In Georgia’s highlands, a family swims against the current

by Karen Cirillo

We had been told before we arrived that there was a striking contrast.

Batumi, which is located on the Black Sea coastline of the Ajara region of Georgia, has been densely built up in recent years as it becomes even more of a tourist destination for the region. Buildings have popped up left and right with a patchwork of styles — casinos, hotels, condos — along the boardwalk and parallel avenues.

Such development is not representative of the region as a whole, and away from the coastline, strong infrastructure and opportunities are not as common.

(L) Downtown Batumi, (R) Batumi in the distance. Photos: Karen Cirillo

The morning after we arrive, we set out to film the Beridze family at their trout farm in the mountains.

As we drive away from Batumi, the road begins to wind and we are soon surrounded by lush forests, streams and grazing animals. We climb into the hills and are just in awe at the beauty.

Ajara mountain region

This region is stunning in its natural beauty and peacefulness. It’s the kind of place you might dream about, “working remotely” from a cabin in the woods.

The irony is that this respite from the overbuilt coastline is actually severely lacking in infrastructure.

No mountain villages have a natural gas supply. Most of them suffer from electricity cuts and shortages of running water. Aside from expensive mobile connections, there is no internet (Although the works started this year to connect Ajara mountains to the regional internet backbones.).

Natural beauty cannot provide stability for the necessities of life. Or job opportunities. And so many of the people in these mountains have to leave their homes to seek work elsewhere, either sending money back home or taking their families with them.

The Beridze family runs a trout farm, nestled in the side of the mountain.

They are one of the luckier families, although their success is deserved, due to a combination of hard work, good investment, and the location of their home and business. Their farm is situated downstream from a very fresh source of water yet not in a valley where the risk of flooding is high. The fresh water feeds directly into the trout pools. I was advised to stick my water bottle in the stream to taste how clean and pure it was (I complied — it was delicious.).

We started filming Geno, the son who ran the farm. The first thing he did was catch a net of fish and throw them in a bucket. As another farmer started to carry off the bucket, he noted it would be our lunch.

Geno and his family are raising trout. When he was younger, his father left to work in Russia. With the money his father earned and saved, they were able to buy this land and start the farm. Now, their farm is part of a cooperative of trout farms working together to improve their productivity and earnings.

We’re filming them because they benefited from the EU-UNDP ENPARD programme for agricultural and rural development. In their case, the programme gave them a refrigerated truck that has minimized the spoiling of fish as they transport it for sale in Tbilisi and other cities on the other side of the country. The percentage of waste dropped from 25% to 0% since they started using this truck. While this might not seem like a big difference, to a family in this region, every bit of income counts.

Georgia used to have a long tradition of being a leader in agriculture. Its climate, fertile soil, and long growing season produced high yields and diverse crops. But now over 80% of food products are imported, despite 40% of the population naming farming as their primary occupation. Small farming plots, failing infrastructure, poor market connections, lack of access to modern machinery, and an overall lack of skills all contribute to low productivity.

Rural development and new practices in agriculture are the key to economic growth for small farmers. And the ENPARD program is supporting them by providing training, equipment, and access to services and markets and helping then form cooperatives.

Since 2013, 77 cooperatives have formed, productivity has increased by 50%, and income has grown by 60% on average.

It’s lunch time and we are invited into the house for the mid-day meal. Mother Nasi and Geno’s wife Lela move back and forth in the kitchen preparing food. Nasi carefully places the trout caught that morning in a large frying pan.

The traditional rounds of toasts are slowly given as we eat our meal.

The Beridze been successful and their generosity shows it. Not only in what they offered to us, but also in their attitude towards their neighbours. Nasi expresses her sadness that some in their community have had to leave for economic reasons. She would never want to leave her home, and wants her family’s success to extend to her neighbours as well.

“It is no good to be successful alone,” she says. “You need successful people around to enjoy and share your achievements. If your neighbour is in trouble, this affects you too. We have to help each other.”

After we finish our meal and filming interviews, we say goodbye and drive back down the mountain. On our way, we stop at another trout farm located in the valley between two hills. Sophie, our focal point in UNDP’s Georgia office, had been there the week before on a trip with journalists, showing them the farm’s size and success. They had recently built more pools to raise additional species and had opened up a small restaurant.

Trout farm destroyed by flooding

But a week later it is all gone. A storm has caused the stream to overflow, submerging the pools and wiping out the buildings. We can see the mud filled to the top of the pools, the dead fish entrenched in the silt. There is no insurance. And we understand what Geno meant when he told us his farm was in a good location.

You can also meet the Tsevelidze family, who started a berry cooperative in the same region:

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