Defending the Rivers in Southeast Europe: Conflicts, Struggles and Procedural Human Rights

Defending the Rivers in Southeast Europe: Conflicts, Struggles and Procedural Human Rights

Running home exited from a long day of playing archeologist in the nearby woods, I was carrying a skull of what I hypothesized to be a Compsognathus, one of the small, feisty dinosaurs I’ve seen in the Jurassic Park. I was so mesmerized and proud of my discovery as I was presenting it to my older sister who threw it out of the house, screaming and shouting. It was probably a skull of a stray dog or some other similar mammal and I was around five years old, but from that time everybody was convinced that I was going to be some kind of a naturalist when I grow up. However, I’ve studied sociology and have just completed a master’s degree program within social sciences in the area of human rights, but I’ve always kept my naturalist side alive in my private life and hobbies. Therefore, the topic of my master’s thesis just had to combine it all.

Hydropower Epidemic in Southeast Europe and Procedural Environmental Human Rights

Hydropower plants, although not a new thing, have come to be one of the main environmental concerns in Southeast Europe within the last couple of years. One of the possible reasons for that may be found in various escalations of localized forms of resistance such as social conflicts in Kruščica (Bosnia and Hercegovina), Rakita (Serbia) and Valbona (Albania) which became symbols of the struggle for free-flowing rivers across the region. Although certain groups have been opposing dams for decades, recent developments have pushed this region into a hydropower plant epidemic. The situation is very simple in nature and yet complex in the variety of its social manifestations. On the one hand, people have organized their lives around rivers for centuries and on the other hand, rivers are seen as a potential energy resource by various interest groups, which creates potential and actual environmental conflicts. These conflicts are intensified due to the numerous law violations, corruption affairs, construction inadequacies, and conflicts of interest, as well as the neglect of local communities and their human rights.

Protest at Topli Do, Serbia

Since the ecologically destructive nature of the majority of these hydropower projects is being proven by academics, experts and professionals across relevant fields, I wanted to find out what people are doing to challenge these environmentally and socially inadequate projects. What can they do? Why are there conflicts? Why do they escalate in some places and don’t in others? How can they be resolved in the long-run? Although these questions cannot all be touched with a blog post, I humbly hope to share some important remarks. The methodology of my research was based around the comparison between the cases in Slovenia (Sava and Mura rivers) and Serbia (multiple small rivers on Stara Planina mountain). I was concentrating on experiences of people within the struggle for free-flowing rivers (experts, organization members, and locals) regarding the use of procedural environmental human rights and other actions they took in the attempt to stop destructive hydropower plants.

Apart from substantive environmental rights such as the right to a safe and clean environment, which can be found in constitutions of both countries in question, the idea of procedural rights is to institutionalize some tools needed for citizens to materialize their substantive rights in practice. Procedural rights are recognized by multiple international conventions and institutions and are universally formulated as three major pillars: the right to access relevant information related to the environment, the right to participate in the environmental decision-making process, and the right to justice.

Relevant information is essential in order for people to take any meaningful action. We have witnessed numerous cases where locals and other concerned actors have been misinformed over the erection of new hydropower plants, have been neglected during the planning process, or have only become aware of new construction plans once construction has already begun. Furthermore, access to justice in terms of settling conflicts in courts should ideally be used only when every other option fails, so in a way, this right should be seen more as a safety net then a desirable mechanism. Unfortunately, it is the only pillar that has worked in some of the examined cases, costing people a lot of time and effort and bringing temporary wins. Finally, the most significant pillar is meaningful participation of concerned actors in the decision-making process regarding environmental matters. In most cases, people who may have never heard about these rights, feel that they should be asked something before they see the machines and construction workers in their backyards. In other words, most people intuitively think they should know what is going on in their environment: they want to be asked something and have the injustices settled on the fair court which they can afford. However, it is not only about the ethical argument which is tied to legitimacy, but rather a pragmatic one related to: the public interest instead of the private one, valuable inputs from the local population, and because neglect of these rights often leads to environmental conflicts.

Both countries have ratified multiple conventions that recognize these principles (e.g. Espoo convention, Aarhus convention, etc.) more than a decade ago and have obliged themselves to harmonize their laws accordingly and implement them in practice. As we can see from the intensification of conflicts across the region related to river defense, and as I have concluded from interviewing key actors within the procedural and physical struggle, these principles are far from being realized in practice. Ideally, they should have a preventive role and involve concerned actors in the planning process. Instead, certain actors are able to use legal tools and resources to spread the ideology of development and impose hardships on engaged organizations and locals who are trying to exercise their rights.

Behavior, Affluence, Environmentalism and the Ideology of Development

The most common hypothesis today regarding the question why some people act in an environmentally friendly way and others don’t, has to do with affluence as a main indicator. In other words, it is considered that people in richer societies tend to be more concerned about the environment than people in poorer ones. This viewpoint creates multiple paradoxes that are important to examine because this hypothesis is very common in public discourse and therefore acts as a significant inhibitor of meaningful ecological action in the region.

First, it doesn’t recognize locals fighting, in some cases literally with their bodies, for the free-flowing rivers because it mostly views environmentalism in a narrow scope of willingness to pay money or perform a slightly inconvenient action (e.g. separating trash for recycling purposes) for the sake of some environmental benefit which is often somewhere far away. That “somewhere” is, for example, right here in the rural areas around the Mura river and villages on Stara Planina. People here often can’t simply make a slightly inconvenient daily choice in order to be labeled as environmentally conscious, but are rather forcefully indulged in environmental conflicts which require huge efforts and risk-taking in order to make an impact.

Protest at Temska, Serbia

The second paradox is that, considering the affluence hypothesis, we should support development projects first in order to get the people to be ecologically aware, but they are causing the environmental damage in the first place, currently as well as historically. We have a situation where countries that have been exploiting natural resources and are responsible for most of the environmental damage are at the same time considered ecologically aware, but still financing ecologically damaging projects which should aid in elevating the economic standard so people can start caring about their environment they are currently destroying. Confusing right? However, our examples show a lot of people caring about their environment especially when properly informed, but they cannot simply change a life habit in order to contribute. They must take risks and be ready for everything. In the end, will there be anything left to defend and care about when the unselective economic development reaches some desired level?

The third paradox is related to environmental injustice. Basically, those actors who do environmental damage aren’t the ones who are feeling the consequences. Weakest communities are usually targeted as they are the ones who are often living close to nature so power relations are grossly imbalanced. Often, there is a certain mutually beneficial relationship between certain state actors/institutions and business actors (investors) on one side. On the other side, we have a less organized or unorganized local population, mostly in rural areas supported by volunteers and volunteering intellectuals, experts, professionals, and environmental NGOs and CSOs. This brings us back to the problem of procedural environmental rights failing in practice because having a right to do something doesn’t necessarily imply having the power to do so. Even in situations where some norms considering participation rights have been fulfilled, they had no effect because the people concerned have no real institutionalized power to influence anything.

From Short-Term Wins to the Long-Term Struggle for Policy

These small victories are essential, but we need a long-term solution which is the institutionalization of desired social practices. Things we take for granted nowadays (e.g. women voting in elections) were vigorously fought for in a series of social conflicts. Institutionalization, not just on paper, but in actual practice has the potential to solve problems before they appear or at least can act as one additional powerful tool in the struggle for free-flowing rivers or any other future environmental cause.

When there is a certain problem, injustice or grievance in society there are essentially only two arenas for action: institutionalized (formal) and non-institutionalized (informal). If people concerned about the building of a hydropower plant consider it as illegitimate, which happens all the time in our cases, they will look for ways to balance the power relations and make the actions of the investor as costly as possible. In the absence of procedural power there are two options: giving up and letting the ecocide happen or turning to unconventional tactics which is costly, risky, dangerous and time-consuming. We can whiteness the intensification of environmental conflicts, escalating in physical violence, lasting for years, and still not a viable solution in sight except few short-term solutions like the stoppage of the projects on Mura river in Slovenia and few small-scale projects in Serbia.

Positive attitudes and pure idealism in social movements have proven to be insufficient numerous times as the more powerful side often prevails. People can take power in their hands physically, but it doesn’t last forever because it takes enormous amounts of effort, risk-taking, and sacrifice. What is left is either a short-term win or an institutionalized, material and structural change made in order to balance those power relations in a less costly manner, leading to a more open society that is in the public interest. Potential realization of procedural rights as a part of that desired, long-term change would also mean greater responsibilities and will be tied to other democratic institutions within a particular society as well. This is not to claim that people should go from the streets in the offices at the point of contention because that can be a way to capture the emergent leaders, diminish the potency of the movement and gain time. However, this environmental problem (which all of the countries in the region are facing) can be an opportunity to learn and make structural changes that would benefit all. It can also be quite unifying as it presents a big networking opportunity that can lead to a serious push for the implementation of procedural rights and the development of their mechanisms in order to create a better social environment for future environmental struggles.

Photos of Stara Planina by Milan Simonović

Sinisa Borota is a sociology major and recent graduate of the European Regional Master’s program in Democracy and Human Rights in Southeast Europe.