Land grab victims speak out

The World Bank singled out Georgia for praise last year for drastically reducing petty bribery:

Georgia’s success destroys the myth that corruption is cultural and gives hope to reformers everywhere who aspire to clean up their public services.”

I saw a different side to the story when I was in Georgia last month to give a communications training at Transparency International Georgia.

Political corruption is very much alive and well and keeping Transparency International Georgia very busy: monitoring elections, reacting to abuse of prisoners, keeping tabs on big business, tracking how the government spends taxpayers’ money online, and above all, land grabbing.

Read victims’ accounts of land grabs in Azerbaijan and Pakistan.

A staff member of Transparency International Georgia speaks to victims of land grab.

Their legal advice centre has received over 1000 complaints from citizens saying their land rights were abused.

Gia Gvilava, who deals with victims and witness of corruption at the centre, told me about some of the problems that leave people vulnerable to land grabs.

People in remote areas pass land down without always registering it with the authorities. Some are forced off their land to make big development projects. 32 families who lost land to make way for an airport to 15 properties confiscated to make way for a ski complex.

Transparency International Georgia lawyers have recorded interviews with local people in regions of heavy development who have lost land or risk loss.

The result is a series of powerful videos.

“One day they came, brought workers and said that the president was coming and they were planning to build a hotel here”

This is a video that should make us think long and hard about any resort holiday we have ever taken.

The victim, Tornike Bubuteishvili, stands in front of a hotel built on his land, and explains how the authorities first said they would just build a road.

His is a story of intimidation from local politicians and promised compensation never delivered.

“Imagine you realise that the land is no longer yours”

The next video shows how attempts to seek justice can get bogged down in the courts.

In this video the victim tells how the court decided he did not have adequate proof that he owned his land, after builders started construction there without any notice. He was only offered reimbursement afterwards. In another case, the victim challenged the judge by asking: “why would I sign away my land, when it is all I have?” The judge apparently told him to be more careful with his words.

“I told them I have a garden here, and they are seizing it too”

Finally, an interview showing the insecurity caused by living in legal limbo when you cannot clarify your land tenure. The lady interviewed speaks of her fears that the land she has worked for a lifetime may be seized.

Read more about these and other cases here

This problem is not limited to Georgia.

Around the world, land three times the size of Georgia was sold or leased in large-scale deals in 2008-2009.

Corruption risks are high. More than one out of every 10 people who contacted a land authority reported paying a bribe, according a 2009 69 country/territory survey.

Meanwhile, our 2010 survey of 3000 senior business executives suggests bribes are more likely in construction, real estate and property than the sectors just regulated by new EU rules – the extractive and logging sectors.

With more land grabbing stories emerging all over the world, do you think we will be seeing more stories like these in future?

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Thomas Coombes

About Thomas Coombes

Thomas Coombes is Senior Communications Officer and speech writer at Transparency International.

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