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Protecting Virgin Landscapes: A Georgian Perspective

Nika Beruchashvili

articlehighlights

So few virgin forests remain in the world that their conservation is crucial because they

  • shelter unique ecosystems and potential medical resources
  • protect land from soil erosion and flooding
  • regulate climate and water cycles

October 2001

Note: Because some of the information in this article may be outdated, it has been archived.

Disappearing natural landscapes in Europe

georgiamap2.jpg

Georgia, a country in western Asia, was a part of the Soviet Union and is now an independent republic. Source: Google Maps.

Virgin forests are unfelled, undisturbed places.

In Europe, humans have intensely transformed virgin landscapes (i.e., unfelled forests preserved in their original form). If we survey the history of land development in Europe, we discover that over the past few centuries virtually all the European forests — from Norway to Bulgaria, and Spain to the Northern Urals — have been felled, consistently and repeatedly.

They now cover only 1% of Europe. Editor’s note: 5% of America.
  • About 2000 years ago virgin landscapes covered 80% of Europe.
  • Toward the end of the 19th century they had been so drastically reduced that they covered only 10-15% of their original area.
  • These landscapes were further destroyed in the 20th century. Now they make up no more than 1% of all of Europe. By the beginning of the 21st century, virgin landscapes were preserved only in a few geographical locations, including Europe’s northeast, the Caucasus, and Georgia.
Human activity, such as logging, is the culprit.

Nowadays the destruction of virgin forests continues though deforestation, construction of new highways and industrial enterprises, and the excessive human use of mountain meadows and winter pastures. Lands that were once fertile have been reduced to “badlands” — barren, rocky, erosive land, devoid of soil and vegetation cover.

Why are virgin landscapes important?

Whit Gibbons, an environmental professor, has defined virgin forests as:

The original meaning is simple, from the word meaning “chaste,” representing a forest that has never been timbered and in which the dominant, old-growth tree species have reached their maximum ages.1

The International Union of Forest Research Organizations extends this view to include young growth:

Not all virgin forests are old growth.

There seems to be general agreement that not every virgin or primeval forest is of great age; that young stands may be of virgin or primeval character although they are not old growth. These would be stands that have regenerated after natural disturbances and have not been subjected to human disturbances.2

Virgin landscapes are unique natural complexes that, among other things:

Virgin forests shelter other undisturbed landscapes, such as meadows.
  • regulate climate; for example, they store large amounts of carbon dioxide that would otherwise contribute to greenhouse gases
  • maintain water cycles and freshwater resources
  • ensure the survival of unique and endangered species
  • protect one-of-a-kind mountain meadows, marsh tracts and other ecosystems within their territory
  • prevent soil erosion and flooding of streams
  • provide ecological refuges for indigenous knowledge

The size of virgin landscapes may vary. For example, landscapes in mountainous countries range from a few square kilometers to dozens upon dozens of square kilometers. It is of great significance that a landscape is a sum of smaller natural units. These units are closely interconnected and dependent on one another.

Why protect Georgia’s virgin landscapes?

Georgia’s riches lie in its biodiversity.

Georgia is good example of why protecting virgin landscapes far outweighs the economics of developing them. Georgia is a small country and it is not rich in mineral resources. It does not have large deposits of oil, or deposits of strategically important metals. But Georgia does possess significant natural resources, which consist of the country’s biological and landscape diversity:

  • Georgia is located in one of the most diversified landscapes on our planet, within the Caucasus and the Black Sea Basin.
  • The virgin landscapes of Georgia are especially valuable because of their rich biodiversity and uniqueness. They are the fundamental natural wealth of the country.
  • Forests cover about 38%, of which a small percentage is virgin. The ecosystems are diverse, ranging from sub-alpine to flood-plain forests.

However, human activity is beginning to destroy these landscapes. A great number of projects, financially supported by international or state associations and private firms, have been planned or carried out recently. These include:

An increase in economic development is threatening Georgia’s landscapes.
  • the transport corridor “Europe-Caucasus-Asia”
  • new oil pipelines
  • a government forestry development project that wants to escalate logging, which may eventually destroy most of Georgia’s forests
  • economic development projects such as agriculture and tourism in Georgia

All these projects have, to a certain extent, environmental issues and concerns that must be resolved. In particular, the implementation of these projects will bring about severe damage to the virgin landscapes of Georgia.

The basics for a conservation plan

Mapping is essential to conservation planning.

Before a conservation program for virgin landscapes can be designed, it is essential to identify and map these territories. This is important not only for Georgia, but elsewhere.

The study of virgin landscapes as intrinsic support structures for preserving unique flora and fauna has received attention in world publications only recently. As a result of the activism of the “Greenpeace” movement, attention has been drawn to the problem of preserving the last remaining virgin forests of Europe. In 1999, a map of “the last large tracts of European taiga” was compiled for northeastern Europe.

There has never been a map of Georgia’s virgin landscapes.

Data on the spread of virgin landscapes in Georgia, however, was absent. Scientific publications provide fragmentary information; but it should be noted that until very recently the study of landscapes did not include the concept of “virgin” landscapes, much less criteria for their qualification.

Thus, in 1999, I undertook a science project to create a map of virgin landscapes in Georgia. My year-long project involved:

Mapping project revealed that 10% of Georgia has virgin landscapes.
  • analyzing 220 sheets of topographic maps of Georgia (1:50,000)
  • selecting possible areas of virgin landscapes were and mapping their borders using various tools, including field expeditions
  • transferring the obtained borders onto a 1:200,000 map
  • using my own and GIS data (GIS = Geographical Information System) to facilitate the work
  • verifying the data with satellite surveys of select regions

Nikamap.jpg

The result of the work is a compiled map of potential virgin landscapes of Georgia. The entire area amounts to 7,024 square km., or 10% of Georgia’s territory. Of this area:

  • Marshes are present in 5 areas and cover 162 square km
  • Virgin forests — in 187 areas, 4015 sq.km
  • Alpine landscapes — in 88 areas, 2828 sq.km

This is the first time such a map has been compiled. But this is only a map of possible virgin areas. In reality the situation may turn out to be somewhat different because:

Further mapping studies must be done.
  • topographic maps do not always show the complete network of paths in an area (in the remote areas, maps were compiled on the basis of aerial photography)
  • relativity in the criteria used; for example, a landscape unit that was too small for study using our methods

The Georgia project involved preliminary mapping. Actual maps will require further verification using forest materials data and economic activity analysis, satellite photo surveys and, most importantly, field research expeditions.

Georgia in perspective

Georgia has one of the last tracts of virgin European mountain forests. These forests are not only of scientific interest, but they are also an important resource. They are home to a high level of biodiversity. Combine this with the rich cultural-historical heritage of this ancient country, and you have the makings of a place that is beautiful in its environment and in its society.

Recently environmental organizations in Georgia have called on the government to:

In conclusion: Ban logging and road building in virgin forests.
  • create a full inventory of existing forests in Georgia
  • specify the areas that are virgin forests to protect them from logging and ban road construction within these areas
  • establish accurate logging rates for various regions, and
  • develop sustainable forestry management plans and practices for non-virgin forests3

Many of us hope that this will be done and that Georgia can set an example for the rest of the world.

Nika Beruchashvili is a freshman at Tbilisi State University, Georgia, Europe, studying human geography. Nika began his research into Georgian virgin landscapes in 1999, the results of which were published in the science report, “Biological and Landscape Diversity of Georgia”(2000). The report took first place at the Soros Fund competition. Later that year, he was awarded the “Special award of the European Space Research and Technology Center” and “The Alumni Prize” at the European Young Scientist competition in Holland. Nika speaks three languages — Georgian, Russian, and English and enjoys travel. Both his parents are educators at Tbilisi State University.

Protecting Virgin Landscapes: A Georgian Perspective

Do We Have Enough Forests?

Read the article on this site, by Dr. Sten Nilsson, which explores the status of forests worldwide.
http://actionbioscience.org/environment/nilsson.html

Forest conservation portal

Forests.org, Inc. works to end deforestation, preserve old-growth forests, conserve and sustainably manage other forests, maintain climatic systems and commence the age of ecological restoration. Choose from a variety of articles, links, and activities on this site.
http://forests.org/

About Georgia

Take a virtual tour of Georgia, sponsored by the nation’s government.
http://www.parliament.ge/index.php?lang_id=ENG&sec_id=1

Worldwide forest health

The Last Frontier Forests: Ecosystems and Economies on the Edgeis a report on the health of forests around the world by the World Resources Institute.
http://pubs.wri.org/pubs_description.cfm?PubID=2619

Ancient Forests campaign

Greenpeace offers advice on how you can help prevent deforestation of ancient forests.
http://www.greenpeace.org/international/campaigns/forests

The International Canopy Network

Get involved with the International Canopy Network (ICAN), an organization devoted to facilitating the continuing interaction of people concerned with forest canopies and forest ecosystems around the world.
http://ican.csme.utah.edu/

Global Forest Watch

Offers interactive maps and data on worldwide deforestation.
http://www.globalforestwatch.org/english/index.htm

Lessons and activities

  1. Gibbons, Whit. 1999. “Do we know what all those environmental terms mean? (Part
  2. Ecoviews weekly news column, August 8. http://www.uga.edu/~srel/ecoview8-8-99.htm. Accessed 10/01. 2) Haddon, Brian. 1997. “Defining old growth.” Natural Resources Canada, Sept. 9 member newsletter. http://www.nrcan.gc.ca/hypermail/oldgrowth/0022.html. Accessed 10/01.
  3. CEE Bankwatch Network. 2001. “Forestry development project in Georgia.” http://www.bankwatch.org/issues/mforestry.html (click on “More on Forestry: Forestry Development in Georgia). Accessed 10/01.

General References:

  • » Biological and Landscape Diversity. (Tbilisi, WWF edition, 2000)
  • » R. Gagnidze, Geography of Plants (Tbilisi, University Publishing House, 1996, 232 p.)
  • » Geography of Georgia: Physical Geography (8th form textbook, Tbilisi, Ganatleba, 1999, 144 p.)
  • » Georgia: Conservation of Forests and Sustainable Use (WWF edition, 1999)
  • » Last Big Massif of European Taiga (Edition of Greenpeace of Russia, 2000, Booklet)
  • » A.V. Ptichnikov,Forests of Russia: Independent Certification and Sustainable Management (Edition of WWF Russia, 1999, 160 p.)
  • » Global Biodiversity Assessment,V.H. Heywood & R.T. Watson, Eds. (Cambridge Univ. Press, 1995, 1037 p.)
  • » Rodenburg E., Tunstall D., van Bolhuis F., Environmental Indicators for Global Cooperation (Washington, World Bank, UNEP, 1996, 40 p.)
  • » Valuing the Global Environment: Action and Investments for a 21st Century (Global Environment Facility, Washington, 1998, 162 p.)

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