FLEG II leads an international team of experts to stop massive decline of Georgian boxwood forests
A skilful player knows that the key to winning a chess game is the strategy: every move is crucial and has to be pondered thoroughly. Sometimes, the situation is so intricate that it is a real struggle to take the next step… if no help is available.
One of the rivals that Georgian forestry authorities are facing is called Calonectria pseudonaviculata, a dangerous invasive insect species that threatens Buxus colchica, an evergreen of sacred value for Georgian people, whose fine wood is often used for chess sets, objects of religious significance, and many other products.
Over the past four years, the degradation of boxwood forests has become an issue of major concern in Georgia, and the forestry agencies lack specialists to deal with this problem effectively.
In 2014, when the health conditions of boxwood forests reached a critical level of decline, the Agency of Protected Areas (APA) – under the Ministry of Environment and Natural Resources Protection – turned to the Forest Law Enforcement and Governance Program (FLEG II), which, through the years, has become one of the key players in the country’s forest sector.
“Since its beginning in 2009, FLEG has built very positive and collaborative relations with Georgian authorities. They recognize the value of FLEG activities and consider us a reliable partner, as we are already part of many working groups and steering committees.” said Marika Kavtarishvili, FLEG II Country Program Coordinator for IUCN Georgia.
Georgian protected areas categorization system strictly follows the IUCN Protected Areas Categories System, and several species affected by pests, like Buxus colchica, are in the IUCN Red List. Due to this, the assessment of the health conditions and suggestion of specific treatment measures require not only detailed analysis, but also must establish a direct link from this analysis to concrete protected area categories and design the action plan accordingly.
“Because of all these reasons,” continued Ms. Kavtarishvili, “we were asked to intervene and devise a strategy to address this specific issue in protected areas. For this purpose, we decided to use our professional contacts and engage experts and research centres from around the world”.
Thanks to the international network established over the years, the FLEG II Country Program Coordinator for Georgia was able to extend the call for experts beyond Georgian borders and recruit Dr. Iryna Matsiakh, Assistant at the Forestry Department of the Ukrainian National Forestry University in Lviv and specialist in pest management and forest pathology.
Between June and December 2014, two field trips were conducted by Dr. Matsiakh, with the precious support of Dr. Volodimir Kramarets, Associate Professor at the Ukrainian National Forestry University in Lviv, in order to evaluate the propagation of pests and diseases in Mtirala National Park, Kintrishi Protected Areas, and Ajameti Managed Reserve. The aim of this activity was twofold: first, to identify the root causes for the spread of this problem; secondly, to propose measures of prevention that would be consistent with IUCN regulations and standards.
At the end of this first phase, the processing and preparation of the soil samples collected during the field trips were carried out in the laboratories of the Forest Protection Department of the National Forestry University of Ukraine and at the Forest Research Institute in Warsaw, Poland. Some of the soil samples were also sent to the University of Applied Sciences of Western Switzerland. The samples of symptomatic Buxus colchica and Quercus imeretina plants were analysed in Italy at DIBAF University of Tuscia in Viterbo.
“The rigorous assessment and analysis carried out by FLEG in Georgian protected areas were fundamental to support my work at the Agency" said Khatuna Tsiklauri, the main specialist of Natural Resources at the Planning and Development Division of APA, “This represented a unique opportunity to share useful information and knowledge. Close cooperation with FLEG experts will continue on various topics of common interest”. FLEG recommendations concerning specific conservation activities in Ajameti Managed Reserve and Mtirala National Park were included in the management plans of these protected areas. The Mtirala National Park management plan was approved by the Prime Minister of Georgia, while the Ajameti Managed Reserve management plan is currently under approval procedures.
Thanks to the high quality of this research, FLEG II became a member of the National Committee on Buxus Survival, the informal body established by the Forest Policy Service in collaboration with CENN to limit the degradation of Buxus colchica.
Following the fruitful collaboration with APA, the National Forestry Agency (NFA) – which manages forests outside protected areas – officially asked FLEG to undertake a similar study in the territories under NFA’s authority.
Between July and August 2015, Dr. Matsiakh, together with Giorgi Mamadashvili, Senior Specialist at the Forest Maintenance and Reforestation Department of NFA, conducted a 16-day field trip in five selected regions of Georgia, where the spread of pests is particularly wide and the massive decline of boxwood trees was observed. Upon their return, a roundtable discussion was organized at NFA to present the preliminary findings, and the infected plant material and soil samples collected during the field trip were transported to the laboratory for detailed analysis carried out by Dr. Matsiakh.
“It was a very useful field trip for me. My responsibility at the National Forestry Agency is to address the problem of forest infestations, and I learned a lot from FLEG” said Mr. Mamadashvili, “This activity proved invaluable to us, as we were able to share precious information with the international community of experts”.
FLEG II strongly believes in fostering and facilitating close cooperation, as well as exchange of information and best practices, between different actors at a global level, as stated in the St. Petersburg Declaration. As this experience shows, this is a winning strategy to face the most difficult challenges in the forest sector.
In this perspective of international collaboration, Dr. Matsiakh was invited to visit Süleyman Demirel University in Isparta, Turkey, for a short-term scientific mission to conduct joint research. There, she also had the opportunity to use the laboratory of the Faculty of Forestry to analyse the symptomatic samples of Buxus colchica collected in Georgia.
“Turkey, whose north-eastern part belongs to the same eco-region as Georgia, is facing a similar problem with invasive species” said Dr. Matsiakh, “Therefore, it is extremely useful to combine our knowledge and try to find new methods to control these infectious agents”.
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Georgian authorities and FLEG II embarked on a joint path of collaboration which is far from reaching its end. Dr. Matsiakh will continue her work by conducting a two-week field trip to the selected sites in Georgia between October 25 and November 7, 2015. Following this field excursion, a workshop will be organized to present the new findings, and the final report with suggestions and plans of action will be submitted to the National Forestry Agency and the Ministry of Environment and Natural Resources Protection of Georgia by the end of January 2016.
Despite the combined initiatives that have been taken over the past few years, the decline of boxwood trees remains a complex and widespread phenomenon. Sound plans of long-term human intervention and efficient forest management, like those supported by FLEG II, are the only possible moves remaining to checkmate these destructive pests.
 Anamorph Cylindrocladium buxicola.
 Syn. B. hyrcana.
 IUCN protected area management categories classify protected areas according to their management objectives. More information here.
 The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species is the most comprehensive, objective global approach for evaluating the conservation status of plant and animal species. More information here.
 The Caucasus Environmental NGO Network.