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From ‘Whom’ or ‘What’ do Protected Areas Shield the Environment? A Case Study from Mountainous Georgia

MRD-Cau researchers in action

The expansion of protected areas has significant implications for local communities and economies. How can community involvement in this process build trust and help ensure sustainable socioeconomic development, and what are the challenges that such an expansion can generate? A new research project sets out to explore this topic in the context of the expansion of Georgia's Kazbegi National Park.

Mountain and Rural Development Initiatives – Caucasus Region (MRD-Cau), based at Tbilisi State University, is a collaborative effort between several local and international scholars with the shared vision of pursuing solutions to pressing challenges in rural and mountainous Caucasus. This platform initiates research projects focused on tackling issues related to the transformation of socioeconomic and spatial conditions, mostly centered around tourism development, management of protected areas, territorial patterns of local economic activities, etc. Importantly, most of the projects are based on interdisciplinary approaches that aim to bolster sustainable and inclusive development. One such project – ‘The Challenges of Mountainous Communities’ Sustainable Socioeconomic Development in the Context of Kazbegi National Park Expansion’ – is outlined below.


Now that significant inroads are being made in the development of protected areas globally, Georgia – as a country with a transition economy – has joined this international movement with its resource-rich mountainous areas, celebrated wildlife, and majestic natural beauty. A mountain of data collected within the protected areas (PA) of Georgia reveals the rapid increase in the coverage of PA. According to the Agency of Protected areas of Georgia (APA, 2018), between 2007 and 2018 the coverage of PA expanded by 91,833 hectares from 7.1 percent to 9.6 percent of Georgia’s total land mass. Currently, there are 86 protected areas of five categories (IUCN), which comprise almost 10 percent of Georgia’s total territory. Furthermore, the expansion process of several PA is continuing, and in the coming years the establishment of new PA has been announced. It should be emphasized that in this process the institutional development of the APA (e.g., increased number of rangers, new administrative buildings) is clearly visible, with the support of several international foundations.

In parallel to such drastic initiatives for PA development, issues such as types of community engagement, the shift from traditional livelihoods towards new alternatives, etc., often evolve. Additionally, trust-building between the PA administration and stakeholders, including local people living around PA, becomes crucial. Such concerns require profound scientific understanding to fulfill all intended purposes (e.g., nature preservation, economic development of the region).

Case Study: Kazbegi National Park (KNP)MRD Cau image 1

Local community unrest was triggered by the unannounced, and hence unexpected, extension of Kazbegi National Park. This case, with its aim to improve the functioning of the ecosystem and enhance economic development of the region, caught the attention or MRD-Cau. It is important to note in such cases that, in the process of integrating new territories during the expansion, local residents who are functionally connected to the selected areas will have to adapt to the new reality and regulations. In this context, this blog article focuses on the level of awareness of local communities regarding the ongoing process and the formation of relationships between stakeholders.

Research Methodology

With the generous support of Tbilisi State University (TSU) within the grant scheme (N 6/30) of ‘Targeted research projects’ a case study was successfully implemented in high-mountainous Georgia. For a better understanding of the ongoing process, a mixed methods design was applied. The concept combined different methods, such as:

  • A survey of local residents in the Stepantsminda borough, selected on a random basis (n=73);
  • Participatory mapping and qualitative interviews with the selected respondents through purposive sampling.

The data collected was analyzed using qualitative and quantitative tools, such as SPSS, MAXQDA and ArcGIS.

Key Information

Duration of the fieldwork: One week of July in the study area Kazbegi Municipality (Mtskheta-Mtianeti region)

Communities visited: Stephantsminda borough and several villages in four communities (Kobi, Goriscixe, Sioni, Sno)

Notably, the qualitative method combined 10 in-depth interviews with several target groups, such as:

  • Responsible national institutions;
  • Representatives of APA;
  • Mountain people living around the villages of KNP;
  • Stakeholders of local institutions (e.g., diocese).

Initial Findings

Awareness and involvement: Are locals left behind?

Besides the establishment of ‘Friends of KNP’ and a Regional Advisory Board with various functions for awareness raising, the KNP administration implemented additional education activities on the local level. Despite these efforts, the survey results show that 60 percent of the respondents were not informed regarding the national park extension process. Importantly, this deficit of information left room for the spreading of misinformation and misunderstanding around this initiative; a large proportion of the respondents who had information regarding the changing borders noted that they were not clearly aware of the purpose of national park expansion.

Trust-building with local stakeholders: Learning from mistakes

Based on the information collected, a significant gap was observed in local community participation in KNP management. Due to insufficient cooperation, locals considered themselves outsiders in the decision-making process, as well as in developing new ideas. They mostly perceived decisions made as suspicious, when those decisions extend beyond conservation purposes (e.g., land tenancy for business).

MRD Cau image 4Through participatory mapping, stakeholders marked the areas of the study territory which deserve more attention or further discussion regarding their utilization for economic purposes. Almost all stakeholders interviewed placed great emphasis on the fact that within the planned new borders, part of the land was left out of the protected park area. Respondents also called into question the fact that all those places which were left out were located along the rivers in this area.

Respondent #1: “It [expansion of KNP] was blocked for two years. People who are interested in rivers and quarries – some energy ‘mafiosos’ – were blocking this project, and that is why these lands are cut out now.”

If such a part of the area was not to be protected, the following question was raised among the respondents: from ‘whom’ or ‘what’ would the expansion of the protected areas shield the environment?

At the outset of the expansion process of the KNP border, several social projects and local initiatives were supported by donor organizations. Surely the main purpose of the donors in supporting local inhabitants was to create a positive attitude towards the protected area and improve local quality of life? On the contrary, the narratives of stakeholders indicate this support as being the cause of one of their primary doubts. In particular, the opportunities provided seemed pretty vague for locals, who felt the intention of the donor organization should be clearly dedicated to the promotion of nature conservation and sustainable development. Further suspicions arose when locals received financial support for developing different locally-driven economic activities and no one monitored their implemented activity and success. The respondents expressed their suspicion by asking:

Respondent #2: “Why do they allocate such an amount of money to our region; do they want something from us?

This question has yet to be resolved, and continues to prevent trust-building between local residents and the APA. It is crucial that the responsible representatives answer it instead of leaving it as an open-question.

Respondent #3: “That's the biggest problem when people come and give [money]. Why? Why are you obliged to help me and why am I obliged [to help you]? Why should you offer it [money] to me if there is no interest in it for you? Then the person starts asking questions to himself and looking for answers.”

KNP and Locals: Competitors in Tourism?

It is not new for KNP that part of its resources are spent on the construction of a new administration center, developing tourist infrastructure in order to attract more visitors to the municipality. Based on the narratives gathered, it was observed that such activities hinder cooperation between the locals and PA for conservation purposes. Interestingly, from the perspective of local actors, a PA which owns more resources than them has a better opportunity to become a tourism service provider and develop ‘mass tourism’ that will compete with the community’s own tourism business. They clearly highlight that the KNP administration should ensure the sound involvement of local people in tourism activities.

Research progress and future plans

At present the analysis of data collected is still in progress. Hence, in the coming months additional and more in-depth information and findings will be revealed. Based on these, academic publications will be developed by the research team in order to spread the word regarding the challenges outlined above. Importantly, such changes deserve more attention in countries like Georgia, where rapid growth is seen in the process of PA development.

MRD Cau image 3



This research could not have been conducted without the financial support of the Tbilisi State University, Faculty of Social and Political Sciences. Therefore, we would like to take this opportunity to thank them.

Special thanks are due to the project researchers, master’s students at TSU: Mariam Khizanishvili, Nana Deisadze, Ivane Khrikuli, and Tamar Odilavadze for their time and dedication to successfully fulfilling the fieldwork and further data analysis. 

We would like to extend our deepest heartfelt appreciation to all the participants who provided us with in-depth information, and thank them all for their time.


PA – Protected Area

APA - Agency of Protected Areas of Georgia

KNP – Kazbegi National Park

SPSS – Statistical Package for the Social Sciences

MAXQDA - Professional Software for Qualitative and Mixed Methods Data Analysis

ArcGIS - Geographic Information System

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