At a glance, the highlands of Sinjajevina, Montenegro appear as a scene from a Baltic fairy tale. Wildflowers form a carpet of purple-and-white against alpine meadows. Sheep graze lazily on fragrant herbs. After a long winter, the arrival of spring ushers in a period of renewal for the mountain.
This year, however, the people of Sinjajevina stand on guard. The looming threat of military action on the mountain hangs heavy over the serene landscape; warmer temperatures an unwelcome invitation to the militaries who perform exercises and test weapons on the mountain. The community anticipates the arrival of troops between May 22nd and June 2nd. Promises of peace from the Montenegrin government do little to assuage their fears of invasion. In 2019, military personnel released half a tonne of explosives on community pasturelands, littering the area with toxic chemicals and releasing detritus into the porous karst system below the mountain. In 2020 local farmers and human rights groups were compelled to act as human shields against soldiers attempting to carry out mortar shelling. This past February, NATO troops again performed training exercises in violation of government promises to demilitarize Sinjajevina. It is clear that immediate political and grassroots action is necessary to forestall further military action on the mountain and #SaveSinjajevina.
The birth of a movement
The Save Sinjajevina campaign was born in 2020 following two years of grassroots action against the establishment of a military training ground in the Sinjajevina-Durmitor mountain range. The decision to establish and advance plans for a military training ground was made unilaterally by the Montenegrin government. No publicly made environmental, socio-economic or health impact assessments were completed, nor were any relevant community consultations made or compensations proposed for the damage produced. Continued efforts by the State to occupy Sinjajevan territory are in opposition to the explicit wishes of the community to demilitarize Sinjajevina and conserve the area as a Regional Nature Park co-designed and co-governed by locals. Actions to the contrary violate the ancestral land claims of the more than 22,000 residents upon whose stewardship the mountain depends.
A mountaim worth protecting
A key argument for the establishment of a military training ground in Sinjajevina is its mythologic value as a “barren” landscape. This false assumption is founded in the semi-nomadic lifestyle of village residents, who reside at lower elevations during the winter months. They return to the highlands each spring to pasture their sheep in the rich meadows of Sinjajevina, which is nourished by a blanket of snow and minimal disturbance. The symbiotic relationship between local communities and the mountain has been described as “semi-natural” by agricultural scientists: a term which encodes the co-dependence of the mountain’s biodiversity and its regional stewards. Yet the commitment of the people to their territory runs deeper than abstraction. For the community of Sinjajevina, conservation is a question of cultural heritage. Shepard Gara Jovanović notes that “to protect [Sinjajevina] and its water, there are unwritten rules that we follow. We did not conserve it for the government to then come and build military training grounds or shooting ranges there. We protect it to pass on to our grandchildren.”
The intimate relationship between Sinjajevina and its people has cultivated a unique way of life dating back to medieval times. Known as katun, the continuance of pastoralism in Sinjajevina is a rare feat on a continent where the lifestyle has rapidly declined due to land degradation, urbanization, and the boom of agribusiness. Clearly, the cultural longevity of Sinjajevina is of critical value to environmental outcomes and Europe’s cultural landscapes.
In addition to its cultural value, Sinjajevina is likewise a global emblem for environmental defenders in a world plagued by twin climate and biodiversity crises. Multiple studies have estimated that rangelands like Sinjajevina may contain up to 30% of the world’s stored carbon; a crucial antidote against global warming caused primarily by CO₂. They also host more than 33% of the world’s biodiversity; a trend exemplified in Sinjajevina’s 2016 designation as an Area of Special Conservation Interest under the Bern Convention of 1979. The region’s crystalline snowpack is also a critical source of the Tara and Moraca Rivers, which are among the largest reservoirs of clean drinking water in Europe. Thus, when we speak of Sinjajevina, we must understand the mountain’s fate as intrinsically linked to our collective climate future.
An impending crisis
At this moment, NATO member States from around the world have begun to arrive in the Port of Bar, Montenegro. Their presence marks the onset of the Immediate Response military exercise, which is intended to prepare coalition members for joint action against potential crises in Eastern Europe. The event will include ground operations and equipment testing. If military personnel or their weapons invade Sinjajevina at this scale, the social and environmental consequences will be devastating for the territory. Further, the spring is a critical time for shepherds: military interference with early-season herding and lambing would wreak havoc on local livelihoods. The desperation of the Sinjajevan people to prevent these abuses is palpable in their grim resolve. “Our lives are not worth it if they kill our mountain,” says community member Milan Sekulović. “Our mountain is our life. If they kill it, they kill us too...So we are ready to stand again before weapons, and artillery, and to be a human shield for our mountain.”
We believe that there can be no lasting global security which does not recognise and respect the land rights of Indigenous and local communities. We urge our allies, members, and environmental defenders from around the world to take action to prevent this impending threat. Only together can we generate the necessary action and political will to #SaveSinjajevina.
How You Can Help:
- By printing out a “Save Sinjajevina” poster and sending photos of it and/or you, anywhere on Earth! Email all photos to firstname.lastname@example.org
- Reposting information from @landcoalition on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram to #SaveSinjajevina.
- Sign our petition to show your solidarity with the community in Sinjajevina.
With thanks to Maya Khanna, Postgraduate Fellow at the International Land Coalition, for writing this article.
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