After a mobile blockade lasting almost two months, a small group of traditional herders and activists has successfully repelled NATO and the Montenegrin military’s efforts to occupy the territory of Sinjajevina in Montenegro – the largest mountain grassland in the Balkans and the second in Europe.
In an archetypal David and Goliath encounter, Sinjajenivan herders have braved and adapted to COVID-19 lockdowns, driving snow and sub-zero temperatures to keep numerous military incursions at bay.
Unable to break the frontline resistance and destabilized by increasing national and international pressure and a government change-up, NATO and the Montenegrin army’s plans to use for military training Sinjajevina, the most important Community Conserved Area in Montenegro, have been halted for now.
This hard-fought reprieve has brought global attention to Sinjajevina: a place with a unique past and a future worth fighting for.
In the European popular imagination, enjoying a deep, sustainable and harmonious relationship with nature is most often associated with Indigenous Peoples. But looking more carefully there are many more examples closer to home.
Sinjajevina is a huge limestone plateau, over 600 km2 in size, that provides a home and a livelihood to more than 250 families of mobile pastoralists and small farmers.
For hundreds, if not thousands, of years, the herders and farmers of Sinjajevina have governed, protected and cared for the grasslands as one would protect the life of their own family. Organized commonly, they are responsible for the conservation of a landscape whose special value and unique biodiversity has been recognized through UNESCO Biosphere reserve status.
Sinjajevina’s abundant life is the direct product of symbiosis between humans and nature. The present ecosystem is the result of a sustained and traditionally governed pastoralism; a system with which the land has co-evolved over millennia and whose local biodiversity is now directly dependent on the continuous pastoral use of the territory, without which, much of this biodiversity would disappear.
Each highland pastoral settlement, known as a katun, continuously makes and re-makes its own governance decisions about their commonly held lands in Sinjajevina through local assemblies. These decide the moment in the year pastures can be accessed and govern their use in order to allow certain key plants of their interest to complete their reproductive cycles and avoid overgrazing.
The connection between culture and nature runs so deep that Sinjajevina can be considered as a ‘pastoral community conserved area’ as defined by the influential ICCA Consortium. It is in fact in process of applying for its inclusion in the UN-supported International ICCA Registry.
Beyond the heights of Sinjajevina’s pastures, a further 22,000 thousand people live in the valleys that drop away from the plateau’s zenith, enjoying the waters, forests and food the plateau produces under the custodianship of its traditional users.
Despite Sinjajevina’s unique status and being surrounded by the greatest density of protected areas in the country, itself originally being expected to become a Regional Park by the end of 2020 after an almost 300,000€ EU co-funded study, over the past year it has been the subject of the inauguration of a military training ground together with NATO, catalyzing a struggle for the grassland’s future that is of global importance.
Without any substantial negotiations with local pastoral communities, and without making a single environmental, health, cultural heritage or economic impact assessment available for public scrutiny, in 2019 the government of Montenegro, supported by NATO, created by decree a military training ground in Sinjajevina and started international training in September 2019 with representatives of the USA, Austria, Slovenia, Italy and North Macedonia.
The military’s intention was to turn over this unique grassland to mortar and heavy weapons testing. For example, just last year, only in the inauguration of the training ground, over half tone of explosives were dropped in this inhabited territory while pastoralists were still in the area. And, whilst much about these plans remains unknown, including the size and limits of the military ground, it is clear military activities will have serious environmental impacts and profoundly disrupt traditional pastoral governance and movement on the plateau to which the present ecosystems are dependent for their conservation. In other words, they would endanger Sinjajevina’s millennia-old symbiosis of culture and nature, as much as the local communities’ wellbeing and the independence of the katuns.
Similarily to 2019, in 2020 planned military operations were to be focused in one of the richest parts of Sinjajevina territory, neighbouring Savina Vode, the most important source of fresh water on the plateau and a central reason for the rich abundance of life in the area. In fact, Sinjajevina’s water sources directly nourish Montenegro’s main rivers, flowing both to the Black Sea and to the Adriatic Sea. Meaning that contamination of water bodies like Savina Vode or the rest of the underwater system of this karstic territory by munitions, could have wide-ranging impacts in Sinjajevina and well beyond. As well as the potential impacts of pollution on plant, animal and human health. Also the prices herders can charge for their meat and dairy products is likely to take a major hit if their land is turned into a bombing ground.
In addition to the severe restriction or loss of their livelihoods, local herders fear being directly caught in a military crossfire. And they also fear the unexploded ordinance that could be left behind by military testing and training.
NATO’s interest in Sinjajevina remains largely unclear, but the military pressure on Sinjajevina is just one example of the threats many rural commons in the Mediterranean basin and beyond are facing today. As in Sinjajevina, traditional systems and their customary laws are not acknowledged by nation-states. More often than not, these states consider commonly-owned and managed lands, and resources within them, 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.
Seen in this case, Sinjajevina’s crisis has both unique individual value, but it is also a symbol of a much wider struggle for land, life and common ways of organizing.
At the beginning of October 2020, several Montenegrin military detachments travelled to Sinjajevina and made visits to multiple households informing them that, from 15th October, they should no longer move their livestock to graze in Sinjajevina due to the commencement of new military trainings.
The military’s escalating warnings and the posterior official statement on 10th October announcing that Monday 19th of October new military training would start on Sinjajevina, sparked local pastoralists into action in collaboration with environmental activists and rights’ groups from all over the country. Under the ‘Save Sinjajevina’ banner, a group of 150 people travelled to the pasturelands in Sinjajevina and set up, on Friday 16th October, a community blockade. Setting up camp at the foot of Margita mountain, the heart of the military training ground, the protestors prepared to face the body of NATO soldiers (Montenegro joined the North Atlantic Treaty Organization in 2017) that had started to arrive at the neighbouring city of Kolasin.
Initially, the aim of the protestors was to maintain their blockade until a new Montenegrin Government, having won a national election on the 30th August and being more sympathetic to Sinjajevina’s plight, was installed. It was originally expected to be formed by early November but finally did not come into place until 2nd December. This critical delay triggered a game of cat and mouse between herders and the military in an almost two month-long period during which the struggle for Sinjajevina’s made headlines in Montenegro and abroad.
At first, protesters received many visits, even from the top ranks of the Serbian orthodox church and the top leaders of the parties preparing to make the new Government in Montenegro. But due to new COVID restrictions that got in place towards mid-November, during this period, protestors were forced to divide their numbers by breaking into small pods of 4 in different locations of Sinjajevina, in order to avoid a crackdown based on breaking lockdown laws. At the same time, Sinjajevina’s defenders maintained always up the original base camp at Margita, the most symbolic and key military location, while protestors always operated in shifts to not succumb to the harsh conditions.
Meanwhile, other groups of defenders remained alert to military incursions into different parts of Sinjajevina. On the 18th of November, several groups of defenders took up positions on multiple hilltops around a newly established one-night military camp composed of under 100 troops. In that way, protesters, working as human shields, blocked any bombings into this new spot of the pasturelands some 3km away from the original protest camp in Margita.
On November 19, an army detachment also approached Okrugljak, the biggest katun in Sinjajevina with over 15 active herder households 10km from Margita. Local people called for support and after a few hours of observation by defenders who again placed themselves as widely as possible over the top hills of the area, the army left unable to find the “right” conditions for their weapon testing.
In tandem with the frontline measures taken by Save Sinjajevina defenders, allies of the herders were making their plight known across Montenegro and globally through the media. Some 100 organizations under the leadership of Land Rights Now, ICCA Consortium, International Land Coalition and Rights & Resources signed a manifesto and launched the 6th October a signature collection campaign with the support of Avaaz, as well as a crowdfunding request, to try to contribute to stopping the military in their attempt to occupy the pasturelands.
An emblematic victory
Adapting constantly in response to the military’s movements and changing tactics, resisting through a mobile physical presence and public information, Sinjajevina’s crews of defenders sustained their blockades and successfully prevented military occupation for 51 days.
On 5th December, Montenegro’s new Minister of the Defense, Olivera Injac, publicly announced that her new administration would not pursue the establishment of a military training ground in Sinjajevina, signalling a landmark victory for the Save Sinjajevina campaign.
Previous to this dénouement, questions about Sinjajevina were put to NATO’s Secretary-General, Jens Stoltenberg, and the European Union was directly lobbied to intervene and withhold EU membership proceedings for Montenegro until Sinjajevina was protected.
These efforts and the increased media profile of Sinajevina may have played a part in protecting frontline defenders on the plateau, but public responses from the EU and NATO proofed ultimately disappointing as they mostly kept silent. Therefore, victory seems to have been won in spite of (rather than because of) them.
For now, the herders have been able to return to their homes and rest, but they are alive to new threats that might emerge from government proposals to relocate rather than completely scrap plans for new military training grounds.
In the wake of their victory, Sinjajevina’s defenders are planning to use the momentum they have gained to fend off another threat: plans to turn their pastures into a Regional Park governed without their inclusion in a top-down model.
Instead, they are exploring the idea of Sinjajevina becoming a community protected area recognized nationally and/or internationally, in which local pastoralists take the lead in management and conservation, adding a layer of protection to their lands whilst promoting their age-old sustained traditions of land-care and collective cohabitation.
Sinjajevina’s moment of crisis, far from breaking the resolve and spirit of local communities, has served to strengthen their identity, their spirit of resistance and their proactive collective will to prevail in their ways of life. At the same time, through their efforts, it has been made clear that the natural and cultural value of their territory goes well beyond the borders of Montenegro.
If Europe is serious about its change of direction and a truly just and equitable Green New Deal, it must do everything in its power to support our continent’s people who protect places like Sinjajevina, and fully recognize the vital role Europe’s local and Indigenous communities play in the governance of our most vibrant ecosystems.
Pablo Dominguez is an Eco-Anthropologist of pastoral societies at the French National Center for Scientific Research (CNRS), specialized in Mediterranean mountains and community conservation. You can reach Pablo at pablo.dominguez (at) univ-tlse2.fr
Featured image: Protest camp on Sinjajevina, November 2020 (Save Sinjajevina association)