Linking and learning with human and environmental rights activists from South Caucasus and Central Asia

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By Shoira Olimova, Medea Turashvili, Nina Lesikhina

“Through information sharing, we are able to know basic understanding and potential impacts of a specific proposed project. It is also important to listen to the experiences of others to learn more about strategies and methods on improving our work.” — Umida Niyazova, Uzbek Forum for Human Rights

The idea of organizing the joint regional meeting came spontaneously during one of the regular calls with Shoira Olimova and Hayk Abrahamyan of the International Accountability Project, Medea Turashvilli, CRE Regional Facilitator of the Coalition for Human Rights in Development, and Nina Lesikhina, Community Support Coordinator of the CEE Bankwatch Network. As we discussed partnerships and solidarity work, it would be valuable to hear the best practices and lessons learned from the partners on community mobilization and advocacy strategies amidst large scale development projects in South Caucasus and Central Asia.

Participants from Armenia, Georgia, and Uzbekistan pose for a photo during the meeting and learning conversations in Tbilisi, Georgia.

After months of coordination and preparation, the International Accountability Project (IAP), Coalition for Human Rights in Development, and CEE Bankwatch Network were able to gather partners, activists, and civil society leaders for a regional coordination meeting and community exchange in Tbilisi, Georgia on 22–23 June 2022. A total of 24 participants from Armenia, Georgia, and Uzbekistan attended the meeting.

Community-led responses and advocacies as key strategies

The meeting aimed at introducing the Early Warning System (EWS), Community Resource Exchange (CRE), campaign and advocacy work, and community-led response strategies to the partners. We also explored synergies and future collaborations between and among national and community groups as well as international organizations that work on development justice, human rights, and environmental rights.

Using the EWS data for project tracking presented in this Tableau, the participants provided a discussion with regard to investments made by leading development finance institutions in Armenia, Georgia, and Uzbekistan. In addition, they discussed the safeguard mechanisms of the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD), International Finance Corporation (IFC), and Asian Development Bank (ADB) in relation to human rights and due diligence.

During the learning exchanges on community-led responses to address issues related to development projects, each country representative presented a case study of a proposed or ongoing international investment and project funded by development banks. The main aim of this exchange was to share community strategies, best practices and lessons learned in advocacy, community mobilization and campaigning.

The Armenia team presented the Save Amulsar Project of the Armenian Environmental Front as a response against the gold mining operations of Lydian International Limited. Both the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development and International Finance Corporation provided funds and supported the operations of the Amulsar gold mining. According to Ani Khachatryan, an environmentalist and a member of Armenian Environmental Front, the disputes around the Amulsar gold mine project started long before 15 years ago. Environmental groups and activists feared that the use of cyanide for gold leaching would adversely impact the Arpa and Vorotan rivers and Lake Sevan. Subsequently, this has posed a serious threat on the economic livelihoods of the people. The Armenian Environmental Front in cooperation with Armenian civil society organizations (CSI Armenia, Ecolur and Green Armenia as well as international partners MiningWatch Canada, London Mining Network, Center for International Environmental Law, CEE Bankwatch Network, carried out a research and advocacy campaign to stop the Amulsar project. After extensive public pressure, the company pulled out the project. Armenian activists faced judicial harassment and defamation, which continue until today even if the banks stopped funding of the Amulsar project.

Ani Khachatryan of the Armenian Environmental Front presenting the Save Amulsar Project.

Meanwhile, the Georgian team presented the Gavigudet Campaign (literally meaning “we are suffocating”) from the most polluted town of Rustavi, where 30 different types of factories surround the town. This women-led campaign fights for improving the air quality of the city and emphasizes the damages that air pollution has on the health of the people. As the representatives of the movement explained, the population breathes bad or very bad air for 280 days out of 365 days in a year due to a 77% air pollution rate. The Gavigudet movement has been mobilizing local residents, raising awareness, putting public pressure on factories to install new filtration systems and observe standards. It has been pushing authorities to monitor the environmental situation and create more green spaces in the town.

Participants from Georgia gather in a group to discuss their experiences with regard to community strategies, campaign and advocacy, and lessons learned.

Uzbek participants shared their experiences on a public campaign to protect the Zarafshan National Park. The so-called development projects such as gravel mining and tree cutting have threatened the biodiversity in Zarafshan National Park. Anastasia Pavlenko, a prominent activist and journalist from Samarkand talked about cooperation with the scientists and advocacy with the officials to protect endangered species such as the sea buckthorn, Bukhara deer, and Zarafshan pheasant. Effective engagement with different stakeholders and raising public awareness helped to stop the destruction of the national park. Moreover, the Uzbek team presented another advocacy work they have done surrounding issues related to a housing project in the country. The project is co-financed by the government but the quality of the housing units remain poor due to corruption and lack of monitoring. Multiple complaints received by the UFHR from the residents that confirmed these concerns. Uzbek Forum of Human Rights (UFHR) and its partners presented future plans to ensure human rights protection under the Asian Development Bank investment program on affordable rural housing in Uzbekistan. The residents of the housing project, who were present during the training in Tbilisi, actively participated in the workshop to learn from the communities in Armenia and Georgia.

Anastasia Pavlenko’s presentation on the issues affecting Zarafshan National Nature Park in Uzbekistan and community-led responses and advocacies to save the national park.

Commitment to strengthening solidarity

It is widely recognized that harmful development projects and international investment are often planned and carried out in a context where there is an authoritarian and repressive rule, unaccountable governance, and corruption. Against all odds, participants agreed that communities should determine their own development paths and priorities. After hearing stories and experiences from one another, participants shared several reflections and lessons learned:

  • Community should drive the change and development through awareness raising and community organizing;
  • Finding allies and supporters particularly among media, local government, political parties, and larger public is on of the key strategies that we can do;
  • Trust building in the process is essential where communities have full trust to all actors (activists, human rights defenders, journalists, experts) involved;
  • Synergizing and trustful collaboration among communities, activists, environmental defenders, and experts are needed to advance the community struggle;
  • Evidence based and consistent campaigning and advocacy are other important ingredients of success; and
  • Solidarity is contagious.

“We are all from different countries but we face similar problems. This underscores the need for a strengthened solidarity among us.” -Nazeli Vadanyan, Armenian lawyer and environmental activist

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Shoira Olimova is the Community Organizer for the South Caucasus and Central Asia in International Accountability Project. She is based in Tajikistan.

Medea Turashvili is the CRE Regional Facilitator of the Coalition for Human Rights in Development.

Nina Lesikhina is the Community Support Coordinator of the CEE Bankwatch Network.

Photos by Shoira Olimova, Hayk Abrahamyan, Oliya Olimova

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International Accountability Project (IAP)

IAP is a human and environmental rights organization that works with communities, civil society and social movements to change how today’s development is done.