Perspectives | The threats to Georgia's world heritage sites
Should locals be expected to forgo modernity to satisfy the demands of UNESCO and the global tourism industry?
Part of Georgia’s allure to tourists is its UN-recognized world heritage sites. But conflict over management of the sites is risking their celebrated status, while locals chafe under unclear requirements and limited funds for preservation.
UNESCO – the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization – recognizes three Georgian sites for their unique contributions to the story of humanity: parts of the ancient capital, Mtskhetia; the 12th century Gelati Monastery in Kutaisi; and the hamlet of Chazhashi with its unique tower houses in the high mountains of Svaneti. All three have been the subject of conflicts between different stakeholders, which explains why another 15 sites in Georgia languish on a list awaiting UNESCO’s consideration.
For people living in or near these world heritage sites, questions persist over how to accommodate modern life. Locals feel the sites must adapt, that change is fundamental to the human story; nothing is timeless. Yet when these three were first recognized, Georgia was a basket case, an unstable country emerging from civil war. Normally, UNESCO requires a management plan when it adds to its list. When it recognized the site in Svaneti in 1994, it assumed the region would remain isolated from the outside world and undeveloped. It was wrong.
Fast forward 25 years and the Svaneti village of Ushguli – which includes Chazhashi – is a booming tourist mecca.
For the area to maintain its UNESCO status, the organization demands villagers continue to use their land much like their ancestors had for hundreds of years: primarily as small vegetable plots during the short summer months and for tending livestock. Yet farmers in these forbidding highlands cannot compete with their counterparts in Georgia’s lush valleys. Many have turned to tourism to support themselves. That means building new hotels and other infrastructure.
The UNESCO site here includes towers, churches, houses and stables in a 1-hectare area of Chazhashi. In addition, a buffer zone of 19 hectares includes the hamlets of Murqmeli, Chvibiani and Zhibiani. UNESCO says the 20 hectares represent a cultural area in which medieval architecture has been preserved thanks to traditional forms of land use. But today, tourism is the basis of the economy, without which many locals would have left.
Conflicts emerge when something needs repairs. Is it the responsibility of the locals? Or the central government, which has made tourism so central to its development strategy? And either way, if changes are made, how can they conform to UNESCO requirements when those requirements were never specified?
In late July 2019, an old family tower in Murqmeli collapsed. Two weeks later, residents rallied and blocked the road, preventing tourists from reaching Ushguli for several hours. They demanded that authorities start restoring the towers in Murqmeli, which the National Agency for the Preservation of the Cultural Heritage of Georgia agreed to do by the end of the year. To date, nothing has happened.
Earlier this month, the Formula News television channel reported on fears locally and in Tbilisi that UNESCO might withdraw world heritage status from the area because of this neglect.
Boris Kakriashvili's buildings are located in the buffer zone, in Murqmeli. With limited funds, the government has so far only invested in the renovation and protection of the buildings in Chazhashi. Kakriashvili's area is not as attractive to visitors. Too many houses are dilapidated – tourists prefer to stay higher up the valley.
This is all the more tragic since Kakriashvili's family is one of the oldest in Ushguli. Its former prosperity and influence are evidenced in the impressive fortress, the likes of which few remain in Svaneti. Several buildings are connected to the tower by a system of corridors, stairs and ladders so that the entire medieval complex could be defended like a castle. Inside are treasures – wooden vessels for milk, sieves for cheese production: the relics of a family line many centuries old – that elsewhere would be in a museum.
Kakriashvili has tried to draw attention to the decline of his property by speaking with researchers and preservationists and the media. He receives only a small pension. His sister earns a little teaching in the Ushguli kindergarten. His children, like most of the inhabitants of Svaneti and many in Georgia, are without a steady job despite their university degrees. The family lives largely off a small plot of farmland.
People like Kakriashvili cannot meet the challenge of sustaining their world without external financial support. And without external financial support, only small parts of Ushguli are being preserved, threatening to turn them into Disneyesque islands surrounded by decay.
UNESCO is an abstract institution for Ushguli residents, and few know it does not finance preservation. That is the job of the homeowners or the state. Many in Svaneti complain that Tbilisi takes the heritage status for granted, that the government believes the resulting tourism benefits locals enough to overlook its meager provision of social services. Now fears of UNESCO withdrawing its recognition hang over the region: No status would likely mean fewer tourists. Today all of Ushguli would probably be a landscape of abandoned ruins if it weren’t for the income from tourism.
It is a familiar pattern in Georgia.
At Bagrati Cathedral in Kutaisi, conflicts between UNESCO, the government, and the Georgian Orthodox Church over structural changes led to UNESCO cataloging the cathedral as endangered in 2010, along with the Gelati Monastery. Both had been part of the Bagrati-Gelati world heritage complex since 1994. After several years of negotiations, the government and UNESCO agreed that the monastery could remain on the heritage list, while the 11th century cathedral was removed.
With that change, UNESCO drew a line, which it continues to hold. Despite lobbying from Tbilisi, it has not recognized a new site in the country since 1996.
There are many other Ushgulis in Georgia – wondrous places that risk abandonment and decay without UNESCO status, and conflict if that status is granted without a detailed plan for living with history.
Stefan Applis is a professor of geography at Justus-Liebig-University Giessen in Germany.
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