Interview: Milan Sekulović, President ‘ Save Sinjajevina’, Montenegro
Sinjajevina forests and the pastoralists living there are facing an existential threat because of the military base building up there without consultation with the local communities. Sinjajevina is the lung of Montenegro, a country formerly part of Serbia and Yugoslavia. Vidya Bhushan Rawat met the head of the Save the Sijnajevina campaign Mr Milan at the Global Land Forum in Jordan recently and interviewed him about the situation there in his country.
By Vidya Bhushan Rawat
Sinjajevina forests located in Montenegro in the Balkans are rich in biodiversity where pastoralists and other forest dwellers lived in complete harmony with nature. Growing militarisation is impacting not only our environment but also threatening to uproot communities who have lived in the forest for years and sustained it. Amidst war cries in Europe when powerful nations are determined to fight to ensure their dominance, it is important to listen to a story often forgotten in the din of other noise. When our forest resources are being attacked and communities being threatened, uprooted and criminalised if they protest, important to stand up with people. Sinjajevina kind of issues exists in all parts of the world where ‘developmental’ paradigms are threatening our natural resources and communities. Important for the international community to stand up with indigenous people, and pastoralists who live with nature and protect our natural resources.
Many of our current generation of people might not even have heard of the country called Montenegro. It declared independence on June 3rd, 2006 after a referendum to dissociate with Serbia. With a population of about 620000, Montenegro was part of Yugoslavia and since 22nd October 2007, it is now known as Montenegro and has an area of 13,812 square kilometres. In June 2017, it became a member of NATO which reportedly divided public opinion in the country as the majority might want to be a member of the European Union for developmental purposes as well as access to the vast European market but not to NATO. It is still not a member of the EU but it hopes that it will become an EU member by 2025. Now, NATO wants to build a military base in Sinjajevina, which borders two of UNESCO’s heritage sites and has more than 500 families with about 3000 people totally dependent on it.
From July 8th till July 15th, the Save Sinjajevina Solidarity camp is being organised in which huge international participation is expected. The activists will interact with the communities who are fighting for the protection of Sinjajevina as well as their own rights over resources. The Save Sinjajevina campaign wants European Union to stop funding or support of converting this important pasture land into a military base.
While many in the Indian subcontinent might not have heard of Montenegro but the fact is India had warm relations with them as our friend Milan says. India and Yugoslavia had strong relations, particularly between Prime Minister Indira Gandhi and President Joseph Tito, two leaders deeply devoted to the non-aligned movement and camaraderie among the developing countries. Indira Gandhi became a popular leader here and even today many people name their daughters Indira.
I met with an activist journalist representing ‘Save the Sinjajevina Campaign’ at the Global Land Forum 2022 at the Dead Sea, Jordan and this conversation is his response through email. Global Land Forum attracted more than one thousand activists, academics, NGOs, Social movements and Intergovernmental organisations, and government agencies the world over where the issue of Pathway to the climate solution, protection of our environment and sustainable development through inclusion and involvement of local communities, indigenous people were discussed powerfully by delegates. Important for all of us to understand how communities are fighting for their rights and how militarism is actually damaging the indigenous people and pastoralists. Global Land Forum is also the place where you meet like-minded activists, community leaders, and academics and share your ideas, express solidarity beyond the agenda and develop extremely personal relationships to support a cause or a community. Many times, you come across communities and countries of which you are not much aware but it is an opportunity to interact and share with others the issues concerning. For me, the issue of Sinjajevino’s pastoralists, raised by the #landrightsnow campaign was extremely important and I expressed my solidarity with the campaign. Milan is 32 years old the son of a farmer from Sinjajevina. He graduated from the Faculty of Political Sciences and has been working as a journalist for 13 years, and he has been an environmental activist for almost five years. He calls Montenegro a hybrid democracy. “A hybrid democracy rules Montenegro though earlier they were a communist country during Yugoslavia’, he says. ‘Freedom House’ report 2022 actually call Montenegro as partially free. I interviewed Milan Sekulović, president of the Civic Initiative, “Save Sinjajevina”, which has existed since 2018 on various issues related to his country and the ‘Save the Sinjajevino campaign’. Milan is the president of ‘Save Sinjajevina’ since 2020 and he still feels that they are hybrid democracy because of the reason is the rating of Freedom House. ‘We are not a pure democracy because the will of the people is fundamentally not respected, politicians are guided by their own interests, not the general interest’, he says. Following is his detailed conversation with Vidya Bhushan Rawat.
VB: Why do people fight to protect Sinjajevina? What exactly are the case and its significance?
Sinjajevina is the largest mountain in Montenegro, located in the heart of the country and represents the heart of Montenegro. Sinjajevina is mountain pastureland, where people live during the summer months, and in the winter, they return to their villages in the lowlands with their families, cattle, sheep, goats and horses. In Sinjajevina, as in all Montenegrin mountains, there are settlements that we call “katuni” in which the way of life today is almost the same as 100 years ago. The coexistence of nature and humans, as well as their domestic animals, has created a unique ecosystem on Sinjajevina that is important not only for thousands of people living from and around this territory (more than 20,000), but for the whole country as it is a reservoir of national identity and heritage, at the same as for its outstanding ecological conservation, that makes it a key territory to protect for the whole of Europe where these systems are increasingly rare. This is even more relevant if we take into account that, we are one of the largest mountain pastures in Europe. Katuni Sinjajevine, are a seasonal mountain resort still used by several hundred livestock families and thousands of people. It is a way of life that is highly sustainable and increasingly valued for its natural and cultural value by significant international actors and institutions, including the European Union and the United Nations among others. The Katun way of life, as in other European countries, contributes to the creation and preservation of exceptional cultural landscapes with unique biodiversity, important ecosystem services and agricultural systems with exceptional quality products and great eco-tourism potential.
We are fighting to protect this unique ecosystem, but also the people in it, because they are the first guardians and stewards of these productive landscapes that some politicians want to sell as a no man’s land, while Sinjajevina is well populated and used for centuries and even millennia and still is. The problem officially arose in 2019, when the Government of Montenegro decided to establish a military range for artillery fire in untouched nature. The army has appropriated more than half of the mountain for itself, and the government has deceived the public into conducting public consultations with the local community. The real truth is that they did not consult people who live on the mountain. We have been defending the mountain with protests for years, and in 2020 we had a protest that lasted 51 days up on the mountain under extremely harsh conditions, human shields for the mountain, to prevent the army from firing artillery. The planned military training ground is located within the transition area (zone) of the Biosphere Reserve “Tara River Canyon”, and there are important facts and norms that must be respected in relation to this internationally protected UNESCO area. It should be noted that the transition zone – the area of the Biosphere Reserve, is defined as an area in which communities nurture socio-cultural and environmentally sustainable economic and human activities. Within the IPA project “Establishment of Natura 2000 in Montenegro”, which is funded by the European Union with three million euros, the area of Sinjajevina is based on EU standards in the field of nature protection (EU Directive on the Conservation of Wild Birds – Directive 2009/147 / EC of the European Parliament and of the Council of 30 November 2009 on conservation of wild birds) identified as a potential area of special interest for birds – SPA with an area of 39,240 ha. Also, an EU co-funded study was conducted in Montenegro in 2016, which concluded that Sinjajevina meets all the conditions to be a protected area and recommended it, but a couple of years later, the Government threw that study under its feet, and short after Montenegro’s accession to NATO in 2017, the creation of the military ground was announced.
Our organization (Save Sinjajevina) insists on two demands:
1. Abolition of the military training ground in Sinjajevina
2. Establishment of a protected area in the management of which the local community will actively participate
VB: Kindly share with us about the communities living in Sinjajevina and what is their number? Has the government ever talked to them?
Sinjajevina is used by seven tribes from six cities (municipalities) in Montenegro, namely Kolasin, Mojkovac, Savnik, Zabljak, Danilovgrad and Bijelo Polje. Now we have about 250 families in Sinjajevina, which is a drastic decrease compared to 50 or 100 years ago, but it is still the most active mountain pasture in all of Montenegro! Due to industrialization after the Second World War, a large number of people moved to the cities, which left consequences on the villages and katuns. The military has never spoken to local communities. Also, they have never talked to the population of the cities located on the outskirts of Sinjajevina, namely Mojkovac, Kolašin, Šavnik and Žabljak, which receive water from Sinjajevina. We believe that military activities could pollute the water and our mountains, which would create a big problem for the entire country because the waters from Sinjajevina flow throughout the country.
There has been no publicly available environmental impact assessment, no publicly available health evaluation, no publicly available economic impact study, nor any substantial negotiation with the affected pastoral communities. This action not only concerns the violation of people’s traditional rights to nature and their livelihoods from a legal point of view, but the pastoral ecosystem itself depends on the safe presence and activity of these pastoral communities. Sinjajevina is a symbiotic socio-ecosystem built through millennia of co-adaptation. It is impossible to overstate the devastating effect of a military training area carved out of its heart. Such an event would mark the end of pastoralism there, its governance systems, and its conservation capacity. The non-pastured areas of the plateau would quickly become bush-like, and later a dense coniferous forest with time, where this biodiversity would plummet, and a cultural and very productive landscape with still great developmental potential built over millennia would disappear, which after would be practically irrecoverable. At the same time, many of the touristic pasturelands of Sinjajevina would likely become a timber concession, as is the case with many forests around Sinjajevina, never to be left to mature, as forest plantations which are known to be biodiversity deserts.
VB: Please share with us information about your country’s political system. Why did the government allow NATO forces to build a base there?
Formally, we are a parliamentary democracy since 1990, but facto, from 1945 to 2020, we basically had the Communist Party in power. The Communists only changed their name in 1990, but they continued to rule until 2020. However, that party underwent internal changes, so they left socialism and turned to neoliberal capitalism. From 1990 until today, all factories in Montenegro have been destroyed, the economy has been destroyed and sold out, and we have a small group of rich and a large number of poor.
After the economic resources were sold out, it was the turn of nature, which is trying to be sold out for further destruction. But the resistance among its citizens is fierce and the citizens are now strongly fighting to protect nature.
We are NATO members since 2017. The decision on membership was made without a referendum, so the citizens were not asked, but the parliament voted on the decision on membership under the influence of the only ruling party for decades.
VB: Have the EU or the Western world noticed the cries of forest communities and their protests against the militarization of the region.
Local and international environmental and human rights organizations supporting the ‘Save Sinjajevina’ campaign demand that the land rights of traditional pastoralists are secured, open consultations with local communities to create a protected area in Sinjajevina, and urge the EU to ask for the removal of the military training ground in Sinjajevina as a pre-condition for Montenegro’s accession to EU membership.
On July 12, St. Peter’s day, traditionally very significant for Sinjajevinans, people from around the world will gather and raise their voices in favour of the protection of Sinjajevina and the cancellation of the military ground via a global petition and an international solidarity camp.
Also, almost one hundred organizations worldwide have expressed international support urging the Montenegrin government and the European Union to scrap the project to militarize the Sinjajevina highlands and to listen to the demands of local communities living in this territory: https://www.landrightsnow.org/save-sinjajevina-now-statement/ . Nevertheless, almost three years after its creation, the government of Montenegro still has not cancelled the military ground.
We believe that we have an ally in the EU because the EU nurtures environmental protection. Seven years ago, the EU funded a study that showed that Sinjajevina deserves the status of a protected area, we have received many expressions of solidarity, the European Parliament has received us to explain the case in 2019, and a Delegation of the European Union visited Montenegro and met with us last February 2020, the European Greens have been quite active in supporting us, and we believe that the EU will not silently observe the destruction of a future EU Natura 2000 area in which they themselves invested taxpayers’ money. During the protest in 2020, we had a meeting with the EU Ambassador to Montenegro, who received us very warmly and we believe that we can expect fruitful cooperation in the future.
We want to become a member of the EU and we are among the most advanced candidates for membership. Therefore we believe that we should bring something valuable to the EU and not turn a territory of life into one of death and destruction. One of those values is the preserved Sinjajevina, as a pastoralist intensely living mountain that can feed Montenegro and Europe with the highest quality cheese and meat. Could you imagine NATO bombing the region of campana and making mozzarella disappear forever before anybody else in the world discovered what it was? Well, the case of Sinjajevina could be something like that. Isn’t it crazy?
Nobody wants cheese or meat “spiced” with gunpowder. Our products are very high quality and truly organic. [P1]
VB: How many people live in your country? Do people somewhere in the country support the cause of Sinjajevina?
Montenegro has about 620,000 inhabitants and most of our citizens support our cause, the protection of Sinjajevina. And politicians should listen. It is just that they probably can’t because the pressures from greater and supranational entities are making the necessary pressure so our politicians do not close this military ground forever and for good, and start supporting and promoting the continuity and development of this world jewel that is Sinjajevina. But if they don’t want to hear the citizens, we will make them hear us…
VB: How does your government deal with or disobey political dissidents and human rights, defenders?
Our current government brings together a variety of parties and ideologies. This is a transitional period after three decades of almost one-party rule, so now it is less violent. But there was a moment with the previous government that started all this, that used extremely violent language towards us, such as enemies of the nation, terrorists or even secret spies working for foreign powers.
In the past, dissidents have been persecuted and very often attacked by institutions. We believe those days are behind us. We hope for a change for the better. But the voice of the people has not been respected so far, and we believe that it is time to change that.
VB: You are a journalist and in these times there is a lot of pressure on them both from the authorities and from the ‘nationalists’, which is worrying everywhere. How much religious and ethnic diversity there is in your country. Is there any dispute between them or does everyone live peacefully? Is there a conflict between them?
We are a multiethnic and multi-confessional country. Incidents do happen, but they have not escalated. We have a problem with verbal duels, often hate speech, which is most often encouraged by politicians.
However, in general, physical conflicts do not exist and we live in peace. The Sinjajevina cause is something so wide and as universal as the story of David against Goliath, and everybody tends to feel identified with us. It is an absolute injustice what Sinjajevinans are suffering, an insult to democracy and to European institutions that want a healthy and productive Montenegro, and not a destructive one. Moreover, and beyond the global solidarity that Sinjajevinans we are receiving from all the world because it is very easy to understand what is going on, big ferocious fish trying to eat and silence a smaller one just because it wants to grab its land for global geopolitical ambitions, people also side with nature. And as you know, nature knows nothing of religions, national identities and ethnicities, so at the end, in some way, in Montenegro and probably globally, we are almost all with Sinjajevina…
VB: What message do you want to give to activists, writers, and journalists in other countries?
We must fight for the values we believe in. No one will wage our wars and win our battles. When we believe in something, we fight for it. That is how Sinjajevinans have been always. And now for us, protection of the environment and human rights are imperatives, and there is no room for compromise nor renouncing any of this. Every human being is equally valuable and everyone has the right to a hopeful future and a healthy and clean place to live in.
Here you have all the materials we have prepared. Can you please share them as widely as possible with all your (politized) contacts beyond? We are trying to get as many people as possible, especially for the 11 and 12 July on Sinjajevina:
Registration to the Sinjajevina solidarity camp in July in Montenegro