In a mountainous village of Shkmeri of western Racha region, locals and their supporters came out on November 21 to protest against planned works to explore and extract manganese ore in the area covering around 150 hectares (1.5 square km) of nearby lands.
The protesters are demanding to void two ten-year mineral exploration and extraction licenses sold in an electronic auction in July by the National Agency of Mines, a state body under the Ministry of Economy.
The activists cite a plethora of concerns, including fears that mining will destroy the surrounding landscape, negatively affect biodiversity, contaminate air and waters, with locals losing pastures, arable, grasslands, among others.
“You cannot dig us [this land] up… Our native land is of the people, it does not belong to any company,” Tsotne Gloveli, one of the organizers of the grassroots protest addressed the rally.
Speaking with Mautskebeli TV after his speech, the protest leader said organizers could not get the word about the rally to many, while many others were unable to arrive. “But many more will come, the whole Georgia will,” asserted Gloveli, pledging that protests will continue and intensify.
The Organization of the Protest
The opponents of manganese mining in Shkmeri have organized over the past months, including by setting up a Facebook group named “For Shkmeri,” counting about 3,900 members as of November 22.
The protest brought out about 200 supporters of the cause. The rally was announced on November 8, some two weeks before.
The number, albeit relatively small, is significantly larger than some 50 people currently living in Shkmeri commune, which includes Shkmeri and two adjacent villages of Kharistvali and Usholta. The three villages belong to Oni Municipality.
The movement against mining works has gained the crucial backing of two Tbilisi-based civil society outfits working on environmental and social issues, the Green Alternative and the Social Justice Center, as well as social movements The Greens and Save Rioni Valley, the latter being one of the largest grassroots movements Georgia has seen recently.
Leading figures of the Save Rioni Valley – Varlam Goletiani, Marita Museliani and Maka Suladze – were all in attendance at the rally. In its own cause, the movement has continued for over a year to sternly oppose the controversial Namakhvani HPP project in neighboring Imereti and Lechkhumi provinces. MORE.
Controversial Mining Licenses
Green Alternative published on October 18 two orders, dated July 9, of the National Agency of Mines, awarding the licenses to the two companies to explore and extract manganese in Shkmeri and the surrounding area.
MN North Ltd received the permit to carry out the work in eight areas, in total amounting to 130.2 hectares (1.3 square km), among them small piece of land between Shkmeri and Kharistvali villages. Technology 2021 Ltd can do the same at one plot of land of 22.9 hectares (0.22 square km), close to Shkmeri.
Under the license, the companies have three years to explore the manganese deposits in the area before starting extraction work.
Both firms applied in the public registry on July 2, and their registration as limited companies concluded on July 5, just two days before they partook in the auction for the licenses, and four days before they received the official permit.
Battle Goes to Economy Ministry
Ahead of the rally being set, Green Alternative and Social Justice Center, as well as Shkmeri local landowner Grigol Gagnidze filed on October 18 an administrative appeal to the Economy Ministry to void the call for the auction, as well as the licenses awarded to the two companies.
They argued the process for planning the exploration and mining works contravened the provisions of the UN’s 1998 Convention on Access to Information, Public Participation in Decision-making and Access to Justice in Environmental Matters, which Georgia is part to.
According to the appeal, the authorities should have disclosed to the public at the earliest stage the possible effects of the planned works on the natural and social environment, a provision of the Convention that was not met.
The claimants argue that locals were not effectively involved in the decision-making process either.
The Economy Ministry is yet to issue public comments on the appeal.
CSOs Say Locals Face Repressions
In a follow-up to the statement on lodging the appeal to the Economy Ministry, the Social Justice Center and Green Alternative argued on October 26 that the authorities have used “repressive measures” against the locals to secure the lands needed for exploration and mining works.
The watchdogs said that in January, months before the National Agency of Mines awarded the relevant licenses, the authorities launched criminal proceedings in alleged fraudulent registering of state-owned plots of land in Shkmeri into private ownership between 2018 and 2020.
The CSOs cited July 6 report by Mtis Ambebi, a media outlet covering mountainous regions, that prosecutors in June struck plea deals with the defendants — five locals and four employees of the Oni Municipality Hall – who received fines and probation sentencing, with the state seizing the lands back into its property.
The Social Justice Center and the Green Alternative argued the lands in question were located on the plots awarded in the mining licenses, going on to claim the probes were also initiated per request of “persons interested in receiving the permits.”
The Prosecutor’s Office of Georgia confirmed the convictions with Civil.ge on November 22, but declined to provide additional details about the case.
Social Protests Loom Large
The developments surrounding the planned manganese mining in Shkmeri come as social and environmental issues across Georgian countryside have recurrently taken the spotlight over the year, despite two hotly-contested elections and related tumultuous political developments in Tbilisi, the capital.
2021 saw, among others, local-turned-national protests in Rioni Valley against the planned construction of the Namakhvani HPP. The investor terminated its contract with Georgian Government, but the authorities still plan to carry on with the project, with Economy Minister Natia Turnava has also floated the idea of negotiations with the investor to remain in the project.
The year also marked another protest against manganese mining in Shukruti village of Chiatura municipality, a major mining area in Imereti region. Shukruti residents protested for more than 100 days, including weeks-long hunger strikes over mining activities damaging their homes.
Protesting Shkmeri residents frequently brought dire social and environmental situation across Chiatura as an argument against mining in their village.
“We will protect the integrity of Shkmeri till the end, no way they will dig [this land] up,” Shkmeri protest leader Tsotne Gloveli told media on November 21, adding: “I will lie down in front of a tractor… I will do anything to protect my native land.” “[This] country is for the one man, one company to line their pockets with money, at the expense of these people, of this village.“
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