Sunday

19th Jan 2020

Opinion

Threat to Unesco park mars Montenegro's EU bid

  • The Durmitor national park is meant to be protected by its Unesco status (Photo: Thomas Maluck)

"Durmitor, you are the leader of all mountains" - so goes a 1980s song about a spectacular mountain in Montenegro, a Unesco world heritage site, which survived the uncertainties of the last century, but which faces a new threat just as the Western Balkan country moves closer to the EU.

The Black Lake, in the heart of Durmitor national park, narrowly avoided playing host to a sprawling tourist compound - 30 bungalows, an adventure park, a bar, and a restaurant on the lake shore - in April.

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It would have been a clear violation of Unesco rules and might have triggered international legal proceedings.

The contractor had already felled dozens of 100-year old trees when the government revoked its permit.

But the project, which included a Durmitor ski resort, would probably have gone ahead if not for protests by local activists - a campaign group called "Enough is Enough" - and a wider outcry by Montenegrin civil society and public figures.

Developers have also threatened Durmitor's high-altitude plateau, Sinjajevina.

The site is Europe's second largest natural pasture and hundreds of local families depend on it, but it has been slated to become a military training ground.

Government-backed firms have spoken of building hydro-electric plants on the pristine Bukovica river in the region.

And the government has proposed new oil rigs off Montenegro's Adriatic Sea coast.

The environmental alerts come after the Western Balkan country made progress in leaps and bounds in its EU accession process in recent years.

EU accession

It has opened negotiations on 32 out of 33 "chapters" of the EU's legal rulebook, putting it in pole position to be the next country to join Europe after Croatia did so.

One of those chapters deals with the environment.

And "potential investments in hydropower and touristic developments need to comply with nature protection ... legal requirements", the European Commission said in its last progress report on Montenegro.

"Work continued" on designating EU-protected sites, it added, mentioning other endangered ones - the Ulcinj Salina wetland, the Skadar Lake, and the Tara River.

The commission report also mentioned concerns on rule of law, democracy, and media freedom in Montenegro.

But it did not mention Durmitor or the wider anti-environmental trend and it would be a staggering irony if the "leader of all mountains" was ruined just as the EU opened its door.

The fragile ecosystem survived Yugoslavia's communist era and the 1990s Balkan Wars.

Podgorice's first post-communist government even sang its praises in a special declaration in the local town of Zabljak in 1991.

But its fate remains uncertain so long as local activists are left alone to defend it.

Montenegrins do not lack passion to fight for what they love.

Durmitor is "nature's masterpiece" and "must remain a [Unesco] world heritage site," Aleksandar Dragićević, one of the activists who took part in April's anti-industry protests, said at the time.

"We will not let anyone destroy it [the Sinjajevina plateau]", Aleksandar Milatović, another local activist said.

"We drink water from the Bukovica [river]. We swim in it, as have generations of our ancestors. We won't let them take it from us," Mihailo Bulatović, who spent 30 days and nights in a camp in front of construction equipment, also said.

Steep price

If European politicians and civil society leave people like them alone on the front line, then Montenegro's EU and Nato accession might come at a steep price.

Montenegro joined Nato in 2017 and now one of its beauty spots risks becoming a no-go military bomb site.

It might join the EU by 2025 if things go well.

But by then, Durmitor, called "nature's Mona Lisa" by Dragićević, might already bear the scars of industry.

And in this situation, not just Montegerins but all Europeans have "a clear choice", Dragićević said.

"Either we keep Mona Lisa intact or we turn her into a Disneyland with catastrophic consequences," he said.

Author bio

Alexander Petrović is director of Ozon, a Montenegrin NGO which is a member of the Coalition for Sustainable Development (KOR).

Disclaimer

The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.

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