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MHC Research Trio Spend Summer in Georgia

Nino Guruli & Alison Neher
  Nino Guruli ’07 (left) and Ally Neher ’07

Two Mount Holyoke students and a Russian professor learned this summer that sometimes what is described as ethnic conflict often has its roots in competition for scarce resources, made scarcer by environmental degradation.

Nino Guruli ’07, Allison Neher ’07, and Russian professor Stephen Jones were in remote regions of the Republic of Georgia, where a new government was installed in 2003 after the peaceful Rose Revolution. The Mount Holyoke team found that the cause of much of the ethnic tension in the region is a lack of basic resources.

"I’d argue that social and economic issues are more important than ethnic issues," Jones said.

The three were there to test the theory that environmental degradation aggravates or acts as a causational factor in acute conflict. They visited regions where clashes between Armenians, Greeks, Georgians, and Azerbaijanis have resulted in riots and killings.

After severe mudslides and flooding caused by illegal logging and a hydroelectric dam in the mountains of Svaneti and Ajaria left many Georgian residents homeless, the government resettled these displaced people in Tsalka in homes that had been abandoned by Greeks and Armenians who believed they’d have better economic opportunities in their native countries.

But the remaining Tsalkan population, which is mostly Greek and Armenian, believed it had claims to those homes, according to Jones, and conflicts flared between Tsalka’s ethnic groups. In May of 2004, the government sent troops to the region after people were injured during a fight at a soccer match.

The crime rate in poverty-stricken Tsalka is high, further straining relations between ethnic groups, according to Guruli.

In Akhalkalaki, the Mount Holyoke team found that local Armenians—who Georgians anticipate will demand autonomy and ultimately become part of Armenia—are more interested in getting potable water, decent schools, and adequate roads that will enable them to conduct business with the Georgian capital and other Georgian regions than they are in autonomy.

Guruli said the Armenians of Akhalkalaki believe their roads are poor because they receive less from the central government than ethnic Georgians, even though many Georgian regions are just as poor. They trade mostly with nearby Armenia, but this reinforces Georgian fears.

"Georgians see them as practical and not trustworthy," she said.

Feeding a family in Akhalkalaki, where unemployment hovers around 70 percent, is even more difficult because over-fishing and pollution have depleted fish populations, and high fertilizer use in the past has reduced soil quality, Jones said.

Environmental issues are increasingly recognized as a cause of ethnic conflict, but in underdeveloped countries people often fail to make the connection, according to Jones.

"In Georgia, it’s not recognized at all," he said.

Guruli and Neher went to Georgia with grants from the Center for Global Initiatives’ Global Studies Summer Fellowship program, and from the dean of the College's office. Neher said she and Guruli wanted to go to Georgia because both are interested in working in development aid. The trip opened their eyes to some harsh realities, she said.

"I wondered: how long could I do this? It’s so intense. How long before I become numb to it?" said Neher. "But we realized we could."


Copyright © 2006 Mount Holyoke College. This page created and maintained by Office of Communications. Last modified on June 13, 2006.