Since 2016, Georgians have been observing the surreal spectacle of some of the nation’s most impressive trees departing their longtime homes in forests and gardens and traveling by barge to a park on the Black Sea coast. Two hundred eucalyptuses, liriodendrons, cypresses, magnolias – all towering, centennial giants – have sailed to their new home as if drawn magnetically.
The Pied Piper in this case is the country’s richest and most powerful man, Bidzina Ivanishvili, and the park is his idiosyncratic creation. Ivanishvili has spent millions of his own dollars, overseen feats of logistical engineering and bulldozed over environmental activists’ protests to create this shrine to his passion: giant trees.
Now the park has finally opened, and Georgians have been flocking to check out the much-hyped arcadia.
On weekends, long and chaotic queues have been forming outside the site, formally known as the Shekvetili Dendrological Park, about an hour north of Batumi. Under the baking sun, police engage in shouting matches with drivers, who in their search for parking are bottling up traffic on the nation’s main East-West highway. Passing drivers making their way through the snarl honk and curse fiercely.
Pro-government television broadcasts have been stoking the craze, running reports about “yet another gift to the planet” from Ivanishvili, the chairman of the ruling Georgian Dream party. In the two weeks after its opening on July 15, the park reportedly received as many as 250,000 visitors.
Inside, the opening scenes from Jurassic Park come to mind. Crowds pass through a sun-dappled alley, lined with bright green thujas, and emerge at a large, open-air aviary, encased in an electric fence and partly covered by nets. Giant pelicans stare on mistrustfully from behind the chain link while grey crowned cranes chase one another, shrieking angrily. The park’s avian pièce de résistance, a flamboyance of pink flamingos, can be seen at a distance, in the middle of a lake.
The park has quickly emerged as the top Instagram spot for locals. Young women in cocktail dresses pose: lips pouted, hair to one side, one knee cocked. Couples snap selfies hugging in the bamboo groves, and children demand to be photographed with the lemurs and parrots.
The raison d'être giant trees are held in place with massive ropes, as if to prevent them from escaping. Guards shoo people away from the trees and off the lawns, herding the unruly crowds back on to the walkways. “It’s so Ray Bradbury: Don’t step off the path or something terrible happens,” one visitor joked.
“I felt like I sold a family member”
On a recent visit by Eurasianet, two children went running up to one tree with glossy, myrtle green leaves. “Daddy, daddy, we found it!” they shouted. Their parents went up for a closer inspection. “No, ours was much larger,” the mother concluded.
“Ivanishvili took our tree and we are trying to find it,” the father, a portly, kind-eyed 40-something told Eurasianet. He identified himself as Gocha, but declined to give his real name or the name of his village, saying that he feared jeopardizing the terms of the agreement he had signed with Ivanishvili’s people for selling a centennial magnolia from his yard for the park.
His two kids ran ahead, continuing their search. Gocha trailed behind, sweating profusely. Like many men at the park, he had his shirt rolled up to expose his belly in an effort to beat the heat. “My great grandfather planted that magnolia and I sold it for cash. What kind of a man am I after this?“ Gocha asked with a guilty smile. “But I did it for them, to buy them clothes and textbooks,” he added pointing at his kids. “I had to fix the roof and she wanted a new laundry machine,” he said, pointing at his wife.
“As always, everything is my fault,” the wife retorted. She plodded ahead in a red floral dress holding a toddler, occasionally turning around to warn her husband to not share too much information with a journalist: “If you keep on blabbering, they will take it all back and we won’t have the money or the tree.”
Gocha explained that, shortly after the deal was signed, a convoy of heavy machinery roared to his home to collect the purchase. The whole village turned out to watch the excavators, cranes and men coax the tree and its massive root ball out of the ground and on to a heavy truck. Electric wires had to be brought down to make way for the tree. Finally the magnolia clambered away, leaving a large hole in the ground and in Gocha’s heart: “I felt like I sold a family member,” he said.
The environmental impact
Phantasmagoric scenes of giant trees on the move have played out across the country over the last few years, inspiring many internet memes, art works and jokes. There is a documentary in production.
Environmental activists have criticized the mass uprooting operation that has transformed several once sylvan spots along the shore into lunar landscapes, muddy messes riddled with craters. In some places, entire groves were destroyed in order to get at a single tree.
“The biggest environmental issue here is the destruction of the topsoil and the landscape,” said Irakli Macharashvili, a conservationist with the environmental advocacy organization Green Alternative. “The uprooting leaves behind environmental devastation, like massive holes in the ground and missing layers of soil,” he said. “Restoring the environment requires numerous measures, and even then, a full restoration is not possible.”
Nearly every stage of the replanting process has created some damage to the environment and some disruption to public life. New roads and piers had to be built to help shunt the trees onto barges. Highway traffic and trains were held up and railway catenary pulled down to allow the trees to pass. In April, the park’s contractor widened a river to make room for a massive barge that collected twin 100-year-old plane trees from the village of Kariati and ferried the giants seven miles downstream to the sea shore.
But in Georgia, little can stand in Ivanishvili’s way. Critics say he is moving around the trees like he personally shuffles prime ministers and presidents.
Construction carried on this year even as “non-essential” business activities were shut down because of the coronavirus outbreak. Environmental activists say that government agencies have bowed to Ivanishvili’s will, skirting the laws and allowing the tree-moving process to bypass required mitigation procedures. In 2016, the then minister of environment Gigla Abulashvili said that in the whole process, his only concern was to make sure that “a tree that lived in point A continues to live in point B.”
The park’s management claim that the entire operation has followed the law and that all resulting damage to the environment has been mitigated, but many remain skeptical. The contractor was fined for the river-widening episode, but only after months of critical reports on opposition television and repeated inquiries from Green Alternative. And in the end, the fine amounted to $570, which Macharashvili says will hardly deter future violations and does nothing to repair the damage.
“At this point, it is hardly possible to evaluate the full environmental impact that the mass uprooting has left,” he said. “Each and every site of uprooting and every single government-issued permit needs to be examined.”
Some of the park’s visitors said the ends justified the means, even if they were legally and environmentally questionable. “Ivanishvili took nothing and turned into it a beautiful park, for all of us to enjoy but all we do is complain,” one man responded, brusquely, to a question from Eurasianet. “He is helping everyone, but we Georgians are ungrateful and unappreciative people, and you journalists should find a real problem to cover.”
Ivanishvili’s opponents argue that the billionaire’s well-publicized philanthropy effectively amounts to voter bribery and that making the park available to the public free of charge is a campaign stunt. Ivanishvili’s party, the Georgian Dream, faces a parliamentary election in October and Ivanishvili has not been shy in the past about using his vast wealth to gain good will with voters.
“You can do anything when you have a lot of money and you live in a poor country,” Gocha, said, assuming a philosophical air. “That tree gave us joy, shade and good memories, and I sold it to buy things. I guess people will sell anything for the right price.”