Doing It Right: The Politics Of Hiking Trail Development In The Caucasus

When I decided last summer to build the Transcaucasian Trail, I had no idea just what kind of a political mess I was getting myself into.

I don’t mean the regional geopolitics of the Caucasus, either. That’s actually pretty clear-cut. Some areas are off-limits, some borders are closed. Thankfully, none of this actually affects a trail that would follow the Lesser Caucasus mountain chain, which passes relatively unhindered (from a hiker’s perspective) among the tangle of regional conflicts.

No – what I mean is the politics of hiking trail development.

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Because we really are doing something completely new in this region. Armenia in particular does not have any kind of formal trail network outside of Khosrov State Reserve, and even this requires you to buy a permit and hire a guide to explore one tiny little patch of so-called ‘protected’ wilderness. Official mountain rescue services are probably the last people to whom you’d make an SOS call in a real emergency. And neither Georgia nor Armenia have yet adopted a national standard for trail marking and construction, nor enshrined such rights of way in law, nor taken steps to ensure that hiking guides have access to training and certification as they take the safety of clients into their hands.

But as previously mentioned, we aren’t the only people in the region working on creating a future of sustainable and safe trails in the Caucasus. Certain regions of Georgia – Svaneti, for example, as mentioned in the last post – have leapt ahead in this regard, thanks largely to the efforts of Mikhael Saakashvili to put his country on the map for tourism during his tenure as president of Georgia.

Yet with more than half its land area above 2,000m in altitude, it still surprises me that Armenians have only just begun to realise how attractive the country is as a place for going walking in the mountains.

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Perhaps it’s no surprise that, in the last 12 months, rural tourism has become the next big thing for big international development agencies to pour cash and grandiosity into.

At the same time, grassroots projects are springing up in the regions, powered by the same lightbulb realisation that Armenia would look rather attractive to hikers and outdoorspeople if only they knew about its potential. People like Andranik, from the village of Hovk, who in the absence of any national strategy simply went out and single-handedly mapped and waymarked a few hundred kilometres of trail in the forests of his native province of Tavush.

Then there are operations which sit somewhere in the middle – like OneArmenia’s Hike Armenia project, focused on working in the regions, operating from a lightweight central footprint, and without the huge bureaucratic overheads of the big players.

I suppose the TCT, too, sits somewhere around here.

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The politics start to get complicated when some want to talk about long-term tourism development goals and implementation strategies, and others want to talk about whether to use oil-based or water-based paint for waymarking – direct action by individuals versus the juggernaut of global bureaucracy. Neither naturally has the language to communicate with or the perspective to understand the other, and in most cases are too geographically disparate anyway. In fact, it’s a neat little microcosm of civilised society, with all its social and administrative strata, and with the increasing distance between the top and the bottom of the pyramid in every dimension.

I suppose our trailbuilding project is somewhat unique in that it spans multiple axes. By taking one step at a time, hikers will eventually find themselves making an international journey. The trail scouting and development team will depend on local activists for local knowledge and eventually for trail maintenance and services to hikers. Whatever institutions support the trail will also depend on the activities of the big players to ensure our combined efforts don’t go unnoticed as the global spotlight resettles on the so-called New East and tourism of every kind begins to boom.

To my knowledge, I am the only person talking face-to-face with to village elders, park rangers, commercial hiking guides, NGO project managers, journalists, development agencies and government officials simultaneously – as well as with pioneering trailbuilders outside of the region who’ve worked or are working on similar projects elsewhere in the world.

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The question is how best to use this position. My ambitions are not personal – at least, not beyond a simple love of being outdoors and exploring new places, which this project has given me the opportunity to do as a full-time job (a job!!!). I have no desire to stamp my own footprint upon as many trails, trees and rocks as possible.

No – this is about giving something back to a part of the world that has been unusually generous to me. So it seems to me that if we do have an opportunity here, it’s to act as facilitators between players big and small. While the scouting and exploration still dominates my time, the best thing I can do beyond that is encourage the kind of cooperation that will help to ensure that both the people of the region and their future foreign guests genuinely all benefit from the new dynamic that improved access to the outdoors here will bring.

Of course, as things change at ground level, there will be winners and losers, because that is the way of the world and the compromise of progress. But I’d rather not be responsible for weighting things unfairly, and simply hoping that this will be the case won’t be enough. Self-interest – even if it’s kept hidden – is a blinding force with real power to create conflict, as last week’s community consultation exercises in the Svaneti region of northern Georgia starkly illustrated. There’s an awful lot to consider where the politics of hiking trail development is concerned.

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From the point of view of the visitor, what both Georgia and Armenia really need – and the sooner this happens, the better for everyone – is a well-thought-out set of standards for designing, building, signposting and waymarking trails.

The Georgian National Hiking Federation has submitted a draft standard to the national tourism authority for approval. But in Armenia, no such process has even begun, with the result that trail marking strategy has become the keenest point of inflammation among the people here who are champing at the bit to get out and start building trails, but are lacking a framework within which to do so.

And while it would be easy to say “well, why not copy the Swiss?”, for example, this would be missing the all-important component of local context – for there is no point sticking a metal signpost in the ground if an impoverished local farmer is liable to ‘borrow’ it to repair a broken fence, or take a wooden one for firewood. Likewise, there’s no point flying in fibreglass posts from California if local stonemasons could achieve something equally durable and more culturally appropriate directly on-site.

Everyone with an opinion has been weighing in on this over the last few months. The lovely folk behind the Hike Armenia project – the first co-ordinated effort to mark, map and promote short, accessible hiking routes across Armenia – have done a fantastic job of negotiating an interim solution, which steers clear of anything too permanent and borrows the familiar European red-and-white painted blazes to create trails that are sufficiently well-marked to be followed by a competent hiker without assistance, which really is the baseline for any marked hiking trail.

But in the meantime there is still no movement towards a collaboratively-developed standard to put in front of the Armenian government for nationwide adoption. If there’s anything concrete that I can achieve in the world of Armenian trail development politics right now, it seems to be to push hard for such a standard to be developed and eventually adopted, because doing so will ultimately result in trailbuilders being able to work more effectively and trail users to be able to hike more safely.

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All this in the knowledge that actual trail marking probably won’t come into our work for years to come!

But that’s the politics of all sustainable development. You look to the future, you work towards universal benefits, and you avoid your own ego at all costs.

I just hope everyone else involved will prove equally keen on those principles.