Montenegro’s Government flawed decision-making process in the militarization of Sinjajevina

[ GUEST POST ] @ Dr Maja Kostić-Mandić. Professor of Environmental and International Environmental Law. University of Montenegro, Faculty of Law. Contact: majak@t-com.me

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.

Local demonstration against Sinjajevina military camp held in Pogdorica

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.

EU Delegation visits Montenegro and asks nation’s parliament to guarantee protection to Sinjajevina’s lands and culture

European parliamentarians recommended an independent study of the social and environmental impacts caused by the military’s installations in this UNESCO protected area. The Montenegrin pro-government deputies’ majority rejected the proposal.

CHECK HERE the full session. If you go to minute 2h30’20’’ you will also be able to see one of the European Parliamentarians defend dearly the UNESCO Biosphere Reserve of the Tara river and UNESCO heritage sites in the midst of the inter-parliamentarian debate about Sinjajevina.

The Parliamentary Committee for Stabilization and Association of the European Union and Montenegro visited the country over a span of three days, February 24 – 26, 2020. After two days of intense meetings, the EU Parliament Committee published a Declaration that included recommendations for the Montenegrin Parliament and Government to align their national politics with the European Union’s adhesion requirements, emphasizing in particular the importance of respecting all EU standards, and very particularly the European Green Deal aimed at tackling climate and environmental-related challenges that is Europe’s new generation’s defining task!

European Parliamentarians also called for an amendment to underline “the need for an independent study of the social and environmental impact of the military landfill in Sinjajevina”.

The Montenegrin government had agreed to receive the EU Delegation in order to discuss, evaluate and guide Montenegro’s advances in terms of rule of law and political procedures, with the goal of helping the country align itself more closely with the European Union’s standards. The EU-Montenegro interparliamentary’s Declaration’. was published on Februrary 26th, at the close of a 3-hour session at the Montenegrin Parliament. This Declaration expressed particular concern about Montenegro’s nature conservation, advising that “Utmost caution is called in UNESCO-protected areas, including the Tara River and the Sinjajevina mountain area, where in September 2019 a military training and weapons testing area was established within the UNESCO Biosphere Reserve”. The Declaration also pointed out the importance of “preserving the cultural and pastoral traditions of local communities”. During this 3-hours inter-parliamentary session, the European Parliamentarians also called for an amendment to be included in the Declaration in order to underline “the need for an independent study of the social and environmental impact of the military landfill in Sinjajevina“. Nevertheless, most unfortunately, the Montenegrin Parliament, backed up by its pro-government deputies’ majority and a parliament with a diminished opposition due to its current boycott to the government, did not allow the study to go forward. In such context, the Save Sinjajevina Association representatives said after the session that “this is one of the very few EU points that the Montenegrin government did not endorse. The other being a call for the protection of Sinjajevina… These refusals signals the Montenegrin government’s unwillingness to cooperate with the EU in the case of Sinjajevina, and further isolates the country in the face of EU standards and international policies, as this happens little after the criticisms already received by UNESCO’s World Heritage Centre and IUCN Advisory joint mission in 2018!”.

“The Montenegrin Government is scared of independent studies that demonstrate the nonsense of causing irreversible devastation to our natural, cultural and historical heritage”.

Civil society representatives attending the meeting with europarliamentarians.

As early as Monday 24 of February, the first day of the EU’s visit to Montenegro, Members of the European Parliament (including the Chair of the EU Delegation, Vladimir Bilcik of the Christian Democrats, and the co-chair of the European Greens, Thomas Waitz) had an official meeting with Montenegrin representatives of the movement against the militarization of Sinjajevina.  The Montenegrin Sinjajevina defenders included Mileva Jovanovic a local farmer of one of the most important pastoral commons of Sinjajevina, Aleksandar Perovic the Director of Ozon, the most important environmental NGO in the country, Gordana Kasom the Director of the study about Sinjajevina that was undertaken by the Agency for Nature and Environmental Protection of Montenegro, and Mileta Radovanic the Secretary General of the URA Party, the Greens of Montenegro. This meeting took place before the Declaration issued by Montenegro’s Parliament and added greatly to the EU’s first-hand knowledge and understanding of the situation in Sinjajevina, that motivated further the EU’s defense of Sinjajevina at the Montenegrin Parliament Wednesday 26th February.

After Montenegro’s Parliament rejection to an independent study of the social and environmental impact of the military landfill in Sinjajevina and the protection of this territory, the representatives of the civil society that attended the meeting concluded that the Montenegrin Government is “scared of independent studies that would evaluate its efforts to turn this territory of life into a territory of death and destruction as a military ground; the nonsense of causing irreversible devastation to our natural, cultural and historical heritage, groundwater, medicinal plants, the Tara River basin and the mountain landscapes of Sinjajevina.”.

Fast-grow conifer to block local shepherds and their livestock

Mile Filipović is a shepherd and farmer from Bjelasica Mountain, a nearby territory from the Sinjajevina pastures, which he usually visits with his livestock.

When he first realized that some soldiers where moving around the communities’ pastures, he was really shocked.  “They do not need to turn Sinjajevina into a military training ground, as they would expel the people from here, we live from this ground!”.

“Agriculture and shepherding are more important than a military training ground!”.

As other regional peasants, Filipović understands Sinjajevina’s value is not only for them but for the whole ecosystem. “Agriculture and shepherding are more important than a military training ground” he said, “they want to destroy everything!”.

But, among all the non-informed military movements, there is one which specially concerns Filipović: a fast-grow pine plantation delimiting the military camp.

In October 2019, soldiers planted 3,000 conifers to delimit the training camp and forbid shepherds to cross it. “They can’t grow here!” the farmer said, “those pines are not an original tree species of this region and block our livestock from passing”.

“It was a show! Claims out Filipović. ”They (the government) all talk about the development of agriculture, but this kind of actions demonstrate that they are absolutely not concerned about that”.

From a ‘Territory of Life’ to a ‘Territory of Death and Destruction’? Save Sinjajevina!

[ GUEST POST ] @ By Save Sinjajevina Association. Originally published at ICCA Consortium site

Sinjajevina is an extraordinary mountain pastoral territory that extends over 600 square kilometers in the Dinaric Alps of Montenegro. It is the most extensive mountain pasture in the country and the second biggest in Europe. The land is used by transhumant herders, who move with their animals to spend the summer in the highland pastures of Sinjajevina and return to spend the winter in the valley at lower altitudes. Situated in the central-northwestern part of Montenegro, Sinjajevina is characterized by vast, continuous grasslands at altitudes between 1600 and 2100 m, bordered by the canyons of the Tara and Morača rivers, and surrounded by dense and diverse forests of pine and beech trees.

For many centuries, Sinjajevina has hosted seasonal mountain settlements locally known as katuns. Access to the katun commons pastures for summer grazing has been essential to the livelihoods of the people of Montenegro and a defining feature of many tribes in the country. The transhumance practice is based on the system of internal allocation of common grazing rights that are part of the ancient Montenegrin tribal system, governed by egalitarian assemblies. The Montenegrin tribal organizations are central to the history and culture of the country and have been officially recognized since the beginning of the 20th century.

Changes in the social and demographic structure within Montenegrin society in the second half of the 20th century led to the near abandonment of the katun system in Montenegro. The gradual demographic loss of people in the mountains endangered the preservation of traditional livelihoods on a national scale, and it threatened the sustainability and survival of the very systems that created, and continue to sustain, a unique and outstanding mountain natural and cultural heritage. In this context, Sinjajevina is especially critical.  It has experienced important demographic loss, but it still retains some of the best-conserved traditional examples of katuns in the country.

Sinjajevina includes the katun communities of livestock farmers from the municipal capitals of Savnik, Zabljak, Mojkovac and Kolasin, Danilovgrad, Bijelo Polje and Pljevlja. According to the studies of the Podgorica Agricultural Institute and others, the pasture of Sinjajevina can sustain the grazing of 10.000 cows and 70.000 sheep and their offspring during the four summer months.

At present, there is a growing scientific awareness that pastures governed by local communities offer a positive model for human livelihoods and for sustainable environmental management at a global scale, as millions of square kilometers around the world are managed adaptively in this way and provide numerous ecosystem benefits as well as sustaining important levels of biodiversity, soil retention, and carbon sequestration – our best and most natural tool in the fight against climate change. At the same time, this way of life provides highly meaningful livelihoods and is equitable in many ways. Nevertheless, pastoral systems are undergoing swift degradation processes worldwide for a variety of reasons: poor recognition of the value of the commons on which they depend, demographic changes, incentivized integration into the market economy, land grabbing by private companies or state agencies, changes in the power hierarchies between central powers and local communities, climate change, etc.

The livelihoods and extraordinary natural and cultural heritage that Sinjajevina supports include unique biodiversity, as well as ecosystem services on which both the local and distant communities rely upon. As for the multiple values of the landscape, this territory is connected at the East to the UNESCO Biosphere reserve protected canyon of Tara river. Moreover, to the North of Sinjajevina lies the most paradigmatic National Park of Montenegro, one of the oldest of the Balkans, which is also UNESCO World Heritage Site.

The Montenegrin state is fully conscious of Sinjajevina’s enormous cultural and natural values, because an extensive study was completed in May 2019 in support of its recognition as a protected area. The effort to create a natural park in Sinjajevina began in December 2013, with a project co-funded by the European Union. The EU covered 67% of the total budget of 290,494.47€, and the rest was provided by the Montenegrin state. The work went on for 35 months and resulted in a comprehensive overall study by the Environmental Protection Agency of Montenegro. The study included: a conservation analysis on which to base the declaration of the Natural Park; the establishment of a Manufacturers Association; the mapping of potential hiking, biking, skiing and eco-tourist sites; a feasibility study and technical design for the reconstruction of the road networks; the design of a functional inter-municipal mechanism to manage the proposed Sinjajevina Natural Park; an evaluation of the natural and cultural values of the territory; and a set of conclusions that recommended the area be offered an important level of protection. It is clear to many in Montenegro that the area has a future as a ‘territory of life’ where biological and cultural diversity interact, and where the Montenegrin communities can nourish a healthy and prosperous future.

Polygon and proposed protected area.

Despite all of the above, today Sinjajevina faces its most serious challenge ever… and a potential future as ‘territory of death and destruction’.  This irreplaceable area is threatened by the establishment of an artillery testing camp that would irreparably damage its unique socio-ecosystem and the living landscapes built over countless generations of Montenegrin pastoralists.

Polygon and UNESCO site in red.

With undue haste, and a worrying lack of transparency that has gone unexplained to the public, the Montenegrin state has suddenly changed its plan toward this outstanding area from protected area to bombing range,  a change most probably fueled by NATO military interests searching for “cheap” land to damage and destroy in ways the agency would not dare proposing in countries where the local communities have a stronger say in the political arena.

The pastoral communities that now govern the Sinjajevina highlands on the basis of their customary system of collective grazing rights, tribal identity, and traditional governance, have full title to enjoy the protections established under the United Nation Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. Therefore, all national and international actors have the obligation to adopt the relevant procedures. The farmers and pastoralists of Sinjajevina have a right to Full, Prior and Informed Consent processes before any major new initiative with potentially irreparable consequences is conceived, let alone implemented.  The choice between maintaining these highlands in the outstanding natural conditions in which they are today, or turning them into a military artillery testing area, should be in the hands of the Sinjajevina communities.

In fact, the farmers, pastoralists, biodiversity lovers and allies of Sinjajevina are crystal clear in their wishes.  They are raising their voices to the sky to reach everyone who can possibly help. They need the support of the rest of the world to ask the Montenegrin state to STOP the artillery site and to reverse its destructive plan for Sinjajevina. They ask to promote and support its flourishing system of socio-ecological life that has taken thousands of years to evolve – instead of bombing it out of existence!

The authors of this article have created the SAVE SINJAJEVINA Association and are convinced that the only thing that can stop this atrocity is widespread awareness and massive support from the local, national and international community. You, the reader of this article, can support us all! We will soon share a petition to be signed and shared. For the time being, please forward this article and talk about us to your friends, neighbors, and colleagues. Send us your advice. You can reach us at this e mail address: sacuvajmosinjajevinu@gmail.com

Public demonstrations opposing the militarization of Sinjajevina have already started – the latest took place on September 20, 2019 in Montenegro- and will continue and intensify in the months ahead. We vow to continue organizing!  Please think of us and help as much as you can, in any way you can!