Armenian and Georgian youth links human rights to environmental advocacy

This summer, another Swedish Institute Academy for Young Professionals (SAYP) was held in Lund by Lund University (LUCE, LUSEM) and RWI- to encourage perspectives on multi-level governance, decentralization and Human Rights among young participants from Eastern Partnership and Baltic Sea regions.

Two of these participants, Tornike and Elen, decided to apply knowledge and skills gained during the SAYP programme in their individual project, linking human rights and the environment, designed with the guidance and support of RWI. Learn about our previous SAYP programme here.

How Tornike and Elen came up with the idea of their project

Elen and Tornike met during the SAYP training in Lund.

Tornike is an Environmental Policy Officer and Project Manager at SABUKO – Society for Nature Conservation, which is BirdLife International’s partner in Georgia.

Elen currently works as assistant to the MP at the National Assembly of the Republic of Armenia, which is the legislative branch of the government of Armenia.

While attending the SAYP course in Lund, Elen and Tornike had project ideas regarding environmental protection. Elen’s project idea was focused on lake Yerevan’s pollution with municipal waste. Tornike, on the other hand, wanted to concentrate on empowering civil society capacities to better engage in environmental decision-making.

They both are of the opinion that both their respective countries share the same issues of lack of participation in the decision-making process and poor access to information. The Caucasus ecoregion is one of the most biologically rich regions in the world, and the biodiversity is under emergent threat. Elen therefore approached Tornike about cooperation. Tornike didn’t hesitate and agreed immediately.

Tornike: “Unfortunately, our countries’ environment doesn’t receive the protection they deserve to maintain or improve its current state. In many cases, responsible bodies fail to apply the existing legal framework to protect social and environmental well-being, which leads to human rights violations.”

He concluded that since Elen and he had “more or less the same goal and wanted to address the issues mentioned above, it was an incredible opportunity to contribute to our societies.” With guidance from RWI, Tornike thought that it became very easy to cooperate and develop a realistic project idea.

 

From the training on Environmental Human Rights and Legal tools for environmental advocacy
From the bird watching during the field trip day.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

With their subsequent project, “Youth-led Advocacy. Empowering youth to engage in the environmental decision-making process,” Elen and Tornike gathered 10 Armenians and Georgians aged 18 to 25 for in Tbilisi, Georgia, aiming to increase their participation in the environmental decision-making process on environmental advocacy and Human Rights.

The goals were chosen because of both Tornike and Elen recognised the urgency of environmental education in both their respective communities. They also thought it was important to involve the youth in environmental advocacy to have an impact on the environmental decision-making process.

Within their project, Elen and Tornike conducted one full-day training on Environmental Human Rights and Legal Tools for environmental advocacy, followed by a full-day field trip to Krtsanisi park, the industrial city of Rustavi and Kumisi lake.

The field trips

The first visit was to Krtsanisi Park, outside Tbilisi, Georgia.

The park is newly restored and was a result of a project aiming to maintain biodiversity and raise public awareness about environmental principles. Participants were informed about the importance of the wetlands and about how local activists around urban areas are trying to save such ecosystems.

Ana Chitinashvili, one of the participants, paid her first visit to the park during the study visit. “It was a very wonderful, peaceful, green place with beautiful views and birds chirping. Our trainer told us that for a long time this place was not protected and local people with their domestic animals moved freely in this place and used it as a pasture.”

Another participant was Romela Harutyunyan. She has taken courses in environmental studies and is concerned about the consequences of human actions on the environment. She felt that she recently noticed some misunderstanding about environmental issues among people. “The first things that come to mind are climate change and water level rise, but not the animals that are affected. This visit was a reminder for me that animals are so vulnerable to environmental issues.” Romela said that she noticed how little she knew about the topic and that she aimed to strengthen her knowledge.

According to Tornike, Krtsanisi park is one of the last remaining in Rustavi and Tbilisi, where the latter is going through a rapid urbanisation. The organisers noted the reduction of green spaces in the area and believe that it is the right of the people to enjoy pleasant and healthy spaces in nature, as it links to ecological, economic, and cultural rights.

The second part of the tour was to the industrial city of Rustavi, south of Tbilisi.

The participants were hosted by local activists from We are Suffocating (Gaviguet). It is an NGO aiming to improve air quality in Rustavi through civic activism. The activist provided the participants with a tour of the industrial zone.

This is what Romela, one of the participants, had to say about the experience:

“I assume the visit to Rustavi was the part I liked the most. I am well-informed about air pollution but have never personally experienced its horrible consequences. I remember perfectly when we came out of the bus and the first breath I took. As strange as it may sound, I could smell the pollution. I could sense the smell of the particles that were in the air because of the irrational and careless actions of the factory owners.”

The participants saw the activists engage in real time. For instance, Romela witnessed one of the local activists discover smoke and taking immediate action by calling the ministry of environment. Romela said that she was amazed by the activist, and how she conveyed her concern and information. “I loved to see the activists in action” Romela concluded.

This experience taught the participants to approach big polluters and engage with the government.

Tornike is hopeful that the participants will be equipped with all relevant knowledge on how to protect their right to a healthy environment, even during times of need.  In addition, participants learned how to inform governmental bodies if some private business or person damages the environment. “In general, I think that they will be able to mobilise some interested groups and generate societal pressure that forces political decision-makers to reconsider their decisions” he said. He believes that the participants will be able the secure their legal rights to participate in the decision-making process and engage in environmental activism.

The last activity of the day was to visit Kumisi lake, close to Tbilisi.  

In Kumisi Lake, participants enjoyed birdwatching activities and learned about how SABUKO and local activists are trying to deal with poaching and declining water surface. The lake is an important resting place for migratory shorebirds.

The organizers picked the activity of birdwatching to raise awareness of the importance of wildlife. The lake has special importance for waterfowl. Due to the harsh winters, the lake freezes, and birds have difficulties finding food. The lake’s physical existence is threatened, and thus the existence of the birds. It will also have a negative impact on the local population, due to the decrease in the water level.

“[In Kumisi lake], we learned about the birds that live there. We had binoculars through which we followed the birds and what they did. The guide informed us about the birds that are endemic to that region and also told us about the birds that come from different regions, including Armenia. I am so glad that I saw people who were so passionate about a small element of the environment like birds.” Says Romela Harutyunyan.

Tornike and Elen, with their joint interest in environmental causes, decided to organise a project aiming to empowering civil society capacities. The idea was to give the young participants the tools to engage in the environmental decision-making process, contributing to their realisation of their human rights.

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