SEATTLE — The often-overlooked nation of Georgia has emerged from behind the iron curtain in a big way during the past decade. After experiencing an economic crisis through much of the 1990s, The World Bank declared the nation the number one economic reformer in the world.
With economic reform came a litany of problems the government needed to handle. First came a wine embargo from Georgia’s largest trading partner, Russia, followed by the global economic recession.
The Georgian government decided it was time to take action on two significant barriers to its development: a majority of its population eking out a living via subsistence farming and a lack of capital and technology for these farms to thrive.[hr_invisible]
Improved Technology Means Improved Agriculture
Currently, 55 percent of Georgia’s population works in the agriculture industry, but the total economic output of the industry has fallen to around 9 percent. According to the Georgian Academy for Agricultural Sciences, a significant factor is the fact that Georgia ranks last among its neighbors in the World Economic Forum’s Network Readiness Index.
Georgia’s radio and television companies responded by distributing content to rural areas explicitly targeted at agricultural interests with an added focus put on sustainable agriculture in Georgia. This is a simple step, but rather small compared to the efforts of Georgia’s internet technology companies.
Because of a lack of Georgian language web programs, the ability to establish business contacts, buy and sell goods, and manage business operations online were available only to those who spoke Russian or English. However, Georgian developers have worked with large companies to make search engines such as Google and operating systems like Windows available in Georgian.
Meanwhile, Greennet, a Georgian telecommunications company, has been installing wireless networks with up to 40 kilometers of coverage. The result is an increase of over 100 percent for agrarian businesses in internet-based business activities in the past year.[hr_invisible]
Short-Term Solutions Through Foreign Investment and Labor
While Georgian farmers’ embrace of technology opens new doors for the growing nation, there are logistical concerns for sustainable agriculture in Georgia. Most farms in rural Georgia are family owned and operated, leading to a shortage of labor and an inability to expand beyond subsistence farming into commercial farming.
In response, the government actively recruits Afrikaans and Punjab farmers to assist in the expansion of Georgian agricultural output. In 2013, the Ministry of Agriculture invested over $600 million in bringing over 2,000 foreign workers to Georgia.
The government does not solely rely on foreign workers to help its ailing farming industry. It also works with the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) and the European Neighborhood Program for Agricultural Development (ENPARD) to deal with the systemic issues that slow rural development.
UNDP and ENPARD are aiming for more than just an economic fix. In 2016, UNDP completed a project with the Georgian government that rehabilitated over 4,000 hectares of degraded pastures and 300 hectares of sheep migratory routes. UNDP also instituted a Sustainable Pasture Management Plan for Vashlovani Protected Areas and a carbon inventory for those same lands.
These organizations are working with the government on the most ambitious plan yet for sustainable agriculture in Georgia.[hr_invisible]
Ajara: Georgia’s Sustainable Agriculture Case Study
ENPARD led a project in the autonomous Ajara region that serves as an example of how the nation wishes to proceed with its sustainable agriculture industry throughout the rest of the country.
In 2013, UNDP established a business development office the region’s largest city, Batumi. The office helped small, family-owned farms access technology to better market and cultivate the crops grown on the rugged land. Farmers that are a part of the project have seen an increase in income of 60 to 100 percent.
With the help of ENPARD, over 70 farmer collectives started in the past three years. These cooperatives now institute noninvasive irrigation systems and sustainable transport to Batumi for increased trade.
Overall, the economic benefits of sustainable agriculture in Georgia are improving the lives of farmers in Ajara, while still managing to preserve the region’s natural beauty. With the installation of irrigation systems in the country’s arid eastern half, Georgia looks to spread this prosperity nationally.
– David Jaques