Visiting Families at the Highest Peaks of the Caucasus
Steve Denne, Heifer International Chief Operating Officer, and Pietro Turilli, Vice President of Central and Eastern European programs, are visiting Heifer projects in Georgia. This post chronicles one day of travels in Georgia's Svaneti region.
by Medea Tsitskishvili, Heifer Georgia
Denne and Turilli with Ana Elizbarashvili's family, Svaneti, Georgia
Steve and Pietro visited the town of Mestia, Svaneti region—the highest inhabited area in the Europe—which is surrounded by 9,000-15,000-foot peaks. This highland region is one of the most beautiful in Georgia, but it is poor, remote and economic opportunities are limited. Heifer Georgia has recently started implementation of an ecotourism project there.
The project provides horses and trainings for small-scale farmers to provide trekking services to local and international tourists. This is an important means for alternative income generation, as most families in Svaneti do not have regular salaries or dependable income. This creates a particular problem for families who traditionally depend on agriculture, as there are long periods in the year when they have no income. Relying on the land for income is further complicated by the fact that, until recently, Mestia was regularly isolated from the rest of the country by winter snows.
In the course of their visit, Steve and Pietro met with Zaur Chartolani, the project holder, as well as a number of project participants, who expressed their gratitude for Heifer’s work. Project participants explained that they are now able to earn between $400-$1,200 per season. The tourist season starts in May and ends in October. For most participants, this is their only cash income for the entire year.
For example, Levan Argvliani, 25, lives with his mother, who is a village’s school teacher, and his two younger brothers. He explained that he was very satisfied with the horse provided by Heifer’s project and expected to earn about $400 this season from others renting his horse and also through his alpine guide services. He intends to use a portion of this money to learn English, thereby improving his ability to interact with foreign tourists.
Ana Elizbarashvili, a mother of four children, explained that she hoped to earn more than $600 for this entire season from rental of her horse. Some of this money will be used to refurbish several rooms in her home that she then hopes to rent out to tourists.
Steve and Pietro also met with George Tsavani in the village of Becho, who is also satisfied with the income from his Heifer provided horse, which he estimates at $400 for this season. Now he is able to save some money, which makes it possible for him to consider marriage as he has steady income.
At the end of this long and interesting day the local community hosted the Heifer team for a traditional Svanetian feast. Needless to say, the food, company and folk singing were fantastic. We were honored to have this opportunity to share meal with the wonderful people of Mestia.