The Czech Development Agency, set up in 2008 to help eradicate poverty and contribute to sustainable development, currently operates in over a dozen countries in different parts of the world. One of these long-term projects is in aid of the picturesque Tusheti protected landscape area in the north of Georgia where Czechs have been active since 2013. Michael Hošek, an expert on protected landscape area management and a member of the team currently there, came to Radio Prague’s studio to talk about the agency’s work.
“In our project we are focused specifically on nature conservation but also on the tourism sector because it’s quite connected, you cannot somehow split those two because one influences the other. We started to help the Protected Landscape Administration five years ago, that’s when the protected area was established, it’s quite a special area because there is a small group or a small community of Tushetians living there. Those are people that for centuries have defended the borders of Georgia against invaders like the Dagestanis and Chechens and they are very strong people. Due to developments they were separated from the rest of the Georgian community but then later they were given by the king of Georgia some land in the lowland nearby to Tusheti. So they changed their way of life and they spent the winter seasons in the lowland and the summer seasons up in the mountains.”
They have flocks of sheep I understand, so they drive their sheep up the mountains...
“Yes, and the flocks of sheep are their livelihood, but the situation changed a lot during the communist regime and only very few of them kept the traditional way of life and stayed up in the mountains, just a few families. So it happened that the region was almost abandoned, during the summer season a few thousand people were there in their old houses but significant parts of the villages were abandoned for the whole year. Of course the Georgian government wanted to do something with this and to somehow keep the community alive.”
So basically, you’re helping to prevent its depopulation now?
“Yes we are helping the people to live there for the whole year; of course we realize that there will not be more than a few hundred people during the winter season but still it’s very important because they are somehow keeping the infrastructure there, they are looking after the whole area, they have cattle there etc. What the Czech Development Agency did as its first project was that we gave them solar panels. This way we gave them electricity for the whole year. There is no connection with the lowland and it helped them a lot because of course it’s quite difficult to stay for the whole winter season there without any connection to people. Now they have mobile phones, they are even connected to Facebook so you can see pictures from Tusheti and be in touch with them. If there is a problem, some health problem etc., they can call the lowland and get help by helicopter or whatever is needed. So now it’s much easier for them and this first step was very important because they remember and appreciate the help we gave them and it greatly helped our effort there.”
How many people are we talking about roughly?
“Roughly during the summer season it’s about 3,000 people but it’s important to say that there are more than 6,000- 7,000 tourists and this number is increasing fast each year because now tourists are more and more interested in places that are almost not explored or quite remote and that is the case of Tusheti.”
You said they have no problems with livelihood, what do they do?
“They have cattle, sheep and those of them who have homes or houses in lowland spend the summer there, two or three months doing almost nothing, just growing their own vegetables and so on. The life there is quite simple but also very cheap, because you need almost nothing. You need to be in touch with other people and you exchange goods. So for example; if you have eggs then you will give some to your neighbor and the neighbor will give you some meat in return. So it’s really very simple.”
So someone grows cattle, someone grows vegetables and they are basically self-sufficient as a community.
“They are almost self-sufficient. There is about 70km of very bad road, quite dangerous so you can only reach the area by off-road cars, well equipped. It takes 5 to 6 hours to go to Tusheti because you have to go through a pass which is about 3,000 meters above the sea level so not everyone is able to go there because some people are afraid of heights and that’s a problem for them. But as I said, there are a lot of tourists. So there are 3,000 local people there and many more tourists during summer season and this is also important for their livelihood.”
The tourist industry, you’re helping to develop that…
“Yes, they have a lot of new guest houses, the accommodation there is quite cheap and of course everything is very simple, but very good.”
“Yes, they offer their own food which is very tasty; it’s not so simple because they are able to cook almost anything there. I think the only danger for tourists is that they drink a lot, alcohol I mean, which is also a custom in Georgia.”
What do they drink?
“It’s called cha-cha and it is a kind of brandy from wine grapes. And they are so grateful if they have guests that they offer you a lot of this alcohol and you have to be really careful about how much you drink during the night.”
What is co-operation with them like? What kind of relations do you have with the locals now?
“We have very good relations because we have been working there for more than five years which is quite a long time and they know what we did for them. We are not responsible for the solar panels, that was a previous project, we are responsible for the preparation of a management plan for the whole area, what this means is that they established a protected landscape but they didn’t know how to manage it and what the priorities should be. So we conducted a two-year survey of the whole area and I dare say we know the area now better than some of the locals.”
“So we prepared a management plan that covers not only nature protection but also other parts of their way of life for example; how to develop the infrastructure, how to maintain it, what is important in other sectors like for example waste treatment; things required for the development of the tourist sector and so on. Based on this we decided to extend our project and help them in one of the most significant priority areas which is tourism. When you see thousands of tourists going through the area without any information you realize that it’s quite dangerous. Some of the tourists are accustomed to such areas, as are many Polish and Czech people who come here, but there are also tourists from The Netherlands and from other countries who come here with no real experience of mountain tourism, no knowledge of what to expect, for example; in two hours you can find yourself in the midst of a heavy storm and then you have a big problem if you don’t know how to protect yourself. So we marked trails, it is the first system of trails in the whole area, and we published the map which is now available for everyone because there is also an electronic version on the web. We helped them last year to set up their own website so they could get information out to tourists. So first we had to persuade them to set it up and then help them to operate it. We will continue with this project until the end of this year. This tourist infrastructure should be finished by the end of the year and then we will see what comes next because we were already asked by the Georgian government to continue in another protected landscape. When they saw what we did in the Tusheti protected landscape they asked us to do the same in another one which will be established at the end of the year.”
“That is so. It is a pity that you don’t see many young people or new generations continuing in this traditional way of life because they are more interested in going to cities and want to spend their lives in better conditions. But still there are some swallows, some people are coming back from the cities to settle here and are trying to preserve the traditions and customs that they inherited from their forefathers.”
How do you communicate with them?
“In English. I’d say our advantage is that we all understand basic Russian, I don’t speak good Russian, but I understand everything. However English is the common language for us.”
In a video about the work of the Czech Development Agency there I saw a small beer brewery, is that right? And I saw something that people refer to as the “Czech fortress” that volunteers are helping to preserve. How did that come about?
“The area you are speaking about is quite famous, not only this Tusheti area but also a larger region in the Caucasus Mountains is quite famous because they built tall towers there during the medieval times the purpose of which was to protect families or communities against invaders from Dagestan and Chechnya. Unfortunately due to a lack of interest or maybe financial resources this architectural heritage is badly damaged and often in danger of falling down. Therefore not only Czech volunteers but also people from other countries come here and help reconstruct them. The Czech volunteers are focused on Keselo Fortress which is in Omalo village. This is a center for the whole region and there are five or six such towers there. Fifteen years ago they were badly damaged but now they are quite well reconstructed and the Czech volunteers continue to support the community in Omalo. They return to Omalo regularly and spend 2 or 3 weeks each summer there and that is why the locals call it the Czech Fortress. You can see that there is a good relationship between the locals and these Czech volunteers and they have made this place part of their life.”
So they forged strong ties to the place, made good friends there?
“They made friends there yes and they continue to carry out archeological surveys because it’s quite important, there is very little information about the history of the place.”
You spent quite a while there yourself, was there any particularly awarding moment for you in this work or was there a family that you were close to?
“I have a few friends there that I am close to but what is the most touching for me is there are a few very old people still living in the area. Some of them live alone in a village and if you approach them you are immediately invited to their homes.”
They bring out the best they have…
“Yes they bring out the best they have and then when you ask how old they are you are told that they are 85 years old but they are in such good shape that it’s incomparable with people from Europe in their 50s. So now I clearly see how this simple way of life helps you to live a healthy life, with no unimportant things around you, you are just focused on what is important. These people are happier than the people from the lowland. People who live in the lowland are interested in many things such as watching televisions etc. and sometimes they are wasting their lives by doing these unimportant things. Up in the mountains maybe you do nothing, but your mental health is much better and I believe that those people are much richer talking about their thoughts, their perception on life and the world, how it should be done, if it’s not good now etc. I’m not sure if I’m clear.”
You’re very clear, that’s beautiful. If you were to invite visitors, tourists, to Georgia how would you describe the country?
“It’s very diverse and I’m not talking about bio diversity only, I’m talking about communities because it’s really something like a cradle of Europe. If you read old stories from Greece and from other countries then you will recognize that some of them are from this area. These communities were separated to a large extent and they developed their own way of life in the Caucasus range, so I definitely would recommend to tourists to go to Caucasus because this is something that is very special, but also to some other parts of the country like Ajaria on the coast of the Black Sea because then you see a lot of very old Turkish architecture and you see a mixture of Turkish and Georgian architecture. But speaking in general about Georgia you will enjoy everything, it’s a very safe country, people may be poor, especially in the countryside, but they are very generous, there is a very good cuisine, for me one of the best in the world, what they cook and what they serve you is something incredible. And if you travel around the country and are interested in bio diversity in Nature then you will see everything from the Black Sea coast to vegetation 5,000 meters above sea level in the Caucasus mountains, even some deserts near Azerbaijan, so you have everything in a very small place.”