Montenegrin protesters successfully stop NATO training on Sinjajevina’s pastures

● A protest camp by local community members prevented the military from entering the area in snowy and sub-zero conditions from October to December

● The Minister of Defense of the incoming government, Olivera Injac, called off the military training and assured protesters that she will reassess plans to militarise the area. Now, herders and activists demand secure land rights and an open negotiation to create a community protected area.

● Sinjajevina is the Balkan’s biggest mountain grassland, a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve, and a vital ecosystem for Europe with over 22,000 people living in the area

● To support community demands, NGOs and scientists have launched a European campaign and petition (#MissionPOSSIBLE).

By Save Sinjajevina Association, Land Rights Now, ICCA Consortium, ILC & Common Lands Network.

For 51 days, community members and activists braved snowy and sub-zero weather in a protest camp at the foot of Margita mountain, epicentre of an area designated for military training by the outgoing Montenegrin government. Camping within the site earmarked for the army, they successfully prevented the military from accessing their pastures.

Their aim was to maintain a blockade until a new government, more sympathetic to Sinjajevina’s plight, was installed. An unexpected delay in the transition triggered a game of cat and mouse between herders and the military and made headlines in Montenegro and abroad.

A few days ago, on December 5, 2020, the new Minister of Defense, Olivera Injac, announced that there would be no military training and invited protesters to go home. She committed to examining all documentation related to Sinjajevina and to talk to the local residents as soon as the opportunity arises.

But locals and activists of the Save Sinjajevina association are only temporarily relieved. Their original demands remain valid: 1) to scrap the decree establishing the military training ground, and 2) to create a protected area that is co-designed and co-governed by local communities.

Through their association “Save Sinjajevina”, they are inviting the Prime Minister, the Minister of the Defense and the Minister of Sustainable Development and Tourism, to sit and negotiate with them.

The fight to save Sinjajevina

The struggle to “Save Sinjajevina” started in September 2019, when the then government, supported by NATO allies, established a military training ground in the very heart of these community lands and Biosphere Reserve, without any social, economic and environmental impact assessment or consultation of the affected pastoral communities. Midway through the process of declaring a protected area as a Regional Natural Park, the government inaugurated an artillery polygon in the area and began military training and weapons testing with NATO allied forces from the USA, Italy, Austria, Slovenia and North Macedonia.

Despite losing the August 2020 election, the outgoing government held fast to the planned military exercise to take place during the transition period. The army visited local residents, warning them to leave the area with their cattle as military operations were scheduled for October 19-23.

Cattle breeder Zeljko Radonjic and his family have been going out to a katun, a mountain settlement for summer grazing, a few kilometers away from the location designated for the military ground. “It is foolish to do something like that and destroy the pasture, perhaps the largest in Europe. All reasonable people are against it. We are ready to defend the mountain with our lives, ” said Željko.

In addition to the loss of access to traditional pasturelands, local community members fear that the militarization of the area will lead to human casualties or injuries, air, water and pasture pollution, wildlife and agrobiodiversity loss, reduced ecological connectivity and crop and animal damage and loss of economic value of their production.

Local and international environmental and rights groups have urged the Montenegro government and the European Union to scrap the project to militarize the area, which threatens unique ecosystems and local communities in the Balkans’ biggest mountain grassland.

The Sinjajevina-Durmitor mountain range is part of a natural park and bordered by two UNESCO World Heritage sites. Home to more than 22,000 people, it is used and managed communally by eight different Montenegrin tribes. The area represents a genuine example of sustainable development and cultural resilience for Europe and the world as a whole. Saving Sinjajevina is symbolic of a much wider struggle for land, life and common ways of organizing

The military pressure on Sinjajevina is just one example of the many threats rural commons are facing today. Traditional systems and customary laws are not recognised by nation states, who consider such land to be state property despite the fact that the local communities who are currently using them and managing them have done so for centuries, often even since before the states themselves were created.

“The pastoralist tribes of Sinjajevina should always have the last word in what happens in their territories”, said Sabine Pallas of International Land Coalition, one of the co-conveners of the Land Rights Now campaign, “local communities have created, managed and conserved this uniquely valuable landscape that is increasingly rare in Europe and deserve to be at the center of the conservation and governance efforts of their territory.”

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