He works tirelessly protecting his region’s environment, mainly from local manganese mining operations fouling the river and from its trucks scattering manganese dioxide dust throughout the streets of the city and surrounding villages. He won’t bear injustice without a fight, as readily in a restaurant (to his mind not serving his party fairly) or with leaders he suspects of heeding the voice of powerful interests more than that of local citizens.
Shota leads the Union of Chiaturians, an activist organization he started almost 9 years ago, frustrated that the otherwise scenic Kvirila River winding through the center of the city runs black with manganese effluence, o one in authority doing anything about it. While his habitual taciturn bearing hardly displays the passion driving his devoted work, no one mistakes it as resignation. He never gives up.
The Peace Corps has assigned me to work with Shota’s organization, supporting its growing capacity for effective advocacy.
Born and raised in Chiatura, Shota absorbed stories about his grandfather, who in 1924 organized with others to rebel against the 1921 Soviet occupation of Georgia, a country along the historic Silk Road with vastly more history of foreign occupation than of autonomy. The grandfather was captured four times, the last time leading to his transportation to nearby Zestafoni along with three boxcars filled with other “enemies of the state” and executed with a bullet.
The price of standing up to power is marked deep in Shota’s soul, and it must have been on his mind when he signed the 1991 declaration by the people of Georgia asserting their independence. He followed up by serving on Georgia’s first elected parliament.
On Monday morning I found Shota sitting with a member of the Union of Chiaturian’s Youth Council working over a letter drafted the day before in the neighboring village of Shukruti, where the gas and water systems, owned by the mining company, supply gas inconsistently and water just once a day, in the evening. The water is so full of toxic microorganisms that even washing dishes in it is dangerous. Drinking it is an invitation to serious illness, or worse.
The letter they’re polishing up will address environmental, water and service problems to members of the government. It’s just a letter, and letters are often ignored, but a letter from this organization should make a politician sit up and pay attention. The Union of Chiaturian’s collects water samples for testing and distributes the results, attracting attention from influential advocacy institutions like the Caucasus Environmental NGO Network (CENN).
This coming Friday CENN will provide a megaphone for the Union of Chiaturian’s activism, bringing to the city with them reporters from six news organizations to cover the mining company’s progress, or lack of it, in remedying these problems that have been called to their attention over many years.
What is the timeline for promises already made? Who will be responsible? Which representatives of government should be keeping track? And, are they?
Maybe today’s letter or Friday’s visit from the press or yet another public demonstration will be the one that sets the machinery of public life in motion enough for the movement to turn the corner. That belief keeps the Union of Chiaturians moving and shaking.
One reason I’ve jointed the Peace Corps is my grandchildren—or, rather, my need to look them in the eye unashamed 20 years from now and answer their questions. When people were being publicly hateful and cruel, how did I respond? What shall I say I’d been doing while so many of the world’s influential adult were allowing global warming to worsen because of inattentiveness or greed or whatever it is that has stymied environmental efforts? My grandchildren will want to know whether I’d just wrung my hands or had actually made a difference.
One thing I’ll be able to say. I was half a world away helping Shota.