The government argues that any citizen can freely lease a forest plot; this is the truth by law, but statistics say the opposite. Among people who have managed that are the most influential people at the local level or close to the government.
By law, a forest is a public good. Nevertheless, due to the long-term leasing practice, the public knows nothing about it. Citizens learn about it only when a decision is made, and an auction is announced. The forestry agency decides whether or not it should lease any particular plot based on the forest management plan. This plan does not say which land is allowed to be leased and which is not. According to the specialists, the current legislation allows high-ranking government officials or people close to them to get the desired forest without formally breaking the law.
Half a hectare for Irakhli Gharibashvili's wife
In Bakuriani, at the foot of Kokhta, near the former Consumer Societies Union, a house is surrounded by a gray fence. It is an area that has been in the media and public spotlight since January. Behind this house, 5,630 square meters of forest, the Prime Minister's wife received a 49-year right of use.
Nunu Tamazashvili had no competitor in e-commerce, and four days after the end of the auction, the Prime Minister's wife officially signed the lease. The registration of his lease right in the public register was requested by the Deputy Head of the Forestry Agency, Davit Aladashvili, who in no other case applied on behalf of the interested person. The agreement signed between the Forest Agency and Nunu Tamazashvili was submitted to the Public Registry by the Deputy Head of the Forest Agency on December 29 at 16:45. By 5:30 p.m., he was already certified. Checking the registration records of the same right reveals that the applicants have to wait at least one day.
According to the agreement, Nunu Tamazashvili must arrange a tourist and recreational space in this area and pay 6,000 GEL a year to the state. The contract also stipulates forest care obligations.
After the news of the transfer of the forest to Irakli Gharibashvili's wife was revealed by the media, the government persistently tried to convince the public that renting a forest was not a privilege but a responsibility. Any citizen of the country could do the same; relocating to this plot will not be restricted to anyone, and there the Prime Minister's family will arrange a recreational space.
"What is called a forest massif is a specific area, up to half a hectare, with only a few trees. "It shows that there is nothing left to talk about in the opposition media, and they are talking about such topics," said Irakli Kobakhidze, Chairman of the Georgian Dream.
Later, a particular statement was issued by the government's Stratcom. The agency also attached a video to the post published on February 4, which shows footage taken by the Prime Minister's house and its surrounding forest. In a broad definition, Stratcom points out, "It is completely absurd to talk about the fact that the population and tourists living in Bakuriani will no longer be able to move in the Bakuriani forest."
The group of "Mountain Stories" went to Bakuriani on February 18. As we approached the Prime Minister's house, several men dressed in civilian clothes came out of the side cottage and began to find out why we were coming there. One of them noticed the camera, after which they tried to force us to leave the area.
"To be direct, we can't allow you to take that video. I'm being frank with you; you can't take a video. So sit in your car and leave."
Told us one of them, who had first introduced us as the owner of a neighboring cottage and who seemed unwilling to take the video of his house -
"You will not take the video of my property; what right do you have? Sit in your car and go. Do you want to be forced out of here?"
The "neighbors" of the Prime Minister even tried to seize the camera and telephones and did not allow us to enter the forest or even approach it.
"Neighbors" of the Prime Minister, near the house of Irakli Gharibashvili in Bakuriani. Photo © Mtis Ambebi
Did the people of Bakuriani know that half a hectare of the forest behind the Prime Minister's house would be leased? It is not easy to find anyone in Bakuriani who would speak openly about this topic. Local Bakar Shiradze, the chairman of the Borjomi regional organization of the European Georgia party, does not believe that the prime minister's wife will arrange a tourist zone in the forest where tourists can enter freely.
"Land registration is still the biggest and unsolved problem for the people of Bakuriani. They have ancestral lands that they cannot legalize. Locals are not allowed to register plots of land in their backyards. Yards have been turned into recreational areas, and people are not given building permits. We have many such examples in Borjomi and Bakuriani, and what do we see at this time?"
The leased forest section borders the backyard of the Prime Minister's house. Therefore, it is difficult for Bakari to imagine that this place will ever become a resort-recreational space.
"Which local, even a representative, knew about it? Everything happened in a way that people had no idea about it. Let's say that this area has become public, and Irakli Gharibashvili has turned out to be such a good man that he makes walking and recreational spaces for Bakuriani people; they should've invited people to ask what they wanted. However, no one here believes it is done for people."
"Him" and "his" forest in Abastumani
Walking paths and tourist infrastructure were to be arranged in Abastumani, behind his own house, by the former prime minister. For this, Bidzina Ivanishvili received 12,000 square meters of forest, which belongs to Borjomi-Kharagauli National Park, in 2019 on a 45-year lease from the National Agency for Protected Areas.
We went from Bakuriani to Abastumani to see this tourist infrastructure.
"There were paths everywhere; we walked freely, now you can't enter; he fenced it with rocks."
"The only thing is, you can come down from the top, from the forest, but soon the security will see you," - one of the locals tells us. To the question of whose security - the local answers - "his."
Bidzina Ivanishvili is referred to here by a pronoun - everyone understands who "he" is.
Another resident of Abastumani tells us that no one enters the part of the forest where "his house is," but there are already many places in Abastumani for tourist trails, so whether "he" fences one hectare of forest does not change anything.
"He owns it whether he wants to fence it or not, but I think it will be open to tourists in the summer," the people of Abastumani conclude by talking about "him" and "his" forest.
Instead of the tourist infrastructure that the Georgian Dream leader had agreed to do within a year of the forest lease, we looked at the area's alien protection infrastructure - a huge fence, surveillance cameras mounted on all sides, several security booths, and artificial rocks.
An artificial rock with the height of a five-story building near Bidzina Ivanishvili's house. Photo © Mtis Ambebi
According to the registry, the forest, which borders Bidzina Ivanishvili's house, is owned by Abastumani 2019 Ltd, which is owned by Bidzina Ivanishvili-affiliated offshore company Limestone Finance International.
The lease agreement signed between Abastumani 2019 and the Agency of Protected Areas states transferred the lessee to the area to develop tourist infrastructure. Therefore, the company had to arrange at least two resting pavilions and tourist trails. The footage taken by the drone shows that in the forest, near Bidzina Ivanishvili's house, two pavilions act as a watchtower.
For 45 years of using the 12,000 sq.m. protected area, the company pays the state GEL 8,200 annually.
Why the population is restricted from moving in this area, whether the agency has information about it and if there was any reaction to this fact - "Mountain Stories" contacted the Agency of Protected Areas to find out. The agency told us that the questions would be answered in writing, although the answer did not appear even a month after receiving the letter.
How does the forest gets leased?
After adopting the new Forest Code, the leasing of forests in Georgia has been simplified since 2020. If previously forest leasing required government permission and public administrative proceedings, responsibility for leases was transferred entirely to the forest management body under the new law. The form of administrative proceedings has also changed. Instead of the public, this process is conducted simply, which means the public is not involved in the decision-making process.
According to Georgian legislation, particular forms of forest use are:
- Production of timber for agricultural cutting;
- Production of non-timber forest resources, woody plant products, and secondary wood materials;
- Arrangement of plantation farm;
- Forest is used for agricultural purposes;
- Forest use for the resort, recreational, sports, and other cultural and recreational purposes;
- Arranging fish farming and/or hunting farming;
- Arrangement of animal shelter and breeding;
- Installation of the wired building of electronic communication networks;
- Forest is used for scientific research and educational purposes;
- Exceptional use of the special-purpose forest.
In Georgia, the Agency for Protected Areas is directly responsible for the forests that fall within the national park's boundaries or other protected areas. Other forest management is the responsibility of the National Forest Agency.
To obtain the right to use the forest, the interested person must apply to the agency with an application indicating the activities for which the person needs the forest. The application must be accompanied by a cadastral survey drawing of that particular area. If the agency satisfies the request, it will auction the forest plot. After the end of the auction, a contract is signed between the winner and the agency.
According to what decides the agency which part of the forest should be leased and which not? The agency should choose the leased plot based on the forest management plan. According to the Code, such a ten-year plan should exist for all forest districts in the country.
The National Forest Agency manages 1,993,900.0 hectares of state forest, of which only about 20% of the forest management plans are prepared for 396,154.0 hectares.
"Mountain Stories" requested from the agency the management plans of the Borjomi-Bakuriani and Adigeni forest districts.
The Forest Agency adopted the Borjomi-Bakuriani forest use plan in 2014. The 220-page document mainly describes tax information, references to tree species, and their use as timber resources. It says nothing about which sections can be leased and which cannot.
A similar plan does not yet exist for Adigeni. However, at this stage, within the framework of the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) project, a forest management plan is being developed. "After completing the plan, we will hold a public hearing and post it on our website," the agency wrote.
Public good without public
Irakli Macharashvili, a representative of the environmental protection organization Green Alternative, believes that both the public hearing and the forest clearing procedures are, in fact, only of a formal nature, and the population's participation in it is not even minimal.
"According to the previous legislation, before the issuance of timber licenses, public administrative proceedings were held to decide whether the district is worth auctioning. Therefore, it was necessary to organize public discussions, to substantiate that we would better use this or that part of the forest if we put it up for auction. Unfortunately, this issue has vanished in the new code. As a result, today exists several different forms of forest use."
"Decisions on these forms of forest use are made not in a public but a simple administrative manner, i.e., without public participation, opinion, and public discussion."
Irakli Macharashvili recalls that when the new Forest Code was adopted, lawmakers used the existence of forest plans to allay the fears of environmentalists. In particular, these plans would be approved by public administration, ensuring public administration.
"Forest management plans, in practice, as far as I know, are quite far from the real participation of the public. It is possible to say that it is approved by public administration formally, but there is practically no public discussion and no participation. Today, when forests are leased, management plans may be approved in these areas, but I do not think that the public took an active part in approving these plans or reflected the opinions expressed by the public. It is also written in a very technical language. This language is incomprehensible to a non-specialist even if the plan is relevant to the non-specialist's environmental, social and economic interests. One of the main problems today is that it is possible to make a lease in this or that area, the law is not violated, but dating, filing a case, and using other forms of influence can be done without breaking the law."
Does a tenant who takes the forest for recreational purposes have the right to fence the area and restrict its use by citizens? - "Green Alternative" has an unequivocal answer to this question:
"The Forest Code defines such a form of use, which is called common use of the forest, which means rest, recreation, collection of fruits and mushrooms. In short, a person can use this common form anywhere. "
"Not only in a leased forest but also in a privately owned forest, the owner cannot restrict such use."
Irakli Macharashvili believes that restricting the right to use the forest as a public space curtails the constitutional right, saying that everyone can relocate to a public area.
What do the statistics say?
In Georgia, the forest is mainly used for resorts and recreational purposes. Since 2017 99,997.0 sq. plot has been leased. According to the Forest Agency, the state receives more than 55,000 GEL annually. Therefore, it is in its interest that as many citizens express a desire to rent the forest. However, statistics show that the agency refuses a large number of applicants.
The National Forest Agency announced the largest auction of state forest leases in 2021. According to the agency, 173 people applied for the right to use the forest, and only 18 of them went to auction. Eventually, 13 agreements were signed, including one with the Prime Minister's wife.
The Forest Agency has signed 16 contracts with forest tenants in the last five years. There were only three cases when the winner had a competitor. In the remaining cases, the bidders were the only participants in the auction.
The Forest Agency explains that dozens of applicants were refused lease of the forest area at various times. "The grounds for refusal in the areas required for special use of forest are the restrictions established by the current legislation. It should be noted that according to the type of use and its geographical area, the lease agreement is made with various administrative bodies, for example, local self-government, the Ministry of Regional Development and Infrastructure of Georgia, the National Property Agency, and others. If any administrative body has a reasoned refusal, it is taken into account in the production process," - reads the letter of the Forest Agency.
Forest leaseholders in Georgia
For tourism and recreational purposes, the State Forest is leased by the company of the former mayor of Tbilisi and the wife of David Narmania, the current chairman of the National Energy and Water Regulatory Commission (GNERC). Ten hectares of Sabaduri forest near Tbilisi were given to Sabaduri Village Ltd from the Agency of Protected Areas for 40 years. The company has to pay 160 thousand GEL every year.
"Sabaduri Village" should have arranged the tourist infrastructure here, which should have spent at least 4 million. However, the company has not fulfilled its commitment since 2019.
According to the contract, in case of timely non-fulfillment of obligation, the company must pay 20 GEL for each overdue day. The agreement also states that the agency must set a new reasonable deadline for the company to fulfill its new obligations. Sabaduri Forest is under the responsibility of the Agency of Protected Areas. However, "Mountain Stories" was told that the company only pays a fine, and no new deadline has been set for it to fulfill its obligation. Therefore, it is unknown when the company will meet its obligations.
"Mountain Stories" also found out about the people and companies who have signed a forest use agreement with the Forestry Agency since 2017. There are 16 such tenants in total. 13 of these agreements were signed in 2021.
One such tenant is Gocha Zeikidze - the former governor of Mtskheta-Mtianeti, who has leased 684 square meters of land for 49 years for 205 GEL a year. He has to invest at least 50,000 GEL in arranging the tourist infrastructure. The Forestry Agency signed an agreement with Gocha Zeikidze in 2021.
Among the forest users is one of the biggest donors of the Georgian Dream, businessman Davit Topuridze, who was given an 800-square-meter plot of land on a 20-year lease in Mtskheta, on the territory of Mukhattskaro, to arrange tourist infrastructure. According to the Public Registry, Davit Topuridze owns shares in the companies producing alcoholic beverages: "Tiflisi Distillery," "Barakoni," and "Tiflisi," as well as the company "Coca-Cola South Group." These companies are engaged in the production and export of alcoholic beverages. Davit Topuridze's "Tiflisi" donated 100 thousand GEL to "Georgian Dream" in 2019. Earlier, in 2018, he financed the election campaign of Salome Zourabichvili, a candidate supported by the Georgian Dream with 80 thousand GEL.
Tamta Demurishvili, the head of the Medical Department of the Special Penitentiary Service from 2015 until February 2022, won the right to rent in Mtskheta, Tsodoreti, for 500 GEL per year. According to the conditions, she has to arrange a place for bees in 186 square meters. The lease term is five years.
299 sq. meter forest area was given to Amiran Guntsadze for 49 years. According to a declaration filed in 2000, he was the deputy head of one of the Ministry of Tax Revenue departments. His son, Giorgi Guntsadze, is the Deputy Head of the Pharmaceutical Regulation Agency of the Ministry of Health. Before that, he was the Head of the Division of Office of Resource Officers of Educational Institutions.
The Father of Zviad Tavartkiladze, the head of the Internal Audit Service of Khulo City Hall, is the lessee of the land included in the forest fund. Suliko Tavartkiladze won the lease in October 2021. Under the terms, he will have to arrange a tourist recreation area and cottages in the resort Beshumi.
Natia Lazashvili, the Rustavi 2 Broadcasting Company host, leased the state forest near her house for 49 years. Her husband is a Georgian National Energy and Water Regulatory Commission member. For an area of 1,522 square meters, she has to pay 4,566 GEL annually to the state.
From 2017 to 2020, according to the Forest Agency, signed three contracts. All three stakeholders were companies.
In 2017, only one auction was held - provided 3,115 square meters of space for temporary use in Martvili to store goods temporarily. Annual rent - 140 GEL. The winner was Royal Dent Ltd., 100% owned by businessman Irakli Lomaia. In 2021, he donated 50 thousand GEL to the Georgian Dream.
No auction was announced in 2018, and in 2019 and 2020, two plots of land were leased for agricultural purposes, both in the vicinity of Kvareli Lake. The winner in both cases was "Wine Road 2017" Ltd. Its owner is a young businessman Omar Khatiashvili.
The data obtained by us and given in the article only reflect the particular forms of forest use, although auctioning is not the only way to get forest. In 2020, in addition to simplifying procedures for giving away the forests, another significant change was made in the new code - the Georgian Patriarchate was given the right to legalize up to 20 hectares of forest near churches and monasteries. For this, the church needs neither an auction nor publicity.
Granting this right to the Patriarchate had provoked memorable protests from the public and non-governmental organizations when the law was passed. Although parliament passed the bill despite opposition, the civil sector considered the record discriminatory against other religious denominations.
It is impossible to say precisely how many forests the Patriarchate owns. However, the Orthodox Church annually receives real estate from the state - land, and buildings. According to the Institute for Tolerance and Diversity and other non-governmental organizations, the property transferred by the government to the Orthodox Church covers approximately 64 square kilometers, equal to the combined area of the Vatican, Monaco, Nauru, and Tuvalu.
Author: Robi Zaridze