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Why the Netherlands Commission is accused of inciting separatism in Svaneti

Saturday, 27 November 2021 13:30 hits 530 times
Levan Vephkhvadze, Giorgi Abramishvili, Giorgi Chikovani
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Levan Vephkhvadze, Giorgi Abramishvili, Giorgi Chikovani

The Georgian government still refuses to let Netherlands Commission for Environmental Assessment (NCEA) revisit the Namakhvani HPP project. Davit Tvalabeishvili and Nino Tandilashvili, deputy ministers of Economy and Sustainable Development Environment and Natural Resources Protection of Georgia, respectively, never explained the reason for the refusal. Instead, Giorgi Abramishvili, executive director of Georgian Renewable Energy Development Association (GREDA), blames the commission for kindling the separatism in Svaneti.

„Why the matter of Russian soft power arose in this context? Netherlands Commission for Environmental Assessment is the organization that stated that Svans are different indigenous people and not ethnic groups, therefore establishing the idea that Georgia colonizes Svaneti, locals are oppressed. Consequently, they need to create the reservation-type of settlement where building hydropower plants should be prohibited.

This statement can be understood like that:

Svans are not Georgians. Georgians started oppressing Svans, who needed autonomy. Do not forget, we are speaking about the border between Russia and Abkhazia.

Of course, it's easy to guess that the commission is trying to kindle the separatism with help from our local „national environmentalist“ non-government organizations“, - wrote Abramishvili on August 1.

Netherlands Commission on Environmental Assessment

In 1987, the Netherlands Commission for Environmental Assessment (NCEA) was established as an independent advisory body of experts by decree. The NCEA advises governments on the quality of environmental information in environmental assessment reports (EIA or SEA reports). These reports are not written by the NCEA: they are usually written by consultancy bureaus for private initiators, local or provincial authorities, and central government. Therefore, the NCEA does not get involved in decision-making or political considerations.

The NCEA's activities abroad are usually commissioned by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. In line with their programme, attention is paid not only to environmental impacts but also to social and economic impacts, for example, the living standards of residents.

About Khudoni HPP

The building of Khudoni HPP(702MW) started back in 1979. However, later Moscow discontinued the funding, and protest from the national movement, students, residents led to a halt to the process.

In 2011 Indian company „Trans-Electrica“ received the rights to build the power plant. Then-president Mikheil Saakashvili declared 2012 as the year of large power stations.

„We will start building Nenskra, Khudoni, maybe even Namakhvani and other large stations“, - said Saakashvili in 2011, on a meeting with members of a majority government.

1536 ha land was assigned to „Trans-Electrica“ for 1 USD. The dam's height should be 200 meters, the surface of the reservoir mirror – 528ha. Fourteen villages of Khaishi and Tchuberi communities, two churches, graveyards, and the road would be in a flood zone. More than 2000 people should be relocated.

On July 27, 2012, Zurab Nizharadze, a mathematics teacher in Khaishi school, asked Bidzina Ivanishvili, then a member of the opposition, his thought about Khudoni HPP and relocating Khaishi residents.

„How can we generate the energy at the expense of locals? We need the power for them to live better. If we should destroy the people and their houses, the energy is not worth it.

We will make a decision together. We will approve the project if it is acceptable for us. The village, the people, should not suffer,“ -said Ivanishvili.

On September 16, 2013, Bidzina Ivanishvili, the leader of a majority government, addressed the Svan people on the ceremonial opening of Shuakhevi HPP.

„You should not hinder the progress. We need to build more power plants so that Georgia can produce more energy. It will create more jobs and a better environment to establish new enterprises. I want to ask Svans, my dear people, to consider the situation calmly. I understand their feelings, but they should realize that the future of our country needs their help and sacrifice. Of course, the price will be civilized and appropriate. Also, take into account that Khudoni HPP, as many others should be built.“

Residents of Khaishi took an oath by the icon in St. George church built in the XII century; they would not let the company make the power plant. This church is also in a flood zone. Locals started organized rallies and obstructed the discussion of the report or environmental influence.

Involvement of Netherlands Commission on Environmental Assessment in the evaluation of Khudoni HPP project

On February 28, 2013, Khatuna Gogoladze, Minister of Environmental Protection and Agriculture of Georgia, addressed the government of the Netherlands with a request to create a group of experts to evaluate the Khudoni hpp project. The commission studied the documents and published the advisory review, analyzing the project's economic, social, and technical deficiencies and corresponding recommendations. One of the significant findings was the lack of information and research. The group of experts estimated a year needed to gather the essential information for the conclusion.

One of the sub-chapter of the review named The  Svans as  minority  nationality, reads:

The  ESIA  presents  arguments  for  the  non-qualification  of  the  Svan  people  of  Khaishi villages  as  „Indigenous  Peoples“,  mainly  based  on  their  non-affiliation  with  the  more remotely  located  Svans  (upstream)  and  their  closer  ties  to  non-Svan  areas  in  the  south (downstream).

The  World  Bank  Group    uses  the  term  „indigenous  people“  in  a  generic sense  and  clearly  states  that  there  is  no  universal  accepted  definition.  People  may  be referred  to  differently  across  countries  by  such  terms  as  „indigenous  ethnic  minorities,“  „aboriginals,“  „hill  tribes,“  „minority  nationalities,“  „tribal  groups“,  just  to  mention some.

It  is  also  noticed  that  part  of  Svaneti  (not  in  the  project  area  of  influence)  has been  nominated  for  inclusion  in  the  UNESCO  Cultural Heritage  site  list. The  Svan  people  living  in  Khaishi  Village  fit  a  number  of  characteristics,  including: Self-identification  as  members  of  a  distinct  cultural  group, the  identity  also being  recognised  by  others;

  • Collective attachment  to  a  geographically  distinct  area  affected  by  the  project;
  • A unique and  distinct  language, culturally  identifying  the  Svans;
  • Customary cultural  practices,  days  and  events  that  are  separate  from  others;
  • Social/family ties  between  Khaishi  and  surrounding  project  affected  villages around  and  other  villages  in  upper  Svaneti  appear  to  exist,  although  their  significance  requires  more 

The  above  characteristics  can  easily  classify  the  Svan  people  as  a  unique  community which  may  be referred  to  as  an  „ethnic  nationality“  group.  The  Svan  people  living  in Khaishi  cannot  be  separated  out  as  not  having  an  ethnic  identity  based  on  the  arguments  outlined  in  the  ESIA.  This  matter  may  best  be  considered  by  the  responsible  authorities  (e.g.,  Ministry  of  Culture).

Recommendation: The  Commission  recognises  that  according to  international  standards  and  good  practice  the  group  of  people,  the  Svans,  may  likely  belong  to  a  unique ethnic  group  and,  if  so,  will  need  to  be  treated  accordingly.  There is  need  for  a  cultural authority  (e.g.,  the  Ministry  of  Culture)  to  address  this  issue.  The  Commission  points out  that  communication  planning  and  mitigation  measures  will  need  to  be  addressed based  on  the  ethnic  status  of  the  affected  people.

„Indigenous people“

There are an estimated 476 million indigenous peoples in the world living across 90 countries. They make up less than 5 per cent of the world's population. They speak a majority of the world’s estimated 7,000 languages and represent 5,000 different cultures.

Indigenous peoples are inheritors and practitioners of unique cultures and ways of relating to people and the environment. They have retained social, cultural, economic and political characteristics that are distinct from those of the dominant societies in which they live.

Among the indigenous peoples are those of the Americas (for example the Mayas in Guatemala or the Aymaras in Bolivia), the Inuit and Aleutians of the circumpolar region, the Saami of northern Europe, the Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders of Australia and the Maori of New Zealand. These and most other indigenous peoples have retained distinct characteristics which are clearly different from those of other segments of the national populations.

Indigenous peoples often have much in common with other neglected segments of societies, i.e. lack of political representation and participation, economic marginalization and poverty, lack of access to social services and discrimination. Despite their cultural differences, the diverse indigenous peoples share common problems also related to the protection of their rights. They strive for recognition of their identities, their ways of life and their right to traditional lands, territories and natural resources

According to the UN the most fruitful approach is to identify, rather than define indigenous peoples. This is based on the fundamental criterion of self-identification as underlined in a number of human rights documents.

The term „indigenous“ has prevailed as a generic term for many years. In some countries, there may be preference for other terms including tribes, first peoples/nations, aboriginals, ethnic groups, adivasi, janajati. Occupational and geographical terms like hunter-gatherers, nomads, peasants, hill people, etc., also exist and for all practical purposes can be used interchangeably with „indigenous peoples“.

In many cases, the notion of being termed „indigenous“ has negative connotations and some people may choose not to reveal or define their origin. Others must respect such choices, while at the same time working against the discrimination of indigenous peoples.

The reason behind the creation of myth of Svan separatism

Dato Tchipashvili, coordinator of financial institute monitoring program at environmental organization „Green Alternative“ is one of the authors of the lawsuit against another large power plant – Nenskra HPP.

After two years or investigation, two of the biggest funders of the Nenskra project - The European Bank for Reconstruction and Development and The European Investment Bank assessed the that it does not meet the international standards. One of the reasons is the discrepancy in terms of residents’ rights.

Protecting the rights of indigenous people has nothing to do with separatism, self-determination, political sovereignty of autonomy. It only means protecting their economic rights, to be informed about infrastructural projects beforehand.

In countries where human rights are protected, such issues will never occur. Indigenous people are a group with one language or dialect, traditions, economic rights, - Dato Tchipashvili thinks that lobbyists of large power plants try to discredit and marginalize Svan people by constantly speaking about the roots or separatism.

They want to build 54 power plants in Svaneti, not only Nenskra and Khudoni. The Svans demand to be informed and asked about these projects beforehand and they try to label that as separatism.

Even more – they lie that people say Svans are not Georgians, as they want to gain independence. As if Svans demand the involvement in processes because they are indigenous people, they want the secession like Abkhazians. They know some people, who know nothing about this matter, will believe it. Meanwhile, the same people accuse us in working for Russia. By accusing Netherlands Commission on Environmental Assessment, they accuse the government of Netherlands in sabotaging the state security of Georgia“.

Separatism is the advocacy of cultural, ethnic, tribal, religious, racial, governmental or gender separation from the larger group. Self-determination, however, is a cardinal principle in modern international law that states that peoples have the right to determine their own political status.

„Svans have never been separatists, nor will be. We have never thought ourselves as independent. Of course we have the ancient Svan language, different culture, traditions. We have been living in the highest region of Georgia, on Caucasus Range. Our lives have never been easy, but we are still here. Now, let’s say a man walks into my yard and says – you have endured so much, so long, but now I need this place to make money, you should leave. Is this right?“ – Zurab Nizharadze, the teacher form Khaishi thinks that a matter of separatism is used to exclude Svan people from process.

Groundless fear of separatism is one of the reasons why Svans were refused to teach dying Svan language in public schools.

Eter Pangani

Reporter at mtisambebi.ge, a journalist by education. Eter works on human rights, social, ethnic, and religious minorities, environmental protection topics, and important events from Greater and Lesser Caucasus regions. E-mail: eto.pangani@gmail.com

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