living from it. Once you understand how they function, what drives them and the context that they live and work in, then you can build upon this foundation.

What is the most rewarding part of what you do personally?

Being invited by locals to a nice dinner after a day of kayaking on the river. For me, connecting with nature and people in a genuine way is the most rewarding part of what I do. The landscape approach provides a great way to do this at scale.

Thanks for taking the time to speak with us, Jernej!

For more information on this landscape, check out the Western Georgia Forest Landscape profile or email Jernej directly:


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