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Zenica
Tirana
Skopje

Fighting for environment

Environmental issues are slowly making their way into Western Balkan countries’ policies, mostly as part of the negotiations with the European Union. Chapter 27 of the accession package is indeed one of the biggest parts of rules to be implemented in every candidate country’s legal framework. However, what is put on paper is often far from what is done in reality to tackle issues such as air pollution or to protect pristine Balkan waters.

Samir Lemeš fights in Zenica, Bosnia and Herzegovina, for cleaner air and life. For him, it is about fulfilling his role as a citizen and as a professor. Nevena Smilevska wants to prevent new abuses against the environment and new traumas for the people of Macedonia, as it has already happened in other Balkan countries. Olsi Nika will do everything to protect the natural richness of Albania and particularly its waters, even if it means fighting both local mentalities and international banks.

Balkanoscope: What are the biggest environmental issues you are facing?

Samir Lemeš: Air pollution in Zenica is at awful levels. We are suffering from an unfavourable geographical position. Those industries that were developed during Yugoslavia and even before, are made for open spaces like Siberia, not for our valleys where the pollution is trapped. Due to those industries, we also have water and soils pollution, which affects agriculture. Industrial waste is also not being taken care of properly. Since the factory was bought by Arcelor Mittal in 2004, it is producing twice less steel while polluting as much as during Yugoslavia.

Nevena Smilevska: Air pollution is the biggest problem in Macedonia. Mining is another one. We have an issue in Eastern Macedonia where they are planning 86 concessions for explorations. The Kazandol case in Valandovo, for instance, was intense, with a strong opposition from the local population. They even tried to have a referendum, but it failed. I hope those projects won’t go through because this region is mainly agricultural and I am quite certain that it will be impossible to protect the soils. We are also having problems with “historical pollution”, like dump sites for chemicals from factories dating from the Yugoslav period, or the dumpsite of the power plant in Bitola.

Olsi Nika: For me, our biggest problem is the uncontrolled hydropower plants constructions because you see those constructions happening even in protected areas. We also have problems with air pollution in urban areas such as Tirana. Our waters are also polluted with chemicals and garbage due to a complete lack of waste management and of river management. There is still no river management plan, which means anyone can do anything, nobody will be held responsible.

Balkanoscope: How do those issues affect the people? Yourself?

SL: It is very hard to estimate how people are affected, as there are very few data available. According to what is, cancer rates are higher in Zenica than anywhere else and they are increasing. We tried to ask institutions for data and studies but they said they could not do them. In Zenica we have a joke: “Here we see what we breath”. My father died in 2009, he had diabetes and he got the flue. I am certain that if air pollution did not kill him, it shorten his time.

NS: I was aware of those problems even before I had kids. But now I cannot even take my three-year-old daughter outside because she hates to wear a mask and it is hard to convince her that she needs to. The main problem of those hotspots is that they are next to cities. People are not even aware of what is there and how toxic it is. In Veles, the soil is contaminated with mercury, nickel and more. There isn’t a family there who hasn’t lost a member to cancer.

ON: Obviously, air pollution affects anyone who breathes. Polluted waters are used sometimes to drink or for agriculture. The hydropower plants affect the lives of people living by the river. The biggest ones need reservoirs, which means that people’s lands and therefore livelihood will be destroyed. The rivers represent a certain quality of life. They are also production areas for animals, fishes, but also for instance of the sand that gives us our landscape on the coasts. And you cannot escape from it, you cannot stop drinking water or breathing. For instance, our office is just a hundred meters away from the most polluted crossroad in Tirana, we have to pass by it.

Balkanoscope: How did you come to work on this problem?

SL: In 2008, a group of citizens started Ekoforum Zenica. I was not part of it at the beginning. I went to their roundtable a year later and I got more and more involved. I proposed to make them a web page, as it was my hobby back in the days. Then in 2010, I was elected president. For me, it is a social responsibility. I teach at the university, not in that field, but I feel like part of the intellectuals and if intellectuals do not act on these problems, who will?

NS: I used to work for the national airline but decided to move to the civil sector because I thought I could do more for everyone. Then things simply lined up and I joined ekosvest. I started to work on a project to educate civil society to Natura 2000 (the network of nature protection areas in the territory of the EU, Ed.). A lot of pressure needs to be put to make sure that habitats and species are protected and the civil sector needs to be prepared. I remember when I went on a fact-finding mission in Serbia when they extended the Kolubara mine. It is a very emotional memory. The people were devastated. Not only were they being removed, but so were the graves of their families. Nothing can compensate for your dead ones to be taken away. I thought: “We cannot let this happen in Macedonia”.

ON: I am from Saranda, a coastal town in the South and since I am young I am aware of the beauty of our nature. I am also an environmental biologist, with a specialisation in hydrobiology. I was involved in Save the Blue Heart of Europe campaign (for the protection of Balkan rivers against uncontrolled and massive hydropower plants constructions, Ed.) and in order to be more dedicated, we split and Eco-Albania started in 2014. We are not only dealing with the Blue Heart Campaign, but also with environmental education and activism, lobbying and advocacy.

Balkanoscope: Despite environment being a big part of the accession negotiations with the EU for every candidate country, it is usually neither governments’ nor people’s priority. Economy and employment are the populations’ biggest worries and this is sometimes used by governments or companies against civil society’s work towards better protection of the environment. Would you say that the protection of the environment has space in the country’s politics?

SL: I would not say that is completely absent from politics, as we have environmental laws almost like in the EU. However, that is only on paper. Politicians talk about it but do not act. On the local level, it has no part in political campaigns. They avoid the topic because they do not know what to say about it. Even worse: our current mayor’s first statement after his election a year and a half ago was to say that we need to stop talking about pollution because it will scare off investors. He understands the problem, but his way to solve it is wrong. He even tried to silence us, saying we are doing this for money. Unfortunately, it works with the people. They like our mayor like people like Donald Trump in the US. They like that he is insulting us. People always think civil society, NGOs, have a hidden agenda, that they cannot be honest.

NS: It did not until air pollution went through the roof. We saw for instance in local elections in autumn 2017 in Skopje that the campaign was mostly on this topic. It is not exactly the first time, that happened 15 years ago, but this time we can see a move in the right direction. There was a change in the leading majority and maybe we will see something happening. If in three years from now they are still open to the topic the situation might get better.

ON: It depends on the issue. If we compared to twenty years ago, there is definitely an improvement. The environment has something catchy, sexy because it seems “Western” and here people love everything that has to do with the West. But that’s just talking. We are only seeing minor changes when it comes to policies. Moreover, we see regress in the last couple of years. The merging of the ministry of the environment with the ministry of tourism is one example: mega touristic resorts are to be constructed to help tourism, and that means abusing the environment. It is not only a problem here but also in Bulgaria, in Macedonia…

Balkanoscope: Do people hear and understand your messages and campaigns?

SL: In 2012 we organized a protest with 5,000 to 10,000 participants. For a town like Zenica, it is quite something! But the effect did not last. It is the mentality in the Balkans to wait for someone else to do the job. It is very hard to organize citizens. They have tried for a long time to change things and every time they were betrayed by leaders and politicians so they lost confidence that something can be changed. There is also always a competition between social and environmental issues, they are afraid they might lose their jobs.

NS: They only feel concern about air pollution. I don’t really see anyone mentioning water pollution or soil contamination, except on local level in certain cases. They are getting more aware but it still does not concern the majority. They feel more concerned about socio-economic issues. For instance, if you ask them: “Should we put more money into protecting the environment?”, they will say yes. But if you ask: “Should we raise the price of electricity to finance cleaner production?”, they will say that they cannot afford that. Still, this needs to be presented hand in hand because better air quality means less medical problems and therefore fewer bills and a healthcare system less burdened. This is a process for policymakers to take into the matter.

ON: There is a better awareness, for sure. We, the civil society, are doing a lot of work for that. But in Albania as in other poor countries, the environment is not the first priority for people, although it affects everyone. We should not forget that it is not enough to tell people not to throw their garbage everywhere if the government or local authorities do not provide them with bins and waste management.

Balkanoscope: Civil society and NGOs are also often facing international banks or companies interested in industrial production in the Western Balkans, where former Yugoslav factories, cheap labour and generous natural resources offer attractive opportunities for business. The European Bank for Reconstruction and Development has been made aware several times of its financing of projects damaging the environment, including projects in protected areas. Without the intervention of the civil society, those funds would have been provided despite the important legal standards such powerful financial institutions have set up for themselves. How is it to try to talk or even to fight powerful international organisations and companies?

SL: I understand that Arcelor Mittal wants to make money. I am only an enemy of their profit, not of the industry or of the production. We do not demand the impossible, we have data from the Czech Republic, showing that you can increase production and decrease pollution at the same time. You just need to invest. We also manage to attract the attention of media and embassies and our problem is more widely known, but that is not enough. We cannot force Arcelor Mittal to change its corporate decisions.

NS: We are making sure that when they (international finance or banking organisations) finance a project they respect their own environmental policies. In a couple of cases, we intervened and discussed with stakeholders about problems and we won. Also, the European Union is consulting us, civil society, and we have seen in the last couple of years some of our notes and recommendations being included in the country’s annual progress report, which is a strong signal.

ON: Banks are just banks, even if they are the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development. But the difference with any other commercial banks is that they have upgraded environment policies and very strict guidelines. However, in our experience with participating in fact-finding missions, that kind of banks do not have the resources to follow up what happens on the ground. They give loans based on what is on paper. All the necessary restrictions are in their guidelines but they don’t go and check by themselves if everything they are being assured of is true.

Balkanoscope: What is your biggest success so far?

SL: We tried to internationalize the fight because Arcelor Mittal is such a big player, they have so much money. We got help from a Czech NGO, Arnika, which ran tests and analysis and we used them to bring a legal case to the prosecutor office in 2015. But since then, nothing has changed. Also, after the protest in 2012, we obtained a digital measurement of air pollution levels. After that, every time we were above the limit, there were immediate actions in the city and in the factory and the pollution dropped within hours! But the authorities did not take care of those instruments and now we do not have reliable data. Nevertheless, we pushed the government to stop lying about pollution issues in the country. We need to keep them aware that they are being watched. And thanks to our pressure, Arcelor Mittal did invest a little in the factory and the level of sulphur in the air have finally started to decrease after the peak of 2014.

NS: We installed a city tree in Skopje and Tetovo (a green structure of several plants combined to breath and clean the air in the most efficient way possible, Ed). For the first time, we managed to bring together civil society, businesses which financed the project, and municipalities which are now in charge of taking care of the trees. It is new and practical. We are also part of the regional “coal campaign” to reduce the part of coal in our industry sector. We made assessments and showed simply how putting our industries in line with environmental directives could save lives. The energy sector is now starting to open to us and to be more transparent.

ON: Last year we were supporting the local community directly affected by the construction of a hydropower plant in Poçem. It comprises a big reservoir that would flood their arable lands and would be the end of their livelihood. We filed a lawsuit in the court in Tirana against the ministry of environment and the ministry of energy, and we won in the first instance. It is the first case ever! Litigation process was one of the weapons civil society in Albania had not used so far and we were surprised by the result, as we did not have big confidence in the justice system. However, this is not the end as the ministries have appealed the decision. They are also discussing for another plant in Kalivaç with the very same company who was going to build the dam in Poçem! Our fight is a long one, but luckily we are young enough.


Interviewed by Marion Dautry

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Samir Lemeš; © Balkanoscope
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Olsi Nika; © Balkanoscope
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Nevena Smilevska; © Balkanoscope
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