Finding the sweet spot in Georgia’s mountains

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Photo: Vladimir Valishvili/UNDP

It is as difficult to pronounce its name as to find the village of Zhashkva. Hidden away between the lush slopes of Greater Caucasus in Georgia’s Racha region — it only takes one wrong turn along a dirt track to end up in another isolated location, with stunning views, of which these Rachvelian highlands have plenty. Yet it is absolutely worth it to climb up and down a few hills and pass some wobbly bridges hanging over fast mountain streams to visit Vano Kalmakhelidze’s home in Zhashkva and taste his heavenly good honey.

Vano is only 19 years old, but his ambition is to become the largest producer of honey in his region.

“Not only the largest,” he says with a broad smile.

“On our farm, we produce the best, purest mountain honey, made by a very special kind of endemic species — the Georgian grey mountain bee, which has been in my family for generations.”

Vano has recently passed a UNDP-supported professional beekeeping business course.

“This training helped me understand how to keep the balance between having profit in beekeeping and taking care of the bee population. Without bees we can’t grow any crops, let alone enjoy a spoonful of good honey.”

The Georgian grey mountain bee is just one example of the endemic species that make up the unique biodiversity of the Caucasus mountains. Georgia is located in one of the biologically richest regions of the planet. One of the World Wildlife Federation’s 35 “priority places” covers the Caucasus. Moreover, Georgia is located within two of the 34 “biodiversity hotspots” identified by Conservation International: Caucasus and Iran-Anatolia. Forest massifs surviving in the Georgian mountains are the world’s last untouched forests in the moderate climate zone.

Georgia is currently home to over 16,000 species of fauna and 6,500 species of vascular plants. Twenty-five percent of these are unique to the region, including the Georgian grey mountain bee.

Giorgi Beruchashvili is an expert on endemic species of bees and a great advocate of sustainable beekeeping in Racha. With support from UNDP and the Swiss Government, he passed a full course on professional teaching, becoming a consultant on beekeeping for the local farmers in his hometown, Oni. Thanks to his initiative and UNDP support, an agro-club was established at the school in Oni, gathering 15 local youth to learn about sustainable honey making, including how to breed the endemic bee species and adapt a natural technique that uses hollowed-out tree trunks as hives. The agro-club has also organised three beekeeping knowledge exchange tours to other regions of Georgia.

“Our Georgian grey mountain bee is an amazing creature. It’s relatively small, yet very resilient and has an incredible ability to collect large amounts of nectar in a relatively short time. It is well adapted to the harsh mountainous climate and, besides its farming benefits, plays a key role in preserving local biodiversity of unique Caucasian flowers, herbs, weeds and fruit trees.”

Apart from being one of the most environmental-friendly agricultural activities, beekeeping is also quite a profitable business, providing decent income with relatively low costs of production. This is why beekeeping is gaining popularity, especially among young motivated people who see it as an alternative to relocating to seek jobs elsewhere. Depopulation and an exodus of youth are plaguing the Georgian highlands: over the last 30 years, Racha has lost half of its population. This is a problem common to other mountainous regions of Georgia.

Behind the spectacular scenery, the realities of mountain life in Georgia can be harsh. As climate change advances, extreme weather events are becoming more frequent, increasing the risk of flash floods, rockslides, avalanches and other natural disasters. A lack of reliable livelihoods, convenient transport routes, modern infrastructure and cultural diversions makes it hard for mountain communities to compete with Tbilisi and other urban areas. This explains why high mountain areas account for half of Georgia’s settlements but just 9.7 percent of its population.

In an effort to reverse this trend, Georgia in 2015 adopted a Law on the Development of High Mountainous Regions. In 2019, with UNDP support, the Government endorsed the country’s first four-year Strategy on the Development of High Mountainous Settlements. This committed new funding of USD 240 million for 2019–2020 to promote economic development, improve social welfare and expand access to services for the 1,800 settlements with high mountain status.

These settlements have become a focus area for UNDP local development projects that support entrepreneurship, renewable energy, waste management, environmental tourism and other areas with local promise.

UNDP’s assistance to high mountain areas comes through two different projects: a USD 5.5 million local development programme funded by Switzerland and Austria, which also brings to bear Swiss and Austrian experience in similar landscapes; and a USD 3.2 million Swiss-funded vocational training programme to improve the skills of local farmers.

This common thread for all UNDP initiatives is to ensure a good balance between “people and planet,” so that economic development creates jobs but does not come at the expense of the flora and fauna of Georgia’s highlands.

“Our hope is to encourage hundreds of young people to follow Vano’s example, and show you can make a good living while protecting your mountain homeland,” says UNDP Head Louisa Vinton.

“For us, this would be the sweetest gift of all.”

Learn more about UNDP’s work in Georgia.

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