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“The main mission of the protected areas is to ensure the preservation of the national heritage and make it accessible for the public. Georgians as well as foreign visitors should be able to enjoy looking at the beautiful sceneries of wild nature. The more people get an opportunity to experience such holidays, the higher the level of public welfare will be”- this is an idea which has united dozens of people within the non-governmental organization the ‘Friends’ Association of Vashlovani Protected Area’. For many years, friends of Vashlovani working in Dedoplistskaro municipality have been conducting the environmental and awareness raising activities throughout the Vashlovani Protected Area and nearby territories, as well as care about maintaining the local biodiversity.
The members of the ‘Friends’ Association of Vashlovani Protected Area’ have timely noticed the high potential for sustainable development of tourism in Dedoplistskaro municipality and participated in the grant competition announced by the EU’s ENPARD programme. Their aspiration was in line with the major principles of ENPARD, which are: improving the ecological environment in the municipalities; introducing the environmental practices; extending local tourism potential; conservation and support of local natural and cultural heritage; and finally, to raise the living standard in the municipality.
Today, the friends of Vashlovani have been successfully implementing the project supported by the EU that will enable the guests of the municipality to visit and see the beautiful landscape and rich biodiversity of the ‘Eagle Gorge’ – a natural monument of the Vashlovani Protected Area. With the financial support of the Transboundary Joint Secretariat project (TJS-III), friends of Vashlovani could reconstruct the solid waste protective dam and repair information center building. Mentioned activities have helped friends of Vashlovani to solve the solid waste pollution problems in a natural reserve area in the future. With the support from the Agency of Protected Areas, safe hiking trails will be arranged soon. Moreover, with the financial support of EU, under ENPARD programme the friends of Vashlovani will create a new infrastructure for the visitors of the gorge, including camping areas equipped with the solar automatic electric and water systems.
As a result of the implementation of the project, the flow of visitors will significantly be increased and more importantly – visiting the natural monument and its surrounding areas will become more accessible and comfortable. Furthermore, two main functions of the protected areas will be fulfilled: protection of biodiversity and availability of natural heritage.
Vashlovani Protected Areas is located in the extreme southeastern part of Georgia, in the region of Kakheti, 100-900m above sea level and its total area amounts to 35,292 ha. There are about 700 species of plants in Vashlovani. There is Alazani unique floodplain forest and two small bays inVashlovani Protected area. These bays are one of the rare places in Georgia where next to the floodplain oaks, asps, ash-trees and wild pomegranate grow wild walnut trees.
There is also a diverse fauna in Vashlovani Protected area that include 62 species of mammals, 135 – birds, 30 – reptiles, 20 – fish and four amphibian species. There are eight species of beasts of prey.
The ‘Friends’ Association of Vashlovani Protected Area’ was established to protect this diverse nature and took responsibility to maintain the existing biodiversity and improve public participation in the management of protected areas.
“Do you know what kind of person I am? I love everything that is alive. I have always been like that in my entire life”, says Amiran Kodiashvili, chairman of the association board.
Amiran Kodiashvili is a veterinarian. Since he started working as a zoologist in the Vashlovani Protected Area in 1989, he has experienced a multilateral transformation and became a professional specialist of the protected areas. He worked as a deputy director of the Vashlovani Protected Area for certain time but later, in 2009, he founded ‘Friends’ Association of Vashlovani Protected Area’ together with his colleagues.
„My childhood friends, with whom I share environmental values, have joined me. We all know that the society should stand for the protected areas. Without public engagement protected areas cannot be successful. The association now serves as a link between the community and the Vashlovani National Park administration. Besides, there is a much more flexible ways to attract funding at the association for maintaining biodiversity and protecting the nature“ – says Amiran Kodiashvili.
Amiran Kodiashvili started environmental protection activities with 4-5 people, but the number of Vashlovani friends has increased over time. As of today the association unites about 15 active members, however another 60 young supports help the association in large-scale activities. Anyone who loves nature can join the friends of Vashlovani and enthusiastically participate in the care and development of protected areas.
With the technical and financial assistance of various funds, the ‘Friends’ Association of Vashlovani Protected Area’ managed to implement many useful projects, including designing and constructing mechanical cleaning of runoff waters in the Eagle Gorge. Also, within the activities of the association, a Kolkhian pheasant nursery was also created, which includes 1,500sq/m volliere, incubators, a dwelling house for the staff of the nursery. Over 500 Kolkhian pheasants have already been bred in the nursery, many of which were released in nature and the rest were transferred to four hunting farms in various regions of Georgia.
Friends of Vashlovani also organized a camping area for eco-educational activities; established young rangers’ club Khornabuji, which members take part in various environmental activities; organized educational tours in Vashlovani as well as other protected areas of Georgia for pupils of Dedoplistskaro. The association is actively involved in environment protection activities and programmes.
“Nature knows no borders. It’s people who set them up between the protected areas and the rest of the world, while birds and animals freely move. Therefore, these boundaries do not limit the scope of our activities. We care of the entire environment to create favorable conditions for biodiversity"- says Amiran Kodiashvili.
In 2018, the European Union and Dedoplistskaro Local Action Group (LAG) got involved in the activities of the friends of Vashlovani. Dedoplistkaro LAG was launched by the EU within the second phase of the ENPARD programme ‘Promoting Citizen Engagement for Economic Development (PROCEED)’. The project is implemented by HEKS-EPER Georgia in partnership with Biological Farming Association “Elkana”. The project aims at promoting a bottom-up, inclusive rural development approach in Dedoplistkaro that fully engages all communities in the municipality. The project also aims to contribute to the reduction of poverty by supporting the improvement of community members’ employment and income opportunities.
The ENPARD projects are based on LEADER approach - a European approach to rural development. Its goal is to involve local people, as stakeholders and beneficiaries, in the development of rural areas so they could contribute to the improvement of the living conditions of their own community. With this goal in mind, Dedoplistskaro LAG was created in 2017 as a multi-sectoral cooperation platform that brings together the representatives of civil, private and public sectors. Dedoplistskaro LAG created a Local Development Strategy that reflects priorities for developing the Dedoplistskaro municipality. EU’s local development grants are issued for achieving the priorities as outlined by the strategy.
The friend of Vashlovani thoroughly evaluated the possibilities offered by the grant competition announced under the ENPARD project in the Dedoplistskaro, they designed a plan, wrote a project and ultimately gained EU support to continue their environmental activities.
Despite the fact that the Eagle Gorge is distinguished by an abundance of biodiversity, the visitors could not actually see it. It was not possible to see the richness of beautiful waterfalls or subtropical plants within the gorge as there were no hiking trails. With the EU support, first of all, safe and environmentally friendly hiking trails will be arranged. Trail marks are now being installed along the hiking routs, steps are being cut and shaped in the rocks, and several bridges over the rivers are also built.
It is difficult to perceive the beautiful biodiversity of the Vashlovani Protected Area when it is so polluted. In parallel to the arrangement of pedestrian infrastructure, volunteer nature lovers will also get engaged in activities planned for cleaning the gorge from solid waste. For this, the friends of Vashlovani have invited students and pupils from Dedoplistskaro and other regions of Georgia to get helping hand and instead offered food, working equipment and waterproof shoes to them. Thus, on the one hand, this is an educational activity where the members of the association provide the young people with information on biodiversity and on the other hand, it also helps the gorge to be cleaned. As a result, visitors of the Vashlovani Protected Areas will have the opportunity to safely pass through the whole valley and get pleasure from the natural heritage of the Eagle Gorge.
With the EU support, the friends of Vashlovani have also arranged camping place at the entrance of the valley. An infrastructure that is designed for 30 people is almost completed, which includes preparing a campground, building a fire ring and also a bathroom and toilet, providing solar water heating and electric power systems. The camping site will be opened by 15th of April. Camp rules and regulations for behavior will be developed in advance for the visitors. To note, the camping site as well as the hiking trails are adapted for people with disabilities.
“Biodiversity protection is the main mission of the natural monument, but it is no less important to encourage more nature lovers to enjoy the nature in a comfortable and safe way. It is very important and necessary to provide public access to protected areas”, - says Amiran Kodiashvili.
The main mission of the camping area is to host students and pupils who are interested in educational programmes. The friends of Vashlovani also plan to carry out the commercial activities and host tourists as well as local holiday-makers and corporate groups during the free days from the cognitive programmes. To note, students and pupils will have to pay a symbolic price for participation in the educational programmes while night staying on the camping area will cost more for the tourists.
The revenues from managing the picnic area will give the association an opportunity to preserve the existing Kolkhian pheasant and other rare birds. Besides, it will be possible to pay for those rangers or other employees who have worked only enthusiastically so far.
“The natural monument of Eagle Gorge, which is part of the protected areas, cannot actually fulfill its function. This beautiful valley is polluted by the waste flowing through the runoff waters. Sadly, because of the pollution, visitors do not enter the gorge, which is full of beautiful waterfalls and unique with biodiversity" – says Amiran Kodiashvili.
The friends of Vashlovani have built a lattice to protect the Eagle Gorge from the solid waste accumulated from the runoff waters. But it was not enough to protect the gorge from waste for a long time. Due to lack of finances, the lattice could not be properly cleaned, and its operation was impossible. However, thanks to the EU support, the friends of Vashlovani could find a way out from this unpleasant situation. The revenue generated by the picnic area will be sufficient for monitoring and cleaning of the accumulated wastes in the water purification grid. The friends of Vashlovani will carry out this work, while the municipality governance will take responsibility on taking out the trash.
The picnic area of the Vashlovani Protected Areas is very sunny and warm, that will help to attract more guests. Employees of the association will take care of logistic or administrative issues. The friends of Vashlovani will also provide the guide service to the visitors. As for food, transportation and other entertainment activities, the association members hope to involve local population in such activities. They will invite the private entities to provide the service. For example, people will be able to place their products free of charge and offer to the visitors, if they create a trading place in the camping area. The friends of Vashlovani will offer tourists various services of different private entities or companies to the visitors and will organize their activities.
“If we employ for example five people, it should further incur the employment of more to provide different services. In fact, we too can handle this work and we have enough staff for it, but this is not our job, not our function. With our small income we would rather implement our main conservative idea – to breed birds and release them in the nature and to protect the Eagle Gorge from contamination. These are our two key goals. We are not an income-oriented business organization. We can just launch an initiative and encourage people to get involved in the activities” – says Amiran Kodiashvili.
With the support of EU and Dedoplistskharo LAG, the ‘Friends’ Association of Vashlovani Protected Area’ are waiting for the first visitors of the camping area by 15th April. Thanks to them the Vashlovani Protected Areas will be cleaned up, comfortable and safe hiking trails and camping place will be created, where the nature lovers, tourists and locals will be able to enjoy the unique biodiversity. Their contribution to raising the next generation by offering them different educational programmes is important.
Future plans regarding the nature protection are infinite, like the nature itself.