In direct contradiction of the recommendation coming out of the 2018 study co-funded by the EU that expected to create a protected area in Sinjajevina within 18 months — and against all apparent rural, touristic, agri-food development and conservationist logic — last September 2019 the Montenegrin Government inaugurated a military training and weapons testing area in the very heart of these inhabited pastures, and within the UNESCO Biosphere Reserve and multiplicity of protection figures, with apparently no publicly available environmental impact assessment, no publicly available health evaluation, no publicly available economic impact study, nor any substantial negotiation with the affected pastoral communities.
One more greatly frustrating element for local communities, is that the first seed of this polygon has been implanted as a ‘fait accompli’ in one of the pastorally richest part of the territory, around Savina Vode, which is the most important source of water of all these highlands, which being karstic limestone based, makes water the main limiting factor for human life and livestock. Precisely because its hydrologic and pastoral strategic value, it was particularly protected and conserved by important customary rules, and all different pastoralist tribes’ members self-banned the installation of pastoral and living constructions in several kilometers around, giving only right to 15 minutes of drinking water per flock or herd and very restricted pastoral spatial limits for each group. And it has been precisely this most precious part around which the pastoralists population of 4 different Montenegrin tribes have for centuries purposely left empty but have gravitated around, organized and managed to conserve generation after generation an extraordinarily productive and rich landscape bioculturaly and agroeconomically, that has been chosen by the Ministry of the Defense to install with apparently no legal guarantees and a worrying lack of transparency a military polygon where they might have believed it to be a deserted ‘no man’s land’, due to a critically uninformed decision and a straight forward political decision to supplant the traditional users of this space, which beyond their traditional land, is also an outstanding landscape for relaxation, ecotourism development and hiking, as much as a unique reservoir of biodiversity and ecosystem services.
Of course, another great fear among locals is the physical danger of being struck by military artillery (in action or explosives left behind without detonating), as well as contamination of the waters through the artillery used, and that humans and animals drink. And this impact on water could perfectly reach far beyond the site through underground water flows, specially to the villages around Lipovo just under Savina Voda lake and who have precisely a factory of water bottling due to their (up to present) reputed clean and highly healthy mineral waters. And the same goes for the plants animals eat and humans consume, endangering not only animal and human health, but their market as demand of meat and dairy products will undoubtedly shoot down and seems already to have started a slight downhill, while Sinjajevina produces one of the most valuable cheeses and milk products in the country, as for example traditional skorup cheeses sold at 25€ the kilo, an authentic fortune in a country where the mean salary is 300€ per month.
Today neither these pastoralists, nor any civil society organization from the seven affected municipalities has a good idea of the exact perimeter of the military polygon, its purpose, the nature of its risks, or the population it will directly affect. All that is known publicly is that it has been described as a polygon of more than 10.000 hectares, 100 km2, which means something like the whole city of Barcelona for example. And even though, the military polygon was solemnly inaugurated on 27th September of this year (2019), with military shooting operations in collaboration with other NATO military forces (USA, Austria, Italy, Slovenia..) undertaken even before the shepherds and their animals had begun their descent from the mountains to their winter farms in the lower valleys, causing already several animal losses.
And this polygon has been established while these are lands that have historical records under community governance and pastoral use all the way back to the XIXth century, with demonstrable continued and uninterrupted use for at least the last 140 years. Nevertheless, historians and archeologists believe this date should be pushed back much further, quite possibly to several millennia. Further research is needed, but at this stage we can already clearly recommend that the military polygon plan be submitted to an in-depth and independent social and environmental impact study, as well as a legal review of the procedures that have been followed at national and international level as Montenegro is signatory to numerous inter-states’ agreements.