The Save Sinjajevina Association sends a letter to the Prime Minister and the Minister of Defense asking for a strong decision related to the creation of a NATO’s training camp.
Among other demands, the letter calls for a law to make Sinjajevina a protected site co-designed and co-governed by local communities.
The Prime Minister, Zdravko Krivokapić, and the Defense Minister, Olivera Injac, declare their willingness to study the case on a round table and agree on the need for an independent scientific study, which Save Sinjajevina argues already is ongoing.
The citizens’ initiative Save Sinjajevina sent two letters, one to the Prime Minister Zdravko Krivokapic and another to the Defense Minister Olivera Injac, with a request for a meeting to discuss and solve the problem of the military training ground still officially existing over Sinjajevina, and establishing a protected area co-governed by its traditional dwellers (farmers of Sinjajevina highlands and of the surrounding areas also using it).
The organization welcomed the first mutual communication by letter but it agrees that this must move to a higher level: “The Ministry of Defense informed us that they are trying to approach the issue of the military training ground in Sinjajevina in a professional and responsible manner. It includes a consultation with scientists and other stakeholders to determine all facts relevant to resolving the issue, but this is still not enough to solve the problem”, states Milan Sekulovik, President of Save Sinjajevina, and reminds that a European independent scientific study touching upon this case and territory is already ongoing, with the clear expectation that its results and conclusions are seriously taken into account by decision-makers and takers at Montenegrin and EU level.
“Consultation with scientists and other stakeholders is still not enough to solve the problem of Sinjajevina”.
Milan Sekulovic, President of the Save Sinjajevina Association.
In fact, in a recent TV interview, Ms. Injac was surprisingly doubtful about the cancellation of the military training ground in Sinjajevina: “it is too early to talk about that, we need to enter into a process of dialogue that may take time. We don’t need deadlines if we want to consider all the positions and stakeholders”.
Given this position of the Ministry and the Government of Montenegro, and in anticipation of the abolition of the decision on the military range in Sinjajevina made in September 2019, Save Sinjajevina insists that the installation of a military training ground in this area would violate an international UNESCO protected area. This is even more striking taking into account that it was inaugurated without any environmental impact assessment, nor a social impact assessment. While the environmental values of the Biosphere Reserveare in great part assured by the continued traditional uses of local communities dwelling in these highlands, and who would be forced out with the military ground along with the conservation values of their traditional uses.
The organization points out that, due to the possible intention of the Ministry of Defense and the Government of Montenegro as well as of NATO, to still use Sinjajevina as a military training ground, the legal procedure for establishing a protected natural area in Sinjajevina that was planned to be realized by 2020 and advised by the study of the Montenegrin Agency for Nature and Environmental Protection, co-funded by the EU and released in 2016, has been completely ran over and unfulfilled. And even if it had been included in the Spatial Plan of Montenegro, the most important official spatial planning instrument of the country. The protected area plan has been frozen and even silenced since the military ground was officially inaugurated. Moreover, the association Save Sinjajevina points at the more than possible illegality of the creation of the military ground as legal experts have started to underline nationally and internationally.
Both organizations arise an updated petition to the EU Commissioner for Neighbourhood and Enlargement and the Ministry of the Defense of Montenegro that you can sign here.
The Save Sinjajevina movement received, last Wednesday the first-ever annual War Abolisher Award by the World Beyond War (WBW) organization. Hundreds of people assisted through the on-line meeting that also included other worldwide examples of pacifist struggles.
As WBW itself recognizes, “people in Montenegro have put their bodies in the way and prevented military exercises on their land — an amazing victory! But they need our help to make their success permanent and end all efforts to build a NATO military training ground in the mountains of Montenegro.”
Families of Sinjajevina’s urge the Montenegrin Government to respect their rights and create a new decree law, cancelling the previous one in 2019, which officially inaugurated the military training ground in Sinja(je)vina.
They claim for the creation of a protected area designed and governed with their full participation, as with their traditional pastoral activity, they are the main guarantors of these ecosystems and unique landscapes.
Pedrag Puletic (video below), herb collector and beekeper, highlights the value of the Sinjajevina’s water and herb ressources that are being threatened by the military camp installation.
Sinjajevina’s rich ecology and outstanding landscapes is not only a product of nature. It is also the inherited and cumulated work of pastoralist activities over Sinjajevina’s rich ecology and outstanding landscapes is not only a product of nature. It is also the inherited and cumulated work of pastoralist activities over millennia. Indeed, this area represents an increasingly rare symbiosis between human societies and the environment in Europe, and it stands as a marvelous example of sustainable development and cultural resilience for the world as a whole.
These complex ecosystems with their unique bio-cultural diversity exist because of the thoughtful use and concerted governance by local communities through generations. The ecosystem itself has been molded by – and fully depends on – the wisdom and traditional knowledge of these communities.
“The farmers we have on the basis of our customary law, the right to use katuns located on the common lands of Sinjajevina, which are today property registered in the name of the State”.
At Sinjajevina’s inhabitants meeting.
The people of Sinjajevina know there is no place for the pollution and toxic chemicals of military weapons in a biodiversity hotspot that at the same time is their home and feeds them and their animals. They know there is no place for CO2 emitting fighter jets in an unspoilt nature. “It could have cancer effects and destroy our traditional herb remedies”, complained Puletic.
● The international organization World Beyond War announces the Save Sinjajevina Association as the recipient of the War Abolisher of 2021 Award.
● An online presentation and acceptance event, with remarks from representatives the award recipients will take place on October 6, 2021, at 5 a.m. USA Pacific Time, 8 a.m. USA Eastern Time, 2 p.m. Central European Time, and 9 p.m. Japan Standard Time.
● The event is open to all publics and will include presentations of three awards, a musical performance by Ron Korb, and three breakout rooms in which participants can meet and talk with the award recipients. Participation is free. Register here for Zoom link.
● Save Sinjajevina has launched a new global petition to avoid military camp and create a national law to create a protected area at https://bit.ly/sinjajevina
World BEYOND War is a global nonviolent movement, founded in 2014, to end war and establish a just and sustainable peace. In 2021 World BEYOND War is announcing its first-ever annual War Abolisher Awards.
World BEYOND War intends its award to go to educators or activists intentionally and effectively advancing the cause of war abolition, accomplishing reductions in war-making, war preparations, or war culture. Between June 1 and July 31, World BEYOND War received hundreds of impressive nominations. The World BEYOND War Board, with assistance from its Advisory Board, made the selections.
Background of the Civic Initiative Save Sinjajevina
Civic Initiative Save Sinjajevina (Građanska inicijativa Sačuvajmo Sinjajevinu in Serbian) is a popular movement in Montenegro that has prevented the implementation of a planned NATO military training ground, blocking military expansion while protecting a natural environment, a culture, and a millenary sustainable way of life. Save Sinjajevina remains vigilant to the danger of ongoing efforts to impose a base on their treasured pasturelands.
Opposing military bases is very difficult, but absolutely crucial to abolishing war. Bases destroy indigenous people’s and local communities’ ways of life and healthier ways to make a living. Stopping the harm done by bases is central to the work of World Beyond War. The Civic Initiative Save Sinjajevina is doing the educational and nonviolent activist work that is most needed, and with stunning success and influence. Save Sinjajevina is also making necessary connections between peace, environmental protection, and local community promotion, and between peace and democratic self-governance. If war is ever fully ended, it will be because of work like that being done by the Civic Initiative Save Sinjajevina.
Taking part in the online event on October 6, 2021, will include a briefing of past, present and future outcomes and perspectives by representatives of the Save Sinjajevina Movement (Register here for Zoom link).
● The Civic Initiative “Save Sinjajevina” and representatives of local livestock communities gathered 12th July 2021 in Petrovdan (Saint Peter’s day) at Savina’s lake to claim the two strategic goals of their future work regarding Sinjajevina.
● The revocation of the decision of the past Government of Montenegro to establish a military training ground on Mount Sinjajevina is the main goal.
● Moreover, they claim the proclamation of Sinjajevina as a protected area co-designed and co-governed by local communities.
At the moment when a military helicopter did a reconnaissance flight over Savina’s waters, the gathered citizens and representatives of local communities in Saint Peter’s day (Petrovdan, 12th July 2021) hoped for the Minister of Defense Olivera Injac to inform the Katunians one day that there would be no more military training or activity in the territory ever again.
However, the previous evening, the 11th of July, the camp on Sava Waters was visited by her homologue the Minister of Agriculture, Aleksandar Stijović, who had a conversation with the local farmers, gathered citizens and association members present, and expressed a deep understanding of the natural and livestock potential of Sinjajevina.
The gathering of Petrovdan was opened by the leader of Save Sinjajevina association, Milan Sekulović, who after welcoming everybody in the first celebration of Petrovdan after more than 20 years and that wished to recuperate this tradition of gathering different Sinjajevina tribes around the beautiful Savina lake, said that only with the unity of Sinjajevinas can we defend ourselves, just as it had been done so far. He thanked everyone who had helped the defense of Sinjajevina, because only unity and courage had saved Sinjajevina from the bombs that were stored for it in October last year.
He reminded that the gathering was preceded by an art colony, led by Todor Jovanović and then passed the word to the different local communities’ representatives.
Danilo Vukovic from Mojkovac stated that the gathering on St. Peter’s Day was not accidental, but earlier there was a tradition that on that day people gathered on Sava Lake, and on Ilindan near the Church of Ruzica. He pointed out that it is very good that the tradition of the Petrovdan gathering on Sava’s waters is being renewed.
On behalf of the residents of Lipovo, Velimi Raosavljević said that Sinjajevina should not be poisoned in any way, referring so also to the detritus that bombs leave behind, because that would mean poisoning the healthy food, water and air that are the life of Kolašin, but also of the rest of Montenegro.
Milovan Dedeić from Štitar stated that the fight for the salvation of Sinjajevina will be supported, but also the work to improve the living conditions in it, because that way it will be best protected !
On behalf of Uskok and Drobnjak, Mihailo Bulatović said that every fight requires time, ceiling and harmony, because that is how Bukovica is defended, so it will be the same with Sinjajevina. He pointed out that Sinjajevina’s danger was a for Uskoks and Drobnjaks as well, and that the people must not relax, but fight to protect it until the end, and do not trust any government much. “The decision on the landfill should be revoked as soon as possible, it is not clear to me how it has not already been done, but it seems that not much has changed”, stated Bulatović.
On behalf of the Bjelopavlić cattle breeders, Marijan Jovanović said that Sinjajevina should be left to the offspring as we inherited it, and that the Bjelopavlići will always be on the defensive side of clean and ecological Sinjajevina.
According to Veska Lakić from the Bijeli Pavle Association, only those who are not aware of the potential and wealth that Sinjajevina means, could have decided to transform it into a military training ground. He pointed out that it is good to renew folk traditions and that the Bjeplopavlićs welcome the renewal of the assembly on Sava’s waters, and that we should gather every year for St. Peter’s Day and Ilindan to celebrate the beauty of Sinjajevina.
Velizar Drljević, a cattle breeder from Vraneš in Bijelo Polje, said that the choirs would be bigger and stronger in the future, that the katuns should be strengthened, and people should be returned to them. “Let’s be more united and massive, that way we will be better, and Sinjajevina will be safer as well”, stated Drljević.
Mileva Gara Jovanović caused a special enthusiasm at the gathering, saying that she is the daughter of Sinjajevina, but also that other people who live in that region are children of that mountain like her. “Children should unanimously defend their mother, and not give it to anyone. I was thrilled To see how many people came to Margite to defend our Sinjajevina last autumn. We should continue to do that. As the mother has space for all the children, so Sinjajevina has space for all of us. I therefore calls us to be united and strong, because that is the only way we can preserve her”, stated Jovanović.
She pointed out that our people can do everything, only when they want, and that so far they have shown that they want to preserve Sinjajevina as well. “We’re here to decide. We do not give Sinjajevina, we will defend it with our bodies, we do not need weapons, the heart of a hero is enough”, said Gara.
After the different interventions, the representative of Save Sinjajevina, Petar Glomazić, stated that the national unity shown at the protests organized in October, November and December 2020 defended the mountain and prevented its hills from being bombarded. He pointed out that the first big and important battle was won, but that the job is far from being finished yet.
“We are awake, we have not fallen asleep, we have taken the first step. Sinjajevina is not only a question of Montenegro, but also of the wider region of the Balkans, of Europe and of the World. We worked to get the support of the world and we got it. The problem we have is not new, it has been faced by people in Italy, Morocco, France, India and still is ongoing in many places. The decision on the military training ground must be put out of force and we still did not achieve a legally binding agreement from the new government, but we really did not hope that seven months after the protest on Margita, we would gather today on Sava’s waters with not one single bomb dropped since then even if we are right now stepping on a still officially military training ground”, Glomazić pointed out.
He also stated that the second strategic goal of Save Sinjajevina is for Sinjajevina to be a protected area whose fate will be decided by the local communities.
“When the wisdom of the local populations is used and respected this place will be a place of prosperity”, said Glomazić.
At the end of the Katun assembly CNRS researcher Pablo Dominguez explained how Sinjajevina’s case was presented in several important international contexts, as the European Parliament, UNESCO, ICCA consortium, the International Land Coalition among others as well as different Universities, and confirmed that the defense of Sinjajevina had wide support among them as well as a strong potential of growth, because people are being able to understand the significance of the struggle and the natural, cultural and political importance of that mountain and its local communities. As he pointed out, in order for international organizations to continue to support the efforts to protect and promote Sinjajevina, it is necessary for those who gravitate around that mountain to be united.
“International organizations will have a hard time to talk to 50 or 100 people at the same time. It will be much easier for them to dialogue with you if you have one voice. In that sense, Save Sinjajevina members will visit all villages during the next year and knock on the doors of the houses in Kolašin, Mojkovac, Šavnik, Žabljak, Danilovgrad and Bijelo Polje municipalities, to work with you, to hear what you who use Sinjajevina have to propose for its defense, what issues you have and how you can present your situation abroad in a unified manner. With a unified position in defense of your territory, you will be able to apply to the United Nations to recognize Sinjajevina as an area protected by the local communities. And from University and other international organizations we will be more than happy to help you and accompany you in the process“, said Dominguez.
All the defenders of Sinjajevina have a lot of work ahead of them, and it will last even years maybe, but in some countries, battles like the one of Sinjajevina were fought for over a decade until they succeeded.
In late 2020, a coalition of national environmental and rights’ activists, pastoralists, and international NGOs resisted a military training exercise taking place in the unique Sinjajevina highlands. Following the first phase of the campaign, WRI staff met and interviewed Pablo Dominguez, an eco-anthropologist from the “Laboratoire de Géographie de l’Environnement (GEODE), CNRS, Université Toulouse (France)” who scientifically advises and collaborates with the Save Sinjajevina Association, and shared with us the significance of this precious place, the movement that led its defence, and their plans for the future.
What are the Sinjajevina highlands like? Can you describe the landscape, the people, and some of the history?
These highlands are on a huge high plateau. They are next to Durmitor, one of the oldest national parks in the Balkans, which together with Sinjajevina makes nearly 1000sqm of continuous green pasture. It seems to be the biggest mountain pasture in the Balkans, and the second biggest in Europe. It attracts a lot of pastoralists from across the country, who divide the territory between eight tribes, different groups that have traditionally used it. Within each group there are sub-divisions, at clan level. So each village goes onto one area, called a “katun”, or “pastoral quarter”. They have their own rules of managing that area, and they decide between themselves the dates in which they are allowed to come on to the land, respecting the cycle of the plants after the snow. They do so, forbid pasturing during most of the Spring, in order to allow the key species to flower and produce seeds to allow the reproduction of the system before the animals come back up to graze. Unfortunately, there is a lot of depopulation, and it’s a massive territory. There are around 250 families using Sinjajevina – roughly one person per square kilometre. Its not “empty” but there’s a very low demography.
If you look for Sinjajevina on the map, it’s just blank. To find Sinjajevina on the map, look where there are no roads and there you will define its borders – they go all around it. It has no services. No telephone, cable television, water pipes… nothing. They are left there with their luck, and it has been like this for decades. During the socialist period there were some investments and some attempts to collectivise the land, but the projects didn’t work and the people were abandoned, and as industrialisation occurred people started to leave and travel to the cities.
They live very autonomously up there. There are some trails you need to know to reach your katun, and you settle up there with your family. Some people take their animals by foot – sometimes a one-day walk, sometimes a three days walk, on established roads for the cattle. People move by horse very often still, so you have all these guys on horse following their animals – they’re real “Montenegrin cowboys”! They are orthodox Christians, but they are very rough people, like cowboys. They wake up at 3am to get the milk, to feed the animals, they prepare the butter and cheese from this milk… so they are working all the time, and they are tough and rough. They are among the strongest people I’ve ever met. They just need themselves. They don’t get much from the state, they get a little, but mostly they make their own living and the conditions are what they are up there. It’s beautiful.
What is the wider political context?
Until the 1990’s Montenegro was the closest ally of Serbia during the ex-Yugoslav wars. Milo Đukanović, the head of the Democratic Party of Socialists of Montenegro (DPS) is still today president of the country, and has been in all positions of power at the very top, for 30 years. During all these years as leader of the country he led the move westward. The country had been very pro-Russian, and practically intertwined with Serbia to the point of considering themselves as one same nation. Among others they used to write in Cyrillic, the script of the Serbian Orthodox church. But he broke with Milosevic, and then he broke his Russian affiliations. He then joined NATO in 2017, which at the time was locally considered by many, probably a majority, as crazy, because NATO had bombed Serbia and there was and still is a strong relationship today. When NATO bombed Serbia, for Montenegrins it was like they were being bombed themselves. So his turn westward created strong divisions in the country, because of course also a lot of people wanted to look westwards and join the European Union, etc. But at the same time there’s that history behind that made everything feel contradictory and wrong for many of its citizens, who were not even asked in referendum if they approved joining NATO.
Sinjajevina is critical geopolitically speaking. Montenegro is turning westwards, but it is very near the border with Serbia which still has a divided relationship with the West, and also relatively near to Kosovo where there is an important base with American troops, and Sinjajevina, where in 2019 a military ground was inaugurated by NATO allies, including USA troops, is a highland where you could develop a whole airport, a whole base, even if right now they only talk about a training ground.
So what’s the deal with the NATO training exercise?
In 2017 Montenegro joined NATO, without a referendum as said above. In 2018 they started to develop plans to turn Sinjajevina into a military training ground – it was so fast! – and in 2019 Sinjajevina was officially declared a training ground without a debate in parliament. A petition was handed in to parliament from over 6,000 people – which is a lot for a small country of about just half million adults. This petition could have legally triggered a debate in the parliament, but ‘the government wasn’t obliged to do so and decided to ignore the thousands of signatures submitted. Then, on 27th September 2019 the military ground was officially inaugurated with troops from the United States, Austria, Slovenia, Italy, North Macedonia, and Montenegro. They were all members of NATO except North Macedonia who became member just a few months later, and the whole creation of this military base just could not feel more like a NATO operation.
Montenegro’s army is very small, just over 2000 soldiers, they don’t seem to need all this land for training. Additionally, they declared the ground without any environmental impact assessment, or social, economic or health assessments publicly available. There is an exception for the military – when something is a question of national security, you don’t need to do an environmental impact assessment, but is there really a threat to national security? On 27th September they detonated half a tonne of explosives on the grasslands that were still being used by people. Also, it is a karst system, the land is full of holes, and the water runs all that detritus into the hydrological system and into the two big rivers of the country, possibly distributing the pollutants well beyond Sinjajevina. People also pick many medicinal herbs from the land which will have been sprayed with I-don’t-know-what products. And this was just the beginning, a little training to show the world. The question is how would this look if a permanent military area is fully developed?
Maybe we could move on to the movement – how did this movement build? Who led the strategy? How do all the pieces fit together?
Over the past centuries, the different tribes using Sinjajevina have been in competition over resources and access to the territory, and because of this, uniting them against this new threat was more difficult than in other circumstance. But some local environmental NGOs started to hear about this devastating plan for local communities and the environment, and people started to speak in their favour. I helped these local communities and activists to establish a strong link to a series of international organisations who defend pastoralists and local communities, and the story started to become known beyond the ex-yugoslav republics. Sinjajevina was the elephant in the room, it was so scandalous. They were planning a training ground within the Tara river basin UNESCO biosphere reserve, surrounded by national parks, even two World Heritage sites, and itself planned with the EU as a Natura 2000 protection area… it’s the part of the country with the highest density of protected areas. There was even a Regional Nature park to be declared by 2020 in Sinjajevina, but the plans stopped in 2018 when the military plan appeared.
So a movement came together, with people from the pastoralist communities and relatively younger activists from all around the country – who were able to use the internet, WhatsApp, emails… – acting as a bridge. But the whole thing was led by the young people from the region of Sinjajevina or linked to the region. A social chain formed, from all the way up in the mountains to all the way down to the capital and to the coast. There was a coalition between two social bodies – the more urban, and the more rural pastoralists, bridged by the young people. So these two social bodies reacted, but especially led by these activists that are abler to communicate between themselves and to the wider society. There were journalists, people connected to the national Green party… so all these people started moving, but outside the country there was no news until, and while doing my ethnographic works in the area about pastoral commons, I accepted to act as a bridge to a network of international NGOs. We started to connect to different international organisations, asking for help. Some key organisations started to take notice, they were touched by the case and couldn’t believe it was happening in Europe. Groups like the ICCA (Indigenous Peoples’ and Community Conserved Areas and Territories) Consortium, the International Land Coalition, Land Rights Now, and the Common Lands Network got involved.
We managed to arrange for a delegation of the European Parliament to meet the pastoralists and activists in February 2019, alongside with some NGOs and environmental scientists, while they were visiting Montenegro as part of their negotiations about Montenegro joining the EU. A blog was started, putting things on YouTube, and started to develop a national and international campaign.
In Summer 2020 the story rose several decibels with the integration of an organization called Land Rights Now. Land Rights Now is a campaigning organisation that works alongside Oxfam, International Land Coalition, and some other partners. They are experts in campaigning, with enough resources to setup an international campaign. Basically by telling the story again and again, the thing started to snowball. They knew how to do web campaigns, with Twitter and Facebook, and they pushed internationally while the local campaign pushed nationally. There were regular online meetings to prepare and keep up the campaign, making videos, and press conferences. And with this, as a kind of snowball effect, the team started to grow and we passed from just a few to several dozen.
As all this was being prepared, the team had the luck that there were national elections taking place at the end of August 2020. They were lucky, or maybe they chose well the different moments! The main political party, led by Milo Đukanović had been in power for 30 years as I said, since the fall of the ex-Yugoslavia, apparently with lots of corruption in between, but made one key and strange or very risky decision. In Spring 2020, the DPS passed a “law of religious freedom”, which mainly meant taking most of the properties away from the Serbian Orthodox Church in Montenegro. The law passed all of the property of the church to the state, unless they could prove that they owned it before the Montenegrin state united with Serbia at the beginning of the 20th century – so this was very largely understood as an attack against this fundamental church in the country. Milo Đukanović was probably trying to win more power and get a church out that he now considered foreign and linked to the opposing state of Serbia so recently in full brotherhood. People really reacted to that, with big demonstrations of people saying “don’t touch our church!”, even people who traditionally voted for the DPS, while the Serbian Orthodox Church always supported the Serbian cause. The Sinjajevina movement spoke to the patriarch of this church, and he attended protests in support of Sinjajevina. So a lot of people were connecting to the protests, and the elections were something of a culmination – it brought everything together. [The president] thought he was going to win the elections, but he passed this religious law in Spring and six months later, he lost control of the government.
There was a party Građanski Pokret URA, supported by The Greens of Europe, that was especially supporting Sinjajevina because it was an environmental issue. But there was also a relatively pro-Serb party (For the Future of Montenegro: ZBCG), who consider themselves Serbs and actually won the most votes in the last elections, and who were also supporting strongly Sinjajevina, because it is in the north, near Serbia, where they ethnically identify mostly as Serbs. This cluster of things started to come together, and translated in the opposition winning the elections.
So the government lost the elections, but the military still planned an exercise – what happened?
The campaign was ready to go in October, but the government was suddenly going to change. The transition period was normally November. The team had everything ready but didn’t expect the government to lose the elections. This became the moment to tell the new government: fulfil their promises! Before the elections these parties said they would support Sinjajevina. So the campaign was ready to shift to that, for when the new government came into power.
Nevertheless, we then heard in early October, that even if the government lost the elections and was now only transitional, the ministry of defence was planning another training exercise on Sinjajevina, from 12th October. It was unbelievable since they had lost the elections! When the government is in transition you’re not meant to make any big new decisions, you wait for the next government to come. So we were asking “who is paying these guys so well?” Of course, NATO was probably very keen to have this territory at its disposal. It didn’t make any sense that the military went up again ordered by an expiring government, but they demonstrated to be keen to start another training.
So with a campaign ready for the 6th October, and the military planning to start on the 12th, with the troop movements starting a few days before that, it just seemed the clash was going to be inevitable. At this point, people from the Montenegrin side of the campaign said they were going to organise a protest camp on Sinjajevina, and work as human shields against the new training. This also happened in part because they were so greatly encouraged by the previous six months of working with international organisations. They saw that they were not alone in this, and I guess that also helped to give them a push.
The national and international teams were lucky, but they prepared all the elements to be lucky too. The Save Sinjajevina Association went up into the mountains on Friday 9th October after launching the campaign on the 6th (press release, press conference, signature collection, video clip on youtube, etc.). The association is a group of people, environmental activists, some children of pastoralists, urban guys who sympathise, friends of the pastoralists… they’re people who are connected with the territory or the cause in some way. It wasn’t led by the pastoralists themselves, they just saw it coming and were very happy the youth were organising and gave them help and support of course. But most of them were young people that came up with their cars, and then some of the pastoralists came in the camp – they stayed with them, brought them food, slept with them, sang traditional songs around the fire… it was minus 10 degrees celsius! Everything culminated in this.
Suddenly, all Montenegro was with them, because its a David and Goliath story. Almost everyone became aware of it and felt identified with the protagonists of the protest. The team produced press releases, press conferences translated into English, Spanish, French, German, Serbian… while people were camping up there and blocking the military operations.
The military were still trying to go up and do mortar shelling, but couldn’t while there were people up there. The old government was still in power, but of course expected soon to leave. The feeling was that the decision-makers in the government wanted to be able to tell NATO “we tried but we can’t hurt anyone”. It looked like a cheap theatre piece – they tried to go in but not harm anyone. If they wanted to they could have taken the police – there was 150 people at its most, but after much less. At some point just a few dozen people and not even. They could have dismantled the camp, beat them up, get them out, and start bombing. But they probably thought that if they did that it could get worse – there was already an international campaign and some focus, and they were leaving their jobs very soon, so they took it relatively softly in reality. Its still a very violent country – journalists get killed – and if they had won the elections and NATO was pushing them strongly like we think, it would have been a very different situation. I am sure.
What they did was fantastic, it was a unique piece of work, but it was reliant on these circumstances. It took the new government months to setup, finally much longer than expected. At first they said they would be ready by the end of October so they would only have to camp for two weeks, but then they said they would declare the new government on a symbolic date in December – it was going to start to snow! People up there said “Just make the government and stop this!” Because the military did try to go up, and kept trying.
But with the core zone of the military ground occupied by protesters, then the military started to go to other places where the Save Sinjajevina Association weren’t camping. When the military went into another area, pastoralists in that area called the people in the camp, and they moved through the trails in the mountains, and placed themselves on the hills around the new site taken by the military. So if they start to use explosives it could reach those peaceful resisters… so there was a collaboration between the pastoralists and activists, a spontaneous, very human, quite heroic, improvised, citizen-based, intelligent resistance to this military use of the pastures – which still had people living on it! And it was because people called the activists who were camped, saying “there are 50 trucks coming in”! The military tried again by going even further, but in the same way locals and external activists prevented it.
What are the next steps for the campaign?
In early December the new government got in place. The new Defence Minister was from the party associated with the European Green Party. She immediately called for the dismantling of the camp, saying the military training exercises on Sinjajevina would stop at least for the time being. So that was the end of the first phase – it was felt as a huge victory, but while the ministers’ words show good intentions, and they’re very welcomed, they’re not yet legally binding. Now in 2021 there is still no protected area that ensures that this never happens again and the different new ministries (particularly three, Agriculture, Environment and Defence) are still denying the Save Sinjajevina association a meeting. So there is a need for a law that cancels the current law that grants this territory a status of “military training ground”. That is still what its status is, officially. They could go up anytime and use the land for training and they would still be protected by the law.
So the next phase that the Save Sinjajevina association is pushing for is a law that cancels the use of Sinjajevina as a military training ground, and then a law that protects the land and its traditional uses that in fact nurture and protect the local ecosystems while granting a sustainable and healthy high-quality production, as well as local livelihoods and continuity to a several centuries old culture if not millenary.
Now there is a new government, with parties that still want to work with the EU to converge. The idea is that by 2022 the military ground is cancelled, and the protected area status is recuperated, but this time integrating more importantly the local community in the decision-making. But they need pressure to make this happen. Now, the ministers of defence, the environment and agriculture – the three that are most relevant to the case of Sinjajevina – are no longer answering calls from the Save Sinjajevina Association. Before the election, and during the camp, they were friends! They came to see them up in the camp at almost 2,000 meters of altitude, to say hello, shake hands, and get their picture in the newspapers. But now they’re not picking up the phone. So Save Sinjajevina needs to make some pressure now.
They had a great campaign, and it mobilized a very and naturally dramatic narrative: some poor people are going to get bombed and they can’t do anything, and no one is helping, and it’s a jewel of biocultural diversity – its scandalous! With this image you can relatively easily get people’s attention. But now the ministry says its cancelled even if it is not really legally-wise, and so it becomes all more complex, more delicate. So now they are starting to work out how to get into the second phase. From “peace guerillas” on the ground last autumn, into a more institutional dialogue, to do things correctly, to protect the people and promote the protection of the landscape and traditional activities. We can’t just sit down and not do anything, and say “everything is fine because its finished”. It is not finished. The work still needs to be finished, and in this sense, science can also contribute greatly.
● 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.”
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 region.
Ensure the land rights of traditional pastoralist dwellers and open consultation with local communities to create a community protected area in Sinjajevina.
European Union should ask for the removal of the military training ground in Sinjajevina as a pre-condition for Montenegro’s EU membership.
Dozens of NGOs and scientists have launched a European campaign (#MissionPOSSIBLE) and an Avaaz petition to press the demand.
Local and international environmental and rights groups have urged the Montenegro government and the European Union to scrap the project to militarize the Sinjajevina highland pastures. Montenegro and the EU should listen to the local communities in the country’s Sinjajevina mountain grassland, they said.
At the heart of Montenegro, the Sinjajevina-Durmitor mountain range is surrounded by over 22,000 people living in small towns and hamlets. It forms part of the Tara Basin UNESCO Biosphere Reserve and is bordered by two UNESCO World Heritage sites, which is at the same time the inherited and cumulated work of pastoralist activities over millennia still ongoing. Indeed, this area represents a genuine example of sustainable development and cultural resilience for Europe and the world as a whole.
“Saving Sinjajevina is a global cause, not just for Montenegrins. Global civil society organizations and several scientists expressed grave concern in large parts of pastureland become inaccessible, risky and under threat to locals”.
Land Rights Now global campaign.
Recent actions by the government of Montenegro to convert a large part of this traditional and unique pastoral territory into a military training ground led to local communities, civil society groups and academics to organize a defense of these highly valuable pasturelands and cultures, to establish a community-led protected area.
Several local and international groups have issued statements to express solidarity with local people to protect Sinjajevina like for example the ICCA Consortium through its newsflash, or the LRN (Land Rights Now) led statement published in August 2020 and supported by nearly 100 NGOs. In it, the local Save Sinjajevina Association noted that Montenegro wants to be part of the European Union and, to that purpose, it must respect and protect European values, including the EU’s New Green Deal and biodiversity strategy adopted in mid-2020. The local civil society groups said the ongoing project to militarize the region is in direct contradiction with the recommendation of a 2018 study co-funded by the EU that expected the creation of a protected area in Sinjajevina by 2020. The Save Sinjajevina Association with its EU collaborators has also launched an Avaaz petition to Olivér Várhelyi, EU Commissioner for Neighbourhood and Enlargement, to urge the European Union to include as a pre-condition for Montenegro’s EU membership to close up the military training ground in Sinjajevina and to open consultations with local communities to create a community-led protected area.
The Save Sinjajevina Association states that for many generations, the seasonal highland pastoral settlements (katuns) in the territory of Sinjajevina, belong to eight major tribal groups. Each tribal group has its own rules of land governance concerning the timing of access to pastures and the ways of using them to guarantee its conservation and their sustained use supporting their livelihoods and millenary cultures.
The Save Sinjajevina Association also stated that, in addition to the loss of access to traditional pasturelands, they fear that the militarization of the area will lead to physical risk, human casualties, air pollution, crop, and animal damage, loss of economic value of their production, loss of livelihoods, wildlife and agrobiodiversity loss, and reduced ecological and hydrological connectivity. Over twenty thousand people and businesses of the region will be deeply affected socially and economically.
Describing the current situation as an evolving crisis in Sinjajevina’s territories of life, the ICCA Consortium, one of the signatory NGOs of the AVAAZ petition, has called the Montenegro government to stop all military linked construction activities in the environmentally and culturally critical Sinjajevina region. The ICCA Consortium also states that Montenegro government’s plans to occupy Sinjajevina private and common highlands which have already started to be used as a military artillery testing range while people are still present in the pastures, threatens pastoralist and farming communities since the military ground was inaugurated in 2019.
For its part, the Land Rights Now coalition said saving Sinjajevina is a global cause, not just for Montenegrins. It expressed grave concern in recent developments that have seen large parts of pastureland become inaccessible, risky and under threat to locals because of the plans to establish a military training ground. The coalition urged governments and others in power to act to secure land rights of local communities in the pastureland.
Members of the Land Rights Now movement, including the International Land Coalition, Oxfam, and Rights and Resources Initiative have said that pastoralist tribes of Sinjajevina should always have the last word in what happens in their highland territories. These local communities have created, managed and conserved this uniquely valuable landscape that is increasingly rare in Europe and wish to be at the center of the conservation and governance efforts of their territory, while for now they are at risk of losing the lands and sustainable way of life that they have built generation after generation for at least the last 3.000 years.
Dozens of families met to discuss about Sinjajevina’s situation regarding the installation of a military polygon and came into a main conclusion: Montenegrin Government has to respect their right to consultation.
Stanija Braunovic (video below), plant collector, talks about biodiversity at Sinjajevina and why it should be protected as a sanctuary.
Sinjajevina’s rich ecology and outstanding landscapes is not only a product of nature. It is also the inherited and cumulated work of pastoralist activities over millennia. Indeed, this area represents an increasingly rare symbiosis between human societies and the environment, and it stands as a marvelous example of sustainable development and cultural resilience for Europe and the world as a whole.
These complex ecosystems with their unique bio-cultural diversity exist because of the thoughtful use and concerted governance by local communities through generations. The ecosystem itself has been molded by – and fully depends on – the wisdom and traditional knowledge of these communities.
“The farmers we have on the basis of our customary law, the right to use katuns located on the common lands of Sinjajevina, which are today property registered in the name of the State”.
At Sinjajevina’s inhabitants meeting.
Regarding the installation of a military polygon, dozens of families depending on Sinjajevina to survive, gathered in different meetings to discuss about it and claim for a solution to their national Government. Here is the joint statment after the meeting:
“The Government never consulted us, nor provided us information from any relevant and independent empirical study regarding the possible adverse impacts on the environment or the populations of Sinjajevina, that might result from the proposed military camp. Even when the Government was handed a petition urging the protection of Sinjajevina signed by over 3.000 Montenegrins (the minimum necessary to open a public debate in the national parliament), the parliament simply ignored it, just as it ignored similar requests from the EU. Instead, the Government offered a study done in another military ground in Macedonia, in a completely different ecosystem, as a way to avoid providing first-hand information on the environmental impacts of Sinjajevina’s militarization, by which at the same time totally ignored any reference to the potential social impacts of the artillery ground that is of the utmost importance to us!
We would like to call attention upon a church dedicated to St. Basil which we believe should be protected as a cultural monument and not threatened by a bombing ground. We ask the government to support our youth to continue our legacy and not deprive them. The farmers we have on the basis of our customary law, the right to use katuns located on the common lands of Sinjajevina, which are today property registered in the name of the State. Moreover, local communities even claim that not only the common lands are being taken away from them by the military polygon, but even numerous private property plots are going to be hoarded by the State in the construction of the military camp even if the officially recognized owners have not given consent to transform them in a military ground! Many of the villagers have no other option for their living and livestock breeding than Sinjajevina!
Also, there is a large number of herbs that are medicinal, collected, sold, providing important livelihoods. Also a large number of us are engaged in beekeeping and we believe that a military training ground would destroy that branch of our livelihoods too. Villagers we are particularly preoccupied because a strong military presence in their territories would bring a strong disturbance in the region. Moreover, we fear that the artillery polygon will lead to disruption of groundwater flows and disappearance of existing sources, as well as soil and water pollution, and therefore also the villages and the cities below the highlands of Sinjajevina. No one will want to buy the meat or dairy products of an animal fed on a military training ground! And do tourists that complement our economies need to listen to the artillery shooting on Sinjajevina during the winter or summer seasons?? Farmers fear also being harmed by weaponry, or what would be worse, that our children are harmed, as also many unexploded bombs can stay behind! Already in the last NATO military training on Sinjajevina in September 2019, they started shooting up there when people were still with their animals in the pastures!! Most of us don’t leave until November and already a flock of goats was lost in the middle of the stress of the shooting. One animal even died falling from the rocks, but nobody defends us. We local farmers say that we would be ready to camp on the mountain like others did to defend their rivers and will not allow Sinjajevina’s destruction. We do not give the mountain at the cost of our living. Our mountain is ours, not the Government’s nor the NATO’s!”
[ GUEST POST ] @ Dr Maja Kostić-Mandić. Professor of Environmental and International Environmental Law. University of Montenegro, Faculty of Law. Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org
The richness in terms of biodiversity and natural beauty in Montenegro are rather unique among European countries, and the Montenegrin State is fully aware of its great value and economic potential. This is made clear in the country’s 2007 Constitution, adopted when Montenegro gained its full sovereignty and independence from the ex-Yugoslavia and Serbia. The language in this defining document describes the new State as an ‘ecological one’ and, through it, “theoretically” guarantees its citizens a healthy environment as a universal right (Article 23: Everyone shall have the right to a sound environment. Everyone, the state in particular, shall be bound to preserve and improve the environment). This supreme legal document, the most important legal instrument in the country, further stipulates that everyone shall have the right to timely receive full information about the status of the environment, to influence the decision-making regarding the issues of importance for the environment, and to the legal protection of these rights.
At the same time, there are numerous ratified international conventions and general legal principles that, pursuant to Montenegro’s Constitution, prevail over its national legislation, such as the UN Aarhus Convention of which Montenegro is a Party. Also, as a candidate country for accession to the EU, Montenegro is obliged not only to transpose but also to implement international and, most particularly, European environmental standards as defined in the Green New Deal for Europe, as well as in the relevant EC directives (EIA Directive 85/337/EEC). Moreover, the Constitution introduces the relevance of natural and cultural heritage and provides for its protection (Article 78: The State shall protect the natural and cultural heritage).
“Montenegro is obliged not only to transpose but also to implement international and, most particularly, European environmental standards”
For all of these reasons, one would expect Montenegro’s policy and decision-making concerning the environment, very conscientious and efficient. However, at this time, Montenegro is not a functional democracy but, rather, a country where decisions are often made far from the public eye, with no transparency or any prior expert analysis. Some preliminary information about the new military camp had been provided prior to its inauguration on the 27th of September 2019, but more symbolically than anything (e.g. Defense Minister’s presentation in Kolasin in May 2018). Indeed, the form, content and reasoning that lay behind the decision to militarize Sinjajevina are still not publicly available, and the decision to turn this traditional pastureland into a military landfill involved no proper consultations with, nor participation of, the directly affected stakeholders (i.e. local pastoral communities, water-bottling companies, producers of gastronomic specialties, and the eco-tourism economy of Sinjajevina). The Montenegrin citizens were informed as a fait accompli, about their Governments’ official decision on September 5, 2019, and without a proper debate or participation in the decision, its de facto inauguration came as a surprise to most of the general public, and most dramatically to the local communities concerned. In fact, the Spatial Plan of Montenegro until 2020 identified (and still identifies) Sinjajevina as an area that should become a Regional Nature Park before the end of 2020.
The future of Sinjajevina is crucial not only for Montenegro, but well beyond its borders: it is a site of rich cultural heritage, an area of great biodiversity and a reference for its natural beauty. The decision-making in this important case needs to be measured, thoughtful, and inclusively. Over 22.000 people live in the slopes around these mountain pasturelands, and approximately 250 families have their farms within the Sinjajevina highlands. Pursuant to the Constitution of Montenegro, and the terms of the UN Aarhus Convention (see for example pp. 133-134), previously to any military implantation, the Government must, precisely justify ‘if public participation in the decision-making process, would have a clearly adverse effect on national defense’ in order to omit public participation.
The decision to turn Sinjajevina into a military landfill involved no proper consultations with, nor participation of, the directly affected stakeholders
The Government provided no justification whatsoever to exempt its decision-making process from open and public review when considering whether or not to construct a military camp in Sinjajevina. Without any relevant study on the social and environmental impact of this action, nor any substantial negotiation with the directly affected populations, and with no public record of the “national defense exemption test” cited here above, the Government’s decision to inaugurate a military camp in the heart of these inhabited and ecologically valuable pasturelands, as it has unfolded over the past two years, is clearly arbitrary, grievously flawed, and stands in violation of the Montenegrin Constitution and International Environmental Law, as well as of the UN Aarhus Convention of which Montenegro is a Party.