Forest reform draw's fire from NGOs and World Bank

14-05-07

The "radical reforms" that have started in Georgia's forestry sector have drawn stern criticism from international financial and environment protection organizations. The new reforms mean that for the first time private companies have leased Georgian forests to manage for twenty year periods. On May 1 three companies paid a total of GEL 8 million to gain the rights to manage various Georgian forests-including those with a high conservation value-for a twenty year period.

On May 11, the Ministry of the Environment, the World Bank, World Wildlife Fund, the Green Alternative NGO, the Caucasus Environmental NGO Network and journalists met to discuss the reform. The meeting was organized at the Zurab Zhvania Georgian Institute of Public Affairs.

The current environment minister has ditched the relaxed style of his predecessor, and frequently says that "Fans of the environment are in charge in the ministry. We know best how to protect environment."

Representatives of the ministry displayed the same attitude at the meeting in GIPA. "Strong forestry reform has been implemented in Georgia. We will see positive results sooner than our critics think," the head of the ministry's department of licenses and permits Giorgi Tskhakaia said.

International and regional NGOs see serious threats in the reform. "Nobody says that the private sector should not participate in managing the forest sector, however there is the unfortunate experience of other countries, where hasty and unprepared reform damaged forests," they say.

Forest reform has also become a bone of contention between the ministry and World Bank representatives. As it was revealed at the meeting, the World Bank has doubts about the responsibility of some of the companies that successfully bid for contracts to manage forests, companies that are not very well known in Georgia. In addition, the total revenue from all three auctions (GEL 8 million) is considered too small given the socio-economic and ecological functions of those forests.

No comprehensive forest inventory was conducted before the licenses were auctioned, but the obligations the winning companies signed up to state that a company accredited with the international Forestry Stewardship Council (FSC) should prepare a plan, the implementation of which would safeguard forests against uncontrolled clear-cutting.

"Long-term licensing is an acceptable form of forest management, but I do not understand how you can sell when you do not know what you are selling. It appears unlikely that a license owner will spend millions for inventories of international standards, and that national interests are protected sufficiently by such an arrangement. Investors of such a small scale would usually not do a full-scale inventory of forests, like the government has assigned investors to do," World Bank representative Ilia Kvitaishvili said.

"The Forestry Stewardship Council Certificate is issued based on ten principles and several dozen criteria, and often even developed countries have problems in fulfilling them. It will be interesting to see how ready our investors fare, and how it will be possible to protect these principles in Georgia," questioned Ilia Osepashvili of the WWF Caucasus office.

The government says that they "are busier with forest protection than with the protection of investors". Ministry representatives point out that one of the winning companies already has an FSC certificate.

Another contentious issue is that some relict forests of high biodiversity value have been put up for auction. These forests should be protected by Georgian legislation. Assigning forests of high conservation value for economic exploitation, on the basis of long-term logging rights, is also against the Biodiversity Convention and against one of the FSC principles.

"There is no document proving that the exploitation of the relict forests that have been auctioned is permissible. The head of the Forestry Department told me during a radio show that this document exists and that the Biodiversity Department is working on it. We checked it and received the answer that they are not [working on the document] and nobody asked them to," claims Irakli Macharashvili of Green Alternative.

According to World Bank recommendations, there are major economic reasons for a proper forest inventory prior to auction: if forests are defined as economically profitable and this information is spread on a website, chances are that the government will find more serious companies and receive more money than it has received from the recent auction.

However, ministry official Giorgi Tskhakaia says it "is unacceptable for the government that so much money was spent on an inventory of forests."

Prepared by CENN Journalist: Rezo Getiashvili
14-05-07