Contradictory Frameworks: Questioning Justice and Just Transitions with the Defenders of the Rioni Valley

Elisabed Gedevanishvili, Institute for Social and Cultural Research, Ilia State University

The concept of energy justice has become an important tenet of energy transitions as the latter begin to discuss what socially just, post-carbon futures would look like (Bridge et al., 2013; Heffron & McCauley, 2018; Kumar, 2022).  But, frameworks such as the Just Transition are not just theories. They have roots in specific struggles. As a bottom-up concept, it took time for ideas on justice to become a dominant way of understanding and representing energy transition movements in academic and policy settings. Today, actors widely utilise it. In Georgia, where my work is based, non-governmental organisations, initiatives, and media have slowly begun to explicitly refer to the agenda of the framework. Yet, their work had long advanced justice prior to the explicit adoption of a ‘Just Transition’ framework.  There is no denying that to ensure socially just transitions, justice is fundamental to talking about and fighting for futures and the necessary tools to bring them forward. But can justice, as a concept and a framework, represent and help us analyse situated struggles against energy injustice so that we can envision and enact transitions and transformations to energy systems?

Rather than creating the ground for rethinking energy-society relations, the energy justice framework is prone to reframing movements’ claims so that they are legitimate within the dominant politico-economic forms of governance. Here, the framework is useful to mobilising claims within the legal framework that strives towards democratic ideals.  In so doing, positions that fall outside of Western ways of being just and knowing justice, become marginalised. This preemptively demarcates the social life of energy and forecloses human and more-than-human relations to and with it that are necessary to transition into socially just and plural futures. Despite attempts to foreground arguments in bottom-up struggles, the conceptual limitations of the energy justice framework render the politics and tensions of resistance that question energy governance or advance views that relate to energy differently, invisible. Such is the story of the Movement to Save the Rioni Valley from the Namakhvani dam in Georgia.

The project to build the Namakhvani dam has roots in the country’s Soviet past. Spanning back to the modernist mission of the Soviet State to electrify Georgia, the project has, for various reasons, been revived and failed numerous times. At first, during the Soviet era, the planning was terminated due to the environmental impact the dam would have. At later stages, the project changed various investors as complications during negotiations between the state, the local population and the many investors led to reviving and halting of construction works. So, since its first inception in the late 70s, the project of Namakhvani was always a possibility. A leader of the Movement to Save the Rioni Valley tells me that she has heard grandiose stories and promises of damming her environment for as long as she can remember. Feelings of uncertainty about what might happen to her everyday environment were supplemented with neglect from the central and municipal governments. The promise of the Namakhvani dam has discouraged infrastructural development of the Lechkhumi region. The state positioned the dam of Namakhvani as the project which would guarantee economic activity, employment, and overall infrastructural development of the region. At the same time, the project has the potential to threaten local economies of winemaking in the region. Though these traditions persist until this day, they are far from enough to economically sustain livelihoods of the valley. Youngsters have moved away to more urban settings in search of work and social life, whilst many women have engaged in care work and migrated out of the region and the country. When entering the valley, one immediately notices the implications of these parallel processes on the physical environment: roads are rough, schools are empty, markets are scarce, but wine still present.

Though resistance to the Namakhvani dam is not new, the Movement to Save the Rioni Valley emerged in the 2010s, when the latest iterations of the project were formulated.  Throughout the last decade, the movement has slowly built up and has led to the termination of construction works at the dam site.  The struggle sprouted from people who felt strongly about their ties to the surrounding environment. In interviews and conversations, those involved with the movement and based in the valley often talk of their heartache rooted in the continuous underdevelopment of the region, its resulting high out-migration rate, and to a sense of a lack of future brought by the binding of the region’s fate with that of hydropower. When the Soviet State chose the valley for damming, it first promised transformation of lives to those living in close proximity to the project. The consequent unsucessful iterations of the project have coditioned affected populations to live in a state of uncertainty, as the valley is constantly readied for damming through refusals to bring any other infrastructure or state-funded programs into the valley.

Rather than stating outright whether they are against the construction of a dam, some leaders of the movement connect resistance and critique of this particular project to the hardships faced in the valley. They also acknowledge that some people might be in favour of the dam. With this in mind, the leaders of the movement elaborate on their own environmental knowledge and interactions in the valley as a form of critique. A leader of the movement talks about her bond with land-water and the labour that creates it. She notes that working with the land is what gives her time and space to think and understand the world around her. Hence, it is through labour that she forms her sense of self and the environment, of which land-water are a part of. Someone else mentions that, though we may think that a person performs labour through their agency, labouring with land, where roots are, shapes the person. In both accounts, energy through physical and mental labour and between humans and more-than-humans is central. It differs from utilitarian approaches towards energy governancr which view energy as abstract and removed from the environment. Attention to the ways in which the environment, the self, labour and energy are intertwined may start to reveal an array of interactions, like the ones described above, that remain largely out of the scope of the lens and conversations about Justice.

As the movement grows and incorporates various actors on national and international scales, the more complex web of affects with the environment in the Rioni Valley become secondary. Alternative relations to/with the land that ask us to reconsider attitudes to the environment and energy are pushed aside to formulate narratives within dominant discourses of governance and dissidence. They are distilled to the norms of transparency and participation encountered within the tenets of Justice that underpin Just Transitions and the legal frameworks that make it up. Away from the dam site, the movement’s social media and conversations with activists are narrowed to concepts of Justice and, to a certain extent, people’s rights to Georgian land. These are the claims that have led the movement to grow and incited protests against the dam in numerous cities and stirred conversations in support and opposition of the movement.

As the justice framework is a shared approach among academics, movements, and activists use it to articulate claims for socially just post-carbon futures. Therefore, employing it has the potential to attract supporters and create lasting coalitions.  In the case of the Movement to Save the Rioni Valley, the vast array of supporters who became actors for the movement— civil society organisations, academics, and grassroots activists —collaboratively intertwined justice tenets. Common goals seem to have moved to close the gap between the academic, policy, civil society subject, and the local, indigenous, object in the field that the former study or rule. But, this has had direct implications on politics and tactics of the movement as a whole. Justice unites diverging actors, whilst mediating their interactions through its ideals. Grievances and processes among varying actors harmonised over time to shape common claims to the project. Norms on which grievances could be built, depended on shared and, consequently, dominant ways of critiquing infrastructural projects and logics of justice that underpin and have the potential to keep projects in check. Lawyers, green activisits, NGOs and the movement collaborated to frame the issue around injustice. But, as actors are marked by difference across multiple axes, discursive harmonisation also led to tensions among participants within the movement. Though Justice might be a shared framework, appeals to procedural justice, participation and the ideals of democratic decision-making that underpin them, are laden with power asymmetries and hierarchies of knowledge. that affect possibilities of claims, value positions, and actors in the movement.

Ideals of Justice are not only a shared value system among activists and movements, they are also embedded in the legal framework and logics of infrastructural projects, operating within which legitimises the advanced claims. Appeals to procedural justice upend the State’s calls for energy (in)dependence and development. These appeals let the movement challenge the epistemic dimension of the project, which inherently is based on scientific ways of knowing. The Environmental Assessment (EA), that procedurally requires democratic involvement of the public in the licensing processes of infrastructural projects, was instrumental to this. Through appeals of legally outlined participation in the EA, the movement ensured that procedural injustices saw the light of day.  Although, at first glance, revealing procedural injustices mirror ideals of democratic participation, they centralise scientific ways of knowing and exclude other processes of knowledge creation. Here, actors instrumentalised participation in so far as it created space for challenging epistemic dimensions of the project and the scientific facts known about it. The procedure for the licensing of the project necessitates close studies of the environment (Environmental Assessments), its geological and climate-related characteristics, the impact they would have on the project. The predictions, tests, and studies that aim to know and define the environment generate and are rooted in scientific knowledge. Consequently, procedural justice and the attempts to argue for inconsistencies in Environmental Assessments also marshal expert knowledge. They appeal to justice by outlining legal rights of the public and respectively suing proponents.  Claims to energy, relations to land-water and non-scientific ways of knowing and being in the environment were lost to scientific arguments and, respectively, claims to Justice. Recent calls to incorporate epistemic justice in the broader framework of Justice call for creating ‘a landscape of understanding…’ (Dutta et al., 2022) that ruptures the hierarchy of knowledge that invalidates other ways of knowing and being with the environment. But these shifts have yet to enter the mainstream of energy governance in academic or policy settings.

Though the justice framework may marginalise certain positions, its practical use renders the concept constantly in flux with movements. As a result, the tensions that arise between the universalising claims of Justice and situated resistances define the justice framework. When spatialising the protest, the movement To Save the Rioni Valley, embodied the norms of procedural justice. In other words, the movement prefigured a socially just environment. The resistance ensured that all their activities were transparent and that everyone who wanted to participate in the protest had the opportunity to. The members of the movement built multiple camp sites where labour and resources were allocated equally. Guests and supporters were welcomed to stay there and participate in different forms of protest. For those who, for various reasons, could not physically visit the campsite, the movement’s Facebook page, which is active to this day, encouraged participation in the ongoing processes at the campsite. The leaders would record and live stream their activities around the site of the dam. There, members would hold fireplace public discussions and talks, stressing the importance of public participation and transparency of political processes in serving justice.  They would record meetings with officials, sometimes consensually and other times, in secret. Building on the tenets of justice, the Movement To Save the Rioni Valley created new value-positions of what Justice meant in the context of the Namakhvani dam and by doing so, further elaborated the norms of participation in infrastructural projects, protest, and their role in serving justice(s). In a way, the aspects of their prefigurative politics that focused on tenets of Justice and Just Transitions, became useful to relating with the broader public and, in this process, altered the norms for forms of governance in general, and democratic participation and transparency, more specifically.

As my case-study demonstrated, the justice framework is contradictory. On the one hand, it fails to account for how divergent understandings of the world play out in different lives of communities. Justice tenets largely fall back on Westernized ideals of democracy and well-being through distribution, recognition, and participation, imposing a political structure which deems only the fitting claims legitimate. Through these axes, the framework names injustices, documents their unravelling, and identifies areas of improvement. As the norms of the Justice Framework are legally outlined for infrastructural projects to follow, it is a useful instrument from which and within which to base the arguments of opposition. But, by bounding their claims, these normscan shape and misrepresent movements. On the other hand, movements often elaborate on justice tenets, activate the latter in specific contexts and prefigure what just futures may look like.

One thing is clear, the justice scholarship is itself a political space. The way we think and conceive of Justice engenders it and the futures it can bring. So, when speaking about post-carbon futures, we should be attuned to our positionality in relation to the field of knowledge.  By shifting focus from futures in which grand-scale extraction is justified through participation and recognition of communities, to energy-society relations, we are able to see places, peoples, knowledges, and worlds that are non-existent under capitalism (Escobar, 2016; Franquesa, 2018). In so doing, we can attempt to engage with struggles against renewable energy more concretely and analytically and hope to contribute to transfiguring existing energy systems and becoming equitable post-carbon futures.


Bridge, G., Bouzarovski, S., Bradshaw, M., & Eyre, N. (2013). Geographies of energy transition: Space, place and the low-carbon economy. Energy Policy, 53, 331–340.

Dutta, U., Azad, A. K., & Hussain, S. M. (2022). Counterstorytelling as Epistemic Justice: Decolonial Community-based Praxis from the Global South. American Journal of Community Psychology, 69(1–2), 59–70.

Escobar, A. (2016). Thinking-feeling with the Earth: Territorial Struggles and the Ontological Dimension of the Epistemologies of the South. AIBR, Revista de Antropología Iberoamericana, 11(1), 11–32.

Franquesa, J. (2018). Power struggles: Dignity, value, and the renewable energy frontier in Spain. Indiana University Press, Office of Scholarly Publishing, Herman B Wells Library.

Heffron, R. J., & McCauley, D. (2018). What is the ‘Just Transition’? Geoforum, 88, 74–77.

Kumar, A. (2022). Energy geographies in/of the Anthropocene: Where now? Geography Compass, 16(10), e12659.

Search OpenEdition Search

You will be redirected to OpenEdition Search