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Grassroots campaign saves major wetland in Montenegro

  • Campaigners have saved the Ulcinj Salina in Montenegro from development after an 18-year campaign.
  • They lobbied European Union ministers, mindful of fact that Montenegro’s leadership was looking to join the EU, but its poor environmental record was holding it back.
  • They also used the influence of European diplomats to augment pressure on local officials and of the internet to broadcast their cause worldwide. They won local support with their plans for sustainable tourism.

MONTENEGRO — “You see, they are coming, the visitors are coming,” says Jovana Janjušević as we walk along one of the trails that zig-zag across Ulcinj Salina, a diverse saltwater wetland in southern Montenegro.  “Now when we see people walking around, it is amazing… we fought for almost 18 years.”

Covering 15 square kilometers (6 square miles), the salina is part of the Bojana-Buna estuary and one of the most important wetland areas in the Balkans. Thousands of birds rest here each year in the spring and autumn. Its significance to migratory birds is often compared to that of Heathrow Airport for humans, with nine times more birds passing through the salina than passengers through one of the world’s busiest airports.

The Ulcinj Salina showing remnants of its old salt works as natural vegetation take over. Image by Mark Hillsdon for Mongabay.

For nearly two decades, a partnership including EuroNatur, the Martin Schneider Jacoby Association (MSJA) and the Center for Protection and Research of Birds (CZIP) has been working to protect the lagoon from development, with a campaign that has mixed traditional lobbying with the power of the internet and the world of diplomatic relations.

The salina is the site of the old Bajo Sekulic salt works, which opened in 1926 and at its height employed over 450 local people, producing a high-quality salt billed as ‘a marriage of the sun and the sea.’

Over the years there have been various attempts to protect the salina, which is also home to over 50 different species of nesting birds, including huge flocks of greater flamingo, rare Dalmatian pelicans, and diminutive black-winged stilts.

Hunting was banned by the local worker’s council as early as 1984, when Montenegro was still part of the former Yugoslavia, and five years later the site was recognized as an Important Bird Area (IBA).

Flamingos specialize on salt water habitats. Image by Mark Hillsdon for Mongabay.

In September 2019, the salina was also designated a Wetland of International Importance under the Ramsar Convention, putting additional pressure on the government to take the necessary steps to maintain and enhance the ecological character of the saltpans.

Until 2005, the site was managed for salt production, with the careful maintenance of its channels and saline pools proving perfect for birdlife. But the situation changed dramatically in 2005 when the salina was privatized, with 75 percent of shares in the salt works bought for €800,000 ($890,000) by an investment company called Eurofond, in what EuroNatur has described as an ‘opaque process.’

The unanswered question, explains Janjušević, executive director at CZIP, is whether the sale involved just the right to extract salt, or all the land as well. Eurofond claim the latter but according to the local land registry, the Montenegrin state is still the registered owner.

In 2012, the salt company declared bankruptcy and halted production, allowing the site to rapidly deteriorate, with criminals destroying the pumps which were crucial to circulating water around the site and preserving the unique habitat.  As dams collapsed, fresh water flooded in, says Janjušević, deterring the migrant birds that thrive on the salt water.

An old canal and roadway from the salt works still provides structure used by waterbirds. Image by Mark Hillsdon for Mongabay.

Eurofund also began lobbying hard for the designation of the salina to be changed from an industrial zone to land suitable for the construction of a tourist resort, putting forward plans for a marina, golf course and luxury hotel.

The Save Salina Campaign launched a petition to oppose this change of use but, said Janjušević, only 3,000 local people signed it because many of them were afraid to put their name to the text. To prove citizenship, Montenegrins also have to give their ID number, she explained, and many people were unsure how this information would be used.

The petition did initially meet with some success, and parliament recognized the salina as a ‘potential protected area,’ but the success was short-lived, and the decision was overturned by the courts on appeal in 2015. However, the partners were allowed to tentatively start promoting the site, with the creation of a small souvenir shop, interpretation boards and even bike hire. But access was eventually denied, as the factory’s bankruptcy proceedings were completed.

The old factory and workshops at the entrance to the salina now lie derelict as gradually the whole site was dismantled, with everything of any value stripped out, including the pumps that CZIP installed to help increase the flow of water around the salt pans.

But the campaigners had a secret weapon; they had arranged a special VIP visit to the site, which was attended by the ambassadors from the German, French and Polish embassies. All of a sudden, the campaign had friends in high places and the fate of the salina could no longer be ignored.

Jovana Janjušević, executive director at the Center for Protection and Research of Birds (CZIP). Image by Mark Hillsdon for Mongabay.

“When you have people saying something is important but they are just a bunch of ornithologists, it can be ignored,” said Janjušević. “But when you have an ambassador saying it, then it’s fact, no one questions it.”

Diplomats are taught not to meddle, she added, but they can ask questions and that can ‘make the government sweat.’

A key figure proved to be the former German ambassador, Gudrun Steinbacker. “In the course of our interventions and through our own investigations and those of relevant NGOs… we got to know more about the corruption around the privatization of the salina and made it public,” said Steinbacker. It was, she added: “a very questionable privatization.”

“Montenegro is in the course of [European Union] accession and has to implement EU standards, especially in the field of environment and nature conservation,” Steinbacker said. “There is a huge gap between documents and reality on the ground. We ambassadors from EU countries have a right to take note of these gaps and appeal to the government to improve the standards.”

Without Steinbacker’s support, said Michael Bader, who rents tourist accommodation in Ulcinj: “we wouldn’t be where we are today… It pushed everything to a higher, international level.”

While the campaign had already been lobbying key EU ministers, the diplomatic pressure significantly raised the profile of the salina, to the extent that it became central to Montenegro’s efforts to join the EU. It is now included in the government’s annual progress reports to the EU, and protection of the salina has been set as benchmark for future EU accession. In 2017, an EU study said that the salina should be revitalized, with the Montenegrin government agreeing that salt production should be re-established.

Campaigners also launched a second petition to afford the site protected status, this time harnessing the power of the internet and the WeMove platform to gain over 100,000 signatures in just two weeks. The petition resonated with people around the world, said Janjušević, and put further pressure on the Government until in June this year the site finally received protected area status as a Nature Park.

The Ulcinj Salina, with remaining salt works infrastructure, supports a wide variety of migratory waterbirds. Covering 15 square kilometers (6 square miles), it’s part of the Bojana-Buna estuary and one of the most important wetland areas in the Balkans. Thousands of birds rest here each year in the spring and autumn. Image by Mark Hillsdon for Mongabay.

According to Montenegrin law, explained Janjušević, the power to designate sites below national park status lies with the local authority, although in this case the national government was also involved “because the pressure from the EU went straight to them, not to the local municipality.”

“Perseverance finally pays off,” said EuroNatur CEO Gabriel Schwaderer. “The town council’s decision offers the opportunity to really preserve and revitalise the salina. It’s been a long struggle.”

“We will closely track the further developments,” he added. “The Nature Park logo must not become a fig leaf for the government.”

The key elements of the protection are that salt production is to be re-introduced and activities such as cycling and birdwatching will be encouraged, but no new buildings are to be constructed.

“This victory for nature is a unique example of people struggling for birds,” Janjušević said. “Against all pushback, against spatial planning, investors’ desires, industry and bare figures.”

She said the monitoring and bird surveys local birdwatchers carry out supported their efforts.  “We have based everything on science, not just our feelings… We use scientific methods that are proven – then you have something in your hands that you can fight the decision makers with.”

The campaign also tapped into local affection for the site and was able to show local people that the proposed luxury tourist development would not only destroy the salina but also provide poorly paid, often temporary jobs. Instead, they are now developing a sustainable tourism plan that promotes a more diverse range of stable jobs based around nature tourism, as well the health benefits and spa potential of the salina’s mud and salt.

“I think tourism is going in another direction, and people are looking to have less impact on nature,” Bader said. “Tourists are already coming, even without big marketing, they are coming. If you push this a little bit then this area will be full of visitors, and that’s the sustainable tourism that Ulcinj needs.”

The salina now has Nature Park status, achieved after years of campaigns and with the help of several European diplomats. Image by Mark Hillson for Mongabay.

But winning Nature Park status is far from the end of the story, and the campaign is set to continue applying pressure and raising awareness until this unique habitat is brought back to full health.

Conserving the biodiversity of the salina requires the same level of water management as salt production, said Janjušević, and an estimated €10 million ($11,150,000) is needed to restore it.

But despite the fact the second petition called on the Government to identify the true owners of the site, prime minister Duško Marković has yet to respond. “The next step must be to find out who is the real owners,” Bader said. “If you don’t know who is the owner, you will not get an investor.”


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