The dark soils of the area rank among the most fertile in the world. The fields are mainly irrigated with the water of the Mashavera River, stretching through the valley. Via a system of canals water is distributed to fields and gardens.
However, the water is highly contaminated by toxic heavy metals such as arsenic, lead, cadmium and mercury. With the water and the particulate matter in it, these toxic heavy metal legacies have been spread on the soil of the region for decades. The fields exceed the usual threshold values by up to 30 times, and have thus become a potential source of danger. The crops cultivated here mainly serve the own needs of the local population, but are also marketed in cities even as far as the capital Tbilisi. The distinct origin of this pollution is the »Madneuli« opencast pit, located right above the miner village Kazreti. It is the largest non-ferrous metal opencast mine in Georgia. Since 1974, it has mined about 60,000 tonnes of copper and an estimated 2,000 kilograms of gold per year. In the future, the production volume is supposed to be increased significantly. The company employs about 60% of the local population.
Resulting heavy metal waste and separation process residues are deposited in open stockpiles. Until now, no adequate protection and recultivation measures have been undertaken to stabilize these stockpiles. Therefore, the poisonous material is directly exposed to the effects of weather. Caused by precipitation the stockpile material erodes in several smaller streams, feeding and transforming the Mashavera into one of the most heavily contaminated watercourses in Georgia. Over the course of the River Kura, its heavily loaded water ends up in the Caspian Sea.
Extent and nature of the ecotoxicological transfer of heavy metals into the food chain are well known since they have been examined thoroughly between 2005 and 2012 by the University of Giessen, Germany. However, no protective measures have been undertaken. The cancer rate in the Mashavera Valley is exceptionally high – above the Georgian average.
In addition to the ecological drawback, the mine is destroying cultural heritage, too. Gold mining in the Mashavera Valley goes back to the early Bronze age. The »Sakdrissi Mine«, discovered in 2004, was the oldest known gold mine in the world: over 5,000 years old. The site was declared a historic monument shortly after its discovery. On request of the mine operator and with the consent of the Georgian Ministry of Culture, Sakdrissi was again deprived of the protection status. Despite massive protests and an ongoing legal process, the Bronze Age mine was irrevocably destroyed in 2013.