Ana’s fight to save the Dighomi Meadows

On the sunny morning of New Years Eve, I meet Ana Trapaidze in the Dighomi Meadows. To be honest, I don’t really know what to expect from this meeting. Susanne Schwarz, who knows the nature conservation scene of Georgia well, told us about this place and that we should check out what is happening there. The only source of information about it is a Facebook page that tells us that the Dighomi Meadows are a floodplain of the Kura River upstream of Tbilisi, where companies illegally mine gravel and dump construction waste. We also learn that Ana is fighting to save this place, which is why I meet her here today.

A floodplain drowning in trash

Ana, who is fighting to protect this area largely on her own and aside her job and family, is happy to tell us all about the Dighomi Meadows. So, Ana and I start walking from her apartment that lies on the edge of the Dighomi Meadows towards the river and I quickly realize the severity of what is happening here. Everywhere around, there are small 1 – 2 m high piles of construction trash that are freshly overgrown by young vegetation. Around them, everything is full of all kinds of other trash. Ana tells me that a few years ago, this area looked completely different. As a riparian forest, it is by law protected from construction and was hence conserved for a long time. But when she moved here during the pandemic, she soon realized that multiple trucks are going to this area every day, sometimes every minute. It was easy to figure out what they are moving trash in and gravel out, so Ana immediately tried to put an end to this destruction. The first step was to find out who is responsible for these activities and try to stop the trucks. Unfortunately, the truck drivers and the companies behind the illegal waste dumping cared very little about Ana’s concerns. But this could not stop Ana and she went as far to stand in the way of these vehicles to prevent any further waste disposal.

Truck drivers even showed aggression rather than admiration towards this act of courage, so after a while, Ana could only safely enter the area in the company of others or while live-streaming to Facebook from her phone. Nevertheless, this also just increased her determination and she turned to two institutions that should be her allies on this: the municipality of Tbilisi and the national Department of Environmental Supervision. But once again, she was let down. The people she spoke to showed little interest in stopping this environmental crime, either claiming that it was not their responsibility or acting so slow and unmotivated that there was no real chance to catch the criminals in the act. Accordingly, they responded that they cannot prove who is responsible for the environmental destruction and that seemingly closed the matter for them.

First successes for the Dighomi Meadows

This was still not enough to discourage Ana. She continued reporting, complaining and holding the institutions accountable until she reached the highest level. Slowly, the responsible authorities realized that she will not stop and they have to act. They cleaned small areas of the Dighomi Meadows, even though that also only meant that they moved the trash a few meters to the side. This was a clear message for Ana: the authorities will only really act under force.  This meant that there was no other way than taking the case to court. According to the law, if the polluter cannot be found, the owner of the land is responsible for cleaning up the area, in this case the municipality and the state. So, Ana pursued legal action. Luckily, she finally found an ally in the Open Society Foundation that is providing the funding for currently four lawsuits that Ana and others filed to force authorities to clean up the Dighomi Meadows and finally stop this environmental crime. 

A Museum of Environmental Crime

As if all of this would not already be enough, Ana is also working hard to create attention for this neglected area. She named the DIghomi Meadows a “Museum of Environmental Crimes” where visitors can see first-hand  what environmental crime looks like and which consequences it has. She guides classes, groups or media representatives through the area and explains to them what is happening here. Luckily, she also found a group of 3 – 4 volunteers throughout the last years, who help her in these efforts. She even cooperates with NGOs like Green Alternative, SABUKO and NACRES, all on her initiative. 

Many trees in the Dighomi Meadows are dying from suffocation or pollution by the trash.

As we walk through the hills of trash that suffocate trees, pollute the water and destroy biodiversity, I unfortunately have a feeling of familiarity. In many places, I have seen areas like this. “Wastelands” that are used to dump trash because no one cares about them and they don’t look like the picturesque nature that is visibly worth protecting. But this is a deception. The Dighomi Meadows have the potential to be an important alluvial forest and floodplain within Tbilisi that can provide an escape from the city for people and habitats for rare biodiversity. And what should be an even bigger  interest for the municipality, it is a crucial flood protection for the city center. It is just a matter of time until the next flood hits Tbilisi, especially in times of the climate crisis, and well-managed floodplains are the most effective and cheap way to mitigate damages. But in its current state, the Dighomi Meadows instead create a new threat: large chunks of construction being washed out and causing serious damage downstream.

A hidden agenda for the Dighomi Meadows?

If this wasn’t enough,  Ana mentions a suspicion that makes all of this even worse. She believes that authorities turn their backs on this destruction not only out of negligence, but with a hidden agenda. Instead of developing a valuable floodplain, they want to turn this area into a residential area. Ana tells me that the trucks purposefully dump trash around trees to suffocate and kill them. After the tree stands have died, the area is not considered forested anymore and hence open for construction. Apparently, investors have already shown interest in this area and the slow encroachment of buildings into the Dighomi Meadows has started.

Ana, an everyday hero

After hearing all of this, I feel desperate. It seems like all odds are stacked against Ana’s fight. So, I wonder how she finds the energy to continue this fight. And I wonder how she finds the time to do all of this while having two jobs and raising two children. She tells me that the ignorance of the responsible polluters and authorities actually motivate to keep going and intensify her effort. In fact, she just quit one of her jobs to dedicate more of her time to the Dighomi Meadows. 

And while the area is far from how Ana imagines it, she has already achieved great successes. She raised awareness for this area and brought it to public attention. She even coined the term Dighomi Meadows and feels a certain satisfaction every time someone uses it. Her tireless fight even forced a stop of the gravel mining and large-scale dumping of construction trash, meaning that the focus is now on restoring the area. For that she is in contact with the Asian Development Bank that has planned a small park in this area before the trash and gravel mining became a problem and is now willing to fund an environmental assessment to investigate the real damage that was done here.

I believe that small things can bring important changes. It is a great motivation to know that my voice is heard, and I am a role model for other people and that they want me to teach them how to fight against environmental crime. 

Ana Trapaidze

Ana says that she “invests all her time” and “does everything in her power” to protect the Dighomi Meadows. While these are common phrases, they never sounded more genuine and deserved to me. And despite all the ignorance she experienced, she did not lose her faith in the institutions that failed her so many times. Her goal remains to protect the Dighomi Meadows without any thought about profiting from it or developing some kind of reputation. And while it is important to transparently talk about the negligence of institutions, her goal is not to discredit them, but to force them to work together. 

I can only say hats off to you, Ana, this world and nature conservation needs more people like you!

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