Case A mountain community wants a community conserved area and not a military landgrab: the case of Sinjajevina

From AltMap Beta

Sinjajevina (Montenegro) (is) one of the largest communal pastureland in the Balkans and in Europe. Sinjajevina has recently been ‘declared’ a NATO military training and bombing ground… regardless of the lack of consent and actual strong contrary opinion of its custodian communities. But the custodian communities want to continue to use their pasturelands and live in Sinjajevina during the summer months. They have thus created Save Sinjajevina— a ‘movement organization’ to halt the military plans and insist on developing a positive alternative for their territory.

Loading map...
, Sinjajevina, , Montenegro ME

Authors Milan Sekulović, Grazia Borrini-Feyerabend, Pablo Domínguez
Topics Agroecology, Biodiversity, Commons, Environmental justiceAgroecology, Biodiversity, Commons, Environmental justice
Case Report Volume 1: "Stories of Regeneration and Resilience"
Number of participants
Save Sinjajevina association in July 2022 protesting against the creation of a military training ground in their traditional lands and pledging for a protected area co-designed and co-governed by local communities.

Pastoral Commons are evolving pasturelands conserved by mountain communities through dynamic and adaptive governance systems that ensure the sustainable use of natural resources. Grassroots organizations from all over the world are well aware of their socio-economic and environmental values of such commons, as are important international organizations, such as the Convention of Biological Diversity (CBD), the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), the United Nations Development Program (UNDP), and the United Nations Environmental Program (UNEP). Despite this, the mountain communities and their pastoral commons are too often un-recognized and alienated by their own State governments and by other powerful international actors. An emblematic example is Sinjajevina (Montenegro)— one of the largest communal pastureland in the Balkans and in Europe. Sinjajevina has recently been ‘declared’ a NATO military training and bombing ground… regardless of the lack of consent and actual strong contrary opinion of its custodian communities. But the custodian communities want to continue to use their pasturelands and live in Sinjajevina during the summer months. They have thus created Save Sinjajevina— a ‘movement organization’ to halt the military plans and insist on developing a positive alternative for their territory.

This is a story that has to be told for the ecological and biodiversity value in the territory at stake, for the aesthetic and symbolic value of its gorgeous landscape, and for the remarkable, bootstrapped grassroots opposition to the destruction of a beloved site. It is also emblematic for the juxtaposition of two possible worlds. On the one hand, there is the conservation of an outstanding natural and cultural living heritage, high-quality and sustainable local food production, and traditional livelihoods of the rightful inhabitants. On the other, there is a destructive and poisonous military training ground for the largest military alliance in the world, capable of provoking many of the very conflicts that get it to thrive. In the middle, fighting for local self-determination and survival is Save Sinjajevina— an organization spontaneously created by the communities who love and live with the territory. For almost four years, Save Sinjajevina has nourished and led the local, national, and international resistance to the military takeover of the mountain pasture commons. Let us recall what it has done.

Sinjajevina is a Montenegrin landscape and ecological corridor, part of the Tara UNESCO Biosphere Reserve. It has been declared EMERALD site by the Bern Convention, and is an IPA (Important Plant Area). The landscape shares its northern frontier with one of the oldest national parks of the Balkans and with a UNESCO World Heritage Natural site. The European Union has proposed Sinjajevina as a Natura 2000 site and, since 2016, the Environmental Protection Agency of Montenegro had projected it as a Natural Regional Park. The plan for Sinjajevina to become a Natural Regional Park was part of the main overall planning for the country and expected to be implemented by 2020 at latest, but – due to the military appetite for the area—it has remained so far unimplemented.

Map of Sinjajevina in context.

On the 2nd August of 2019 at the church of the Rosary, above 1,800 m. and in the very heart of this pastureland, after a Mass organized in honour of Saint Elias (one of the main patron protectors for these highlanders), a key protest was organized to oppose what was becoming an increasing threat to the local communities and ecosystems: the creation of a military ground in Sinjajevina. The threat had been ventilated for a while, and this had prompted, in 2019, the establishment of Save Sinjajevina-- an NGO gathering members of local communities and their allies. By the summer of 2019, the threat was fully materializing and in September the training ground was being officially inaugurated with the detonation of over half a ton of explosives through military exercises carried out by troops from the USA, Italy, Austria, Slovenia, North Macedonia, and Montenegro. The establishment of this military ground had been done by decree and without any public environmental, socio-economic or health impact assessment, no compensations nor negotiations with the affected communities and while the traditional dwellers were still up in their pasturelands, like every year in September.

As soon as Save Sinjajevina learned that a military training ground was officially inaugurated, they doubled down in organizing the resistance at local, national and international level. Soon, a good number of supporting organizations and voluntaries were identified (a statement was signed by almost 100 organizations in the summer of 2020, and an international campaign to gather signatures was launched at the beginning of Autumn). The strong local participation and international support encouraged the members of Save Sinjajevina and activists from around the country to strengthen their resistance and even transform themselves into human shields to block further military training announced for the 19th of October of 2020. A protest camp was organized in Sinjajevina from the 16th of October 2020, starting with over 100 people, some of whom remained for almost two months in the mountain pastures, often under freezing conditions (see photos below). It was a difficult time, but Save Sinjajevina achieved to stop the use of the area as military training ground and a public announcement to state this was made on the 5th of December 2020.

Resist camp in Sinjajevina set up spontaneously after the Government’s official announcement stating that a new military training was going to start Monday 19th October 2020.

Since then, the Save Sinjajevina movement has continued to successfully avoid any bombing in the area via a combination of public protest and outcry (over 22,000 signatures collected), media mobilization (with an outstanding flow of Montenegrin media coverage and reports in many top European media), event organizing, crowdfunding, and political advocacy— from local municipalities to national parliament. The current Prime Minister of Montenegro even publicly promised to cancel the military ground permission, even if he has not yet acted upon his promise… The resistance was also brought to the knowledge of the EU Parliament, which expressed its worries in several occasions (the last in its 2022 report on Montenegro’s progress towards accession, where it is stated that the Parliament regrets that despite initial progress, the Sinjajevina issue is still not solved.)

For a while, it even seemed that the resistance had achieved a policy response. After submitting the petition with 22,000 signatures last 18th July 2022, the Ministry of Ecology, Spatial Planning and Urbanism proposed that Sinjajevina be a protected area, and the Decision on the military training ground be repealed6. But, unfortunately, the earlier military ground decree has not been revoked till present. On the contrary, the Montenegrin Government has recently announced that in May 2023 it will realize a military training with more than 500 soldiers coming from abroad. This— it said—will be to fulfil its obligations towards NATO, and it is easy to speculate that this may serve purposes related to the current conflict in Ukraine. For the Montenegrin resistance to the military ground creation, this increases further the importance and urgency to secure the peaceful destination of the mountain commons.

The same people who set up the camp to block the military training activities in 2020, and an enlarged group of people now, are continuing their resistance and maintaining permanent patrols in Sinjajevina even in the winter months, when the area is covered by snow and at -10 Celsius (see for example Picture 3. or the video here). They want to be aware of any undesired activity and—if the needs arise— quickly organize again as human shields to keep impeding or put a break on any military use of the area.

Local community members and representatives of Save Sinjajevina gathered near the military barracks of Kolasin at the foothills of Sinjajevina in protest for the presence of NATO soldiers in the area (February 2023).

The movement is energized and adamant to defend the mountain commons, and regularly lets political leaders know. What it wants is for Montenegro to cancel the military ground and create a protected area in Sinjajevina, codesigned and co-governed by local communities. This local conservation vision should be acknowledged and supported internationally, and it would be wonderful if similar visions could be developed in many more places... but this is not common indeed. Only the presence of leaders with the combined capacities and calibre of Save Sinjajevina and its connection to both the local communities from where it grew and the international community can make the difference.

With time, Save Sinjajevina has become a powerful collaboration for nature, culture and peace that has already received the 2021 World Abolisher Award. It is also a joint adventure where the members of Save Sinjajevina have learned, fought and grown together, until they put the Montenegrin State in the defensive and on the spotlight of national public opinion, of mass media of the Western Balkans and even of the EU. The awareness of the precious ecological and social values of pasture commons like Sinjajevina is exactly what is needed for other mountain communities in Europe and elsewhere to be energized. The mountain pastoral commons are ‘territories of life’— essential for the livelihoods and culture of their communities. The fact that the communities of Sinjajevina have not subdued to the will of the most powerful military alliance in the world, but acted collectively and connected internationally to develop a peaceful resistance and an alternative vision for the future of their territory, is a feat deserving enormous highlighting and support. This is a story that we can all learn from... but the story is not yet over, and we call all to support Save Sinjajevina by speaking about its struggle, its methods, its courage and its powerful vision for a peaceful sustainable future.

References

  • The announcement was then made by the Minister of the Defense, now substituted.