“It started with planting trees on one big road in Tbilisi and ended up with me sitting in the Parliament”, says Nata Peradze, a Georgian environmentalist and founder of guerilla gardening movement in Georgia. An interview about active citizenship, women’s courage and life that just happens.
Your story is fascinating. From working in an art museum in the Netherlands you have become a leader of guerilla gardening in Georgia. How did this happen?
I studied History of Art and worked as a restorer in museums in the Netherlands and Georgia. Later on, I realized it was not really what I wanted to do, so I started my own flower shop. I then became a manager of one big company in Tbilisi which was planting trees. I found out many mistakes of the City Hall and of the company which made me leave. Afterwards I created an ecological school for kids which was just a step from guerilla gardening.
How did the guerilla gardening start?
In 2010, the City Hall built a big road in the city center and cut many trees. They planted new ones but they died. This happened three times. I was watching it but never thought I could do anything about it. And then I found out about guerilla gardening and thought how brave the people are. When they cut the dead trees for the third time, I announced on Facebook that I will go to plant trees illegally.
Wow, how did it go?
Eventually 25 people participated and only five of them were my friends. After uploading pictures on Facebook, people were enthusiastic and supportive. Many participants from completely different social backgrounds started coming and surprisingly 95% of them are women. I always question what men do. When you need to fight, run and make decisions, it is mostly women. Anyways, it was great. But then the government started following us. While we planted young trees, they cut the old ones.
How did you react?
We started protesting. Our first protest was against the City Hall’s decision to build a restaurant in a recreational zone in Tbilisi. Since we did not have enough people and experience, we did not succeed. The restaurant stands there, but we won the case in the court after four years and now it is illegal. Another protest was in the Vake Park whose size has shrunk from 120 to 19 hectares. The City Hall wants to build a hotel there. We stayed there for 1 year with tents and barricades. With the help of the Young Lawyers Association we won the case in the court, but the judgment was reversed and the fight goes on.
How do people feel about your efforts?
Many young people participate because they believe things can be changed, but even older people get engaged. But in general there is this post-soviet illness where people do not trust in their power and think everything is decided somewhere else. But we show that we can change things. After Vake Park, similar protests were organized in three different places and were successful.
I wonder how politicians perceive the movement.
Parties make use of it and try to say we are political and volunteers are paid by parties. This makes our success much slower.
I read that you are apolitical and you do not want to be associated with any party.
Absolutely! The movement is apolitical but we need to negotiate with politicians. I cannot change the laws by sitting on my Facebook. I go to hearings and meetings in the Parliament and meet various politicians. Without them we cannot influence anything. We would be just planting trees and laws would stay same.
It is interesting how the focus has evolved from planting trees on one road to regulation.
I would have never imagined I would sit in the Parliament, but cutting trees is politics. It comes to laws and everything. It is easy to sit at home and be aggressive but you should be constructive and make steps to change something.
Are politicians ready to change laws?
Well. We always try to make a dialogue. If it is not possible, we push them with laws. Previous government was completely closed, while this one said “Welcome”. We sat, talked and thought it would change but after six months we found out it was a big lie and waste of time sitting there. Nothing happened. If they are ready for a dialogue, we are okay. If they lie, we are aggressive.
In what way?
I am not very polite when I am angry. I call our council dick which does not sound nice. One night at 11 PM a friend of mine calls me that the mayor of Tbilisi wants to meet me at midnight. I thought he wanted to talk to me about work. I went into his office and he told me: “Please, don’t call me a dick.” I told him: “I will not call you a dick, if you do things right.” For one week, he was doing fine and then he returned to doing bad things.
Have you ever faced any problems like offences, threats or fines for your work? Never. In the first planting the police came and said: “Hi Nata” because they knew me from the official planting. There was one person in the Parliament who said some people should be judged for what they do. I myself wish government would do better and I could do other things. In Armenia one woman was fined for planting trees. It is crazy to pay a fine for a bush.
It is paradoxical that people who destroy the environment by building dams and cutting forests are safe, while people who do good things are fined. It’s crazy. Anyways, how does the organization work?
We are not registered anywhere. If you tell me you are a guerilla gardener, it is okay. Our main goal is to make an active population. We started with planting trees, now we want to change the regulation but we also support other movements such as cleaning activities and regulation of cars.
It sounds like it is pretty free. Were you ever tempted to become an official organization with rules and everything?
When we were becoming more popular, some people were telling us to become structured, but one of the founders of guerilla gardening in the UK told me: “In America, they make organizations, but you should stay free and it will work much better.” He was right. We don’t need a formal structure. We are fine with how we are. We have some rules but yes, we are free.
What rules do you have?
You know, it is not only about planting trees, but right trees. People want to do something great, but they don’t think about what type of tree is convenient and who will water the tree after it was planted. Expertise is needed. Now we only plant trees in neighborhoods where locals will water them.
Thinking about all the hard work, how do you manage to fight without becoming exhausted?
Sometimes I am. But when I am tired, I take rest. I can’t just stop what I started. It would be broken. I have a very good team. Over the four years, it has become more and more interesting. You learn a lot about city planning, botany, politics and so on.
What are your goals with the movement?
To go on, how it goes. I am not good at planning. In the beginning, there were managers of big companies who planned our goals on a big desk with circles and arrows and it was interesting but it did not work out. It worked out in a spontaneous way. Nobody is quitting and new people are coming. We should just be sincere and make right things in a right way and in a way we enjoy.
Thank you very much, Nata. I wish you lots of success with changing the laws and protecting Georgian environment.
Nata Peradze is an environmental activist who brought guerilla gardening movement to Georgia in 2013, a concept of planting greenery in municipal places. She studied History of Art and worked in museums in the Netherlands and in Georgia, owned a flower shop, managed a greening company and founded an ecological school. You can follow her on Facebook or watch her TED talk.
Copyright: first two photos were used with permission of jam-news.net and the other photos are from the FB group Guerilla Gardening Tbilisi