The Republic of Georgia, which gained its independence after the breakup of the Soviet Union, may be best known to Westerners as the birthplace of Josef Stalin. But this new democracy, bordered by the formidable Caucasus mountains, is also known for its alpine forests, stunning mountain gorges, and clear-running mineral springs.


Photo: Goldman Environmental Prize.

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Manana Kochladze, 32, has dedicated herself to protecting the natural resources — and the people — of her homeland. Trained as a scientist, Kochladze left the academic world to found Green Alternative, now one of the most powerful non-governmental organizations in Georgia. Kochladze and her group have drawn public attention to the planned Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan (BTC) pipeline, a $3 billion BP-led project that would carry a million barrels of oil per day from the Caspian Sea to the Mediterranean coast. Kochladze’s campaign, backed by international environmental groups and the Georgian student movement, has pointed out the huge environmental and social costs of the pipeline. Despite harsh criticism from the Georgian government and the state-influenced press, activists have secured several major concessions from project leaders, including compensation for people whose land would be damaged by the pipeline. Just as importantly, says Kochladze, BTC critics have “managed to create a political space” for dissent in an often repressive society.

Kochladze was awarded a 2004 Goldman Environmental Prize at a ceremony in San Francisco, Calif., on April 19. She plans to use her prize money to help her organization, but she will also donate part of it to local schools for deaf children. She spoke to Grist from San Francisco.

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I understand you were training for a scientific career when you decided to become an activist. What made you change your course?

Kochladze: There was nothing specific. I am a biologist, so I am interested in environmental issues, and I always tried to volunteer with environmental groups, like Friends of the Earth-Georgia, and one day I decided that it was better just to really try to have an impact on the country today — rather than waiting a few years, or 100 years, for my scientific work to have an impact.

When and why did you found the environmental group Green Alternative?

The Green Alternative was founded in the year 2000. Before that, I was working with other colleagues at Friends of the Earth, and one day we decided to create our own group. We wanted to integrate the economic, social, and environmental approaches — to create an economic framework that would protect the environment and be more sustainable.

Please describe the BTC pipeline project and how it would affect Georgia’s environment and people.

It’s the biggest pipeline in the world. It would carry 1 million barrels of oil per day, and pass 248 kilometers [154 miles] through Georgia. Unfortunately, it would pass through several sensitive areas in Georgia. The Borjomi Gorge has a world-famous mineral spring, and its waters now constitute up to 10 percent of the country’s exports. It’s a very important area, not only from an environmental perspective but also an economic one.

Borjomi — a gorgeous gorge.

Photo: Kochladze.

This project is so high, so big, that we know we cannot stop it. So we are taking a more realistic approach. We are trying to ensure that this project, which is financed by the World Bank, will bring benefits to people in the region — not just to the corporations — and that it will protect human rights and comply with the highest environmental standards. We have a big campaign, with support by a number of international groups, that is trying to bring local problems to the World Bank. We have issued a number of reports and had a number of press conferences to draw attention to the problems. Another thing we are doing is working with local communities that are directly affected. We are teaching them what their rights are, teaching them to write letters in a way that will get answered. We are also providing free legal support to some, representing them in the courts when they have some problem with BTC or the local government.

What do you consider your greatest victory in the BTC battle?

We have managed to create a political space for people who are affected by this project. It’s quite hard for them to speak about their concerns — the attitude was in the land that people should not speak about the problems because the project was so politically important. Local people who spoke about the problems were considered enemies of the state. I feel we have created a political space where people can openly express their opinions. The media in Georgia has become more and more interested in picking up on controversial issues, and they are looking at the human stories more deeply.

What are the biggest obstacles you’ve encountered in this fight?

Protesting against the pipeline.

Photo: Goldman Environmental Prize.

The huge corporations, the World Bank, all of them are coming from the point of view that the project is so politically important that no one needs to take care of the specific details. Our understanding is that the project is politically important so it should be scrutinized. Unfortunately, we are seeing that it’s not this way — the company uses political importance as an excuse to ignore the problems.

Do you ever encounter conflicts between environmental protection and economic development — when environmental protections would take jobs away from Georgians?

I never see this conflict in my life. Most often it’s that some kind of unwise development harms both — harms environmental protection as well as economic security. In the case of the BTC project, the employees of the mineral-water industry could lose their jobs. Usually, when I am estimating the environmental impacts [of a project], I find out that from the long-term perspective it is also economically unwise.

How have your strategies changed during your years as an activist?

I should confess that at the beginning I was quite narrow-minded [laughs]. The whole idea was that protected areas should be increased, and that what’s there should be strictly protected. We never looked at the social side or the economic side. Now we’re starting to understand that the central point is to really integrate those things — that it’s more beneficial for the public and more effective environmental protection. So I have really grown up.

How can environmental activists in industrialized countries like the U.S. help your cause?

BP has a green logo — they present themselves as a green company — and they might be a green company in the U.K. or the U.S., but in countries like Georgia they are not really green. There should be much more public scrutiny of BP, much more discussion. Public opinion is one of the strongest tools we have in our negotiations with the company.

What does this prize mean to you?

I think it’s a recognition of things we have done, but also a recognition that we are doing them in the right way. I don’t feel that it’s just my prize — it’s also the prize of the people we’ve worked with on the BTC pipeline for long years. The recognition will help us to promote more public discussion within the country on the BTC pipeline. I hope it will help people.

What do you hope Georgia will be like in 20 years?

I really want Georgia to be independent from the economic point of view as well as from the mental. I wish that Georgia will find its place in the world, that in 20 years it will manage to become a more wealthy country with no more poverty. I hope we will be equal partners with [multinational] corporations — that they will no longer look on Georgians like we’re people who just don’t know anything.