For decades, deforestation in Georgia has been putting the livelihoods of communities at risk. It has not only led to an increase in the impact of natural disasters, but has also deprived communities of clean running water.
Clean water supply for a majority of Georgia’s regions depends on forests, as does agricultural productivity, which is dependent on the health of forest ecosystems. Forests regulate water quality and mitigate the risk of flooding and flash flooding caused by precipitation run-off. Prolonged, unplanned, and unsustainable forest resource consumption has led us to scenarios with potentially catastrophic results.
On May 22, 2020, World Biodiversity Day, the Parliament of Georgia approved a new Forest Code. The document serves as a basis to regulate a balanced use of forest resources and diversify its functions and benefits, i.e. widen its scope of socio-economic benefits while maintaining and protecting biodiversity and the ecological functions of forests. The Code draws on a progressive approach in that it considers all the actors involved and affected by the forest, and sets a precedent for their involvement in management functions.
The document reiterate the principle that everybody is free to access forests for non-commercial purposes, regardless of the form of forest ownership (state, communal, private).
The document was largely based on the National Forest Concept document prepared with financial and expert support from Austria. It aims to bring the management of the country’s natural resources in line with its environmental, economic, energy, and social policies and development programs, so that the policies complement and do not undermine each other, especially those that were developed in parallel with the Forest Code and under the European Association Agreement.
The Forest Code is an important and progressive document that responds to the complex problems that have arisen from many years of poor forest management. Here’s why:
The Abolition of Social Felling
Preparing firewood using unsustainable methods, a practice that began in the 1990s in Georgia and to this day remains a primary source of heating for those living in regions, represents one of the main functions of forests around the country, and as a result inflicts significant damage on the country’s natural landscapes. This mode of heating homes in winter results in millions of trees being cut down and the irreversible degradation of hundreds and thousands of hectares of unique ecosystems. With the new regulations, firewood will remain a primary source of heating for the rural population, but will be gathered and processed based on its evaluated potential: the resources will be used rationally, and, most importantly, these activities will be conducted by qualified forestry staff. The implementation of these procedures will not only create further opportunities for economic and ecological sustainability, but will also ensure labor safety, an issue that has led to many deaths in the past.
Introducing Multifunctional Forest Use
The Forest Code introduces the multifunctional management of forests. This means that each district is assigned a category as either a Protective, Protected, Recreational or Agricultural forest, based on its natural value and socioeconomic factors. Depending on the category the forest falls under, it will have its own corresponding management method that is relevant to its contextual needs. For example, a forest that is mainly recreational will focus more on regulating the flow of tourism.
Inclusive Forms of Forest Management
Diversifying the ways in which and by whom the forests are managed is an integral part of this document, which basically calls for the creation of necessary conditions so that different players in the sector are taken into consideration – this means that the forests are not solely managed by the governmental institutions but also considers the community, municipality, private agricultural entities or the Church as potential parties involved in the management. However, irrespective of the parties involved, all must comply with the government mandated protective functions that protect the forests and their ecological balance. All forms of ownership or management are equally regulated by the code or any other legislation related to forest resources, i.e. no form of management is exempt from them. The authorized management institutions will be supervised, just like every other forest manager (communal, private, etc.), by an institution responsible for state control. All plans must be agreed upon with the government.
A Forest’s Non-Timber Resources Offered as a Form of Income Generation
The Code draws on the potential of non-timber resources. As opposed to traditional forestry practices that were based solely on cutting down trees, it introduces a new variety of products that are increasingly in demand for modern markets, including non-timber resources such as fruits, medicinal plants, etc. The new law now includes the commercial use of numerous products that were until now only permitted for personal use. This effort helps in the eradication of poverty, job creation, and suits the requirements of multifaceted, local economic development.
An Integrated Approach
The document has provided a good framework that allows forest issues to be integrated into various programs and policies, leading to a better economic impact. For example, it can be adapted to eco-tourism: the forestry agency can follow the example of the protected territories, which have seen to double both the number of tourists and the resulting income every year. The document can be easily integrated into rural development strategies and action plans, and offer additional income for communities. This demonstrates that the document is a product of a multidisciplinary approach and cross-sectoral collaboration.
GEORGIA TODAY spoke with CENN’s representative Rezo Getiashvili, Project Coordinator for Sustainable Forest Management for Rural Development, about the new Forest Code.
“The code had strong international support. During the process of agreeing on the sectoral or inter-agency political decisions, the document relied on the best European practices, during the analysis and modeling of which we involved European organizations and the experts themselves. For example, the Forest Zoning Directive, developed with the support of the Austrian Forestry Services, became the basis for the multifunctional management regulations of forests. A participatory process also allowed the public to initiate new political decisions, examples of which are the correction of the process of transforming the National Forest Agency into a Ltd. company, the legalization of the commercial use of non-timbre resources, and prioritizing the importance of forest tourism, for which our project mobilized Georgian, Austrian, Slovenian, and Finnish experts. Ultimately, we can say that a document was developed that champions consistent reforms of the sector.”