By Elizabeth Summers
During N-Map’s shoot in Georgia this May, we interviewed a man named Boris underneath a newly built ski lift in a small town in the Upper Caucasus mountains. The Georgian government expropriated Boris’s ancestral property to build the ski lift, and he never received any compensation from the government. Boris used to graze cattle on his land, but has been left with no land and no income..
“The government did a lot,” Boris told us. He talked about the roads and the other infrastructure that the government built during the past few years. “But the problem was that they treated you as nobody, nothing.”
When I first heard that N-Map was going to work on property rights issues in Georgia, I was hesitant. I’ve always been conflicted about the idea of a human right to property. To me, the human right to property never seemed to fit in the same category as other human rights like the rights to life, equality, liberty, and health.
But during our project, I learned that the illegal property expropriation cases in Georgia are not only about the property that the government took from citizens without consultation or compensation. The cases are also about human dignity and the manner in which a democratic government should treat its people, ideas that are at the core of international human rights law.
This May, N-Map staff traveled with Transparency International Georgia staff and our Georgian production team to two areas where the government expropriated many pieces of land for tourism projects. Before the shoot, we identified two main interview subjects—one in each town—who continue to seek justice even after the authorities pressured them to drop their cases. In Anaklia, a village on the Black Sea, we spent an afternoon interviewing Omar, a farmer whose case is now pending before the European Court of Human Rights. The government continues to assess taxes on the land that it expropriated from Omar, though Omar is no longer the official owner of the property and receives no income from the land.
The next day, we drove up into the Caucasus mountains to Mestia, where Boris told us his story. The land that was expropriated from Boris, like the land that was taken from many people in Mestia, had been passed down in Boris’s family for generations. When we asked Boris, “Who do you think benefited from the ski development project?” I expected him to talk about traditional ways of life in Georgia, the influx of tourists, and the growing gap in wealth between residents of urban and rural areas. Boris, to my surprise, replied that the town’s youth should benefit, because they could now become better skiers and compete in competitions with other mountain towns.
All of our interview subjects expressed support for the economic development initiatives that resulted in expropriations. However, they were also quite clear that they deserved to receive information and be consulted about projects in advance. And if the government truly needed land for those projects, our subjects wanted to be treated fairly and with respect.
The stories that N-Map filmed in May will be used to make a series of short advocacy films for Transparency International Georgia. TI’s goal is to use this media to persuade key policy-makers to take action on property rights issues. Stay tuned for our videos!