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Protests against turning Montenegro pastures into NATO training site

By Rosamma Thomas* 

The Sinjajevina-Durmitor massif mountain range in Montenegro is recognized as the second-largest mountain pasture in Europe. A high limestone plateau, 1,600-2,200 metres above sea level, it has served traditional pastoral communities in the region for generations. Plans to develop a military training ground in its southeastern part have been stiffly resisted by local pastoral communities.
The natural and cultural heritage value of this region is recognized – it is at the heart of the protected Tara Biosphere Reserve, designated a World Heritage Site in 1980. The uniqueness of this area is not only its natural richness, but the traditional synergy that has developed between local communities, the animals in their care, and pastoralism practiced here over centuries. On July 4, 2022, however, Defence Minister Rasko Konjevic of Montenegro announced plans to prepare for new military exercises in Sinjajevina.
July 12 is a day of festivity in this region, when local people get together to observe St Peter’s Day. The Save Sinjajevina campaign has called for supporters of the petition to protect this area to join them from July 8-15, at a solidarity camp that will culminate with the submission of a petition to the Prime Minister, the Defence Minister and a delegation from the European Union, since Montenegro is in talks to join the EU.
The petition urges the government to desist from allowing a military facility at the site, especially since the prime minister had earlier promised to conserve the region. Remove the military training ground in a legally binding manner, the petition appeals, seeking that the area be conserved by local communities. Anthropologist Pablo Dominguez, who has conducted research in this area states that there are about 22,000 people who live in the lower reaches of these mountains; the highland pastures are used by about 250 pastoral families from eight different tribes.
In 2018, a partially EU-funded study had proposed that Sinjajevina be declared a regional park for the protection of the cultural and natural uniqueness of the site, and the enhancement of the local economy. Instead, in September 2019, the Montenegro government announced that a military training ground, over 10,000 hectares in size, would come up at the very heart of Sinjajevina. Even as shepherds with their flocks and civilians were still present in the area, a NATO training programme was conducted at what was termed the Regional Mountain Warfare Training Centre.
Local people protest that no assessment of the environment impact of such training in the area, the health or economic implications of the changed use of the land was made publicly available. Over 3,000 people came together to resist the militarization of the pastures, submitting a petition. Under law in Montenegro, this number of signatories to a petition would have been sufficient to ensure a debate in Parliament. Even so, the petition was ignored, and the public protests intensified.
Since Montenegro was engaged in the process of joining the EU, the matter was taken to the European Parliamentary Committee for Stabilization and Association of the European Union. Montenegro and EU officials then discussed the matter in camera, although the public, the press and external political actors were not allowed access to the proceedings. The Montenegro government was advised by the EU to undertake an independent study of this matter, and the EU also underlined the need for tackling climate change and preserving the cultural and pastoral traditions of local communities. Yet, the Montenegro government did not proceed to undertake any independent study.
Much like in India, there is a stark lack of trust in the electoral system in Montenegro, and the political opposition is weakened in Parliament as elected representatives, questioning the legitimacy of the system, have been boycotting Parliament.
The citizens wishing to conserve the pasture lands have been organizing, and groups of farmers, activists and politicians have rallied together to this cause. The information about the medicinal plants available here, and the other resources are being made available on social media, so that information about the risk posed to this unique ecology is more widely disseminated.
Even as a large quantity of explosives has been brought to the area, the protest continues. Activists and citizens are urging the EU to seek the removal of this training ground as a precondition for Montenegro’s EU membership.
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*Freelance journalist

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