Montenegro’s military — and maybe NATO — want the Sinjajevina Highlands for maneuvers; traditional herding communities want these biodiverse alpine pasturelands conserved.
- A 2019 decree by the government of Montenegro sets forth the country’s intention to set up a military training ground in the highland grasslands of Sinjajevina in the northern part of the country.
- But the pastures of Sinjajevina have supported herders for centuries, and scientists say that this sustainable use is responsible in part for the wide array of life that the mountain supports; activists say an incursion by the military would destroy livelihoods, biodiversity and vital ecosystem services.
- A new coalition now governs Montenegro, one that has promised to reevaluate the military’s use of Sinjajevina.
- But with the country’s politics and position in Europe in flux, the movement against the military is pushing for formal designation of a park that would permanently protect the region’s herders and the environment.
Mileva “Gara” Jovanović’s family has been taking cattle up to graze in Montenegro’s Sinjajevina Highlands for more than 140 summers. The mountain pastures of the Sinjajevina-Durmitor Massif are the largest on Europe’s Balkan Peninsula, and they’ve provided her family not only with milk, cheese, and meat, but with an enduring livelihood and the means to send five of her six children to university.
“It gives us life,”
said Gara, an elected spokesperson for the eight self-described tribes who share the summer pasture. But, Gara says, this alpine pasture — “the Mountain,” she calls it — is under serious threat, and with it the tribes’ way of life. Two years ago, Montenegro’s military moved ahead with plans to develop a training ground where soldiers would carry out maneuvers and artillery practice in these grasslands. No stranger to the daunting challenges of life as an alpine herder, Gara said that when she first heard of the military’s plans, it brought her to tears.
“It’s going to destroy the Mountain because it’s impossible to have both the military polygon there and cattle,”
she told Mongabay.
Anthropologists who have studied the region say that pastoralists have been bringing their herds to the Sinjajevina grasslands for around 3,000 years.
Now, Gara fears that the military’s use of the land will utterly disrupt the current natural balance that 250 local families have carefully cultivated. The tribes are all part of the same ethnic group, and they meet periodically to discuss the management of the pasturelands. Thanks to their nurturing efforts, verdant grasses carpet the Mountain each spring that feed not only their cattle, sheep and horses. The long-sustained partnership between natural and human communities also engenders a unique and richly specied landscape, while snowmelt flowing down from Sinjajevina supplies Montenegro with water and supports its human population.
“Maintaining a diversity of uses and practices up there is helping conserve some very valuable stuff,”
Pablo Domínguez, an environmental anthropologist at the French National Centre for Scientific Research (CNRS) at the University of Toulouse, told Mongabay.
The battle over Sinjajevina’s future — whether it remains a rare example of nature coexisting alongside humanity, or becomes a proving ground for kitted-out troops and heavy artillery — has embroiled not just Gara, the eight tribes, and the government of a small Balkans nation; it may also figure significantly into the global geopolitics of NATO and the European Union.
To many, including Gara, the two paths are incompatible.
That stance led to a 51-day protest in late 2020. Around 150 farmers and activists camped on the Mountain in the fall, blocking the military’s deployment with little more than their presence and sheer determination. For now, at least, they’ve succeeded, coinciding with a seismic, generational political shift in Montenegro. Today, the challenge that preservation proponents like Gara and Domínguez face is to parlay this ephemeral triumph into permanent protections for Sinjajevina and its people.
A highland and homeland of surprising diversity
The Sinjajevina grasslands cover a rocky, rolling plain in northern Montenegro of more than 450 square kilometers (147 square miles), according to the government, amid the craggy dolomitic peaks and limestone karsts of the Dinaric Alps. Average elevations of 1,600 meters (5,250 feet) mean that impassable snows blanket the high pastures for five or six months each year. During that time, herders vacate their katuns — small, seasonal alpine outposts — until the warmth of late spring returns.
These grasslands border Durmitor National Park and the Tara River Basin Biosphere Reserve, both UNESCO World Heritage Sites where the rivers that drain these heights converge, plunging into Europe’s deepest river gorge.
At first glance, Sinjajevina appears boundless and quiet — even barren. In the military’s view, “It is empty,” said Petar Glomazić, a documentary filmmaker. Since 2019, Glomazić has co-led a coalition of international and local human rights groups, environmental NGOs and the European Union’s Green Party in a push to stop Montenegro’s military from commandeering the heart of Sinjajevina.
Those initial impressions of the region’s emptiness can be deceiving. Sinjajevina’s pastures are capable of fattening 10,000 cattle and 70,000 sheep each summer, according to estimates by agricultural scientists. But through the ages, these “semi-natural” grasslands — a designation given because the ecosystem’s persistence depends in part on human activities — have remained an oasis of ecological stability.
“That way of life, that very sustainable way of life, has been there for centuries,”
Beyond Sinjajevina, in the lands below, the people and the environment alike have been hammered by centuries of human-induced tumult in a politically turbulent region. The Balkans sit at the nexus of trade routes connecting Europe and Asia and along the borders between now-defunct empires and religious divisions.
That location has led to repeated conflicts amid shuffled power structures over many centuries.
Gara’s tribe, the Bjelopavlići, trace their legal claim to Sinjajevina back to the 1880s. After a war with the Ottoman Empire, King Nikola I gave the Bjelopavlići the legal right to graze their herds there in recognition of their efforts and sacrifice in holding off the Turks.
Gara and her six children descend from that line of pastoralists who have shepherded their flocks to the Mountain, first by foot, a journey that took three to four days, and now with trucks. They’ve endured two world wars, the formation and disintegration of nation-states, the rising and falling tide of Communism, and a vicious ethnic conflict that brutalized the Balkan Peninsula in the 1990s.
For their part, Gara’s children remain committed to preserving the way of life that their mother and others have kept alive, said her daughter, Persida Jovanović.
The eight tribes feel certain that stripping human influence from the grasslands would trigger an immediate change in the landscape, Gara said — one that could bankrupt the ecosystem and profoundly disrupt the balance that exists there today.
“Our ancestors, and us today, have unwritten laws how to keep the Mountain clean, especially the spring water,”
Gara said. This code governs how early in the season people can bring their livestock to the high pastures, the number of animals allowed, where they can drink to keep waters free of pollution, and other considerations to encourage the renewed production of grasses year after year.
These handed-down strategies have in turn helped preserve wild animal and plant life.
“It is really a beautiful example of symbiosis of humans and nature. That nature would be different without the humans,” Glomazić said, “and vice versa.”
Vanishing global grasslands
Maintaining this time-honored balance requires a delicate dance between traditional pastoral livelihoods and nature — a dance that’s dying out around the world, especially on grasslands as humanity converts them for industrial agribusiness and other modern uses.
In 2020, a team of researchers in Japan, led by Taiki Inoue of the University of Tsukuba in Nagano, looked at plant communities in the Sugadaira Highland grasslands. Japan’s Sugadaira, like Sinjajevina, has hosted herders for thousands of years. More recently, pastoralists have abandoned parts of these Asian grasslands, as they find it harder to make a living herding in today’s world.
The researchers compared the number of plant species living in the grasslands with those living in the forests that sprung up in the herders’ absence and in new grasslands created after loggers cleared some of those forests. They found that the old grasslands — at least 160, and in some cases thousands, of years old — had the widest plant variety by far. Younger grasslands, stemming from deforestation over the past 52 to 70 years, had fewer plant species, but still more than the forest itself.
The authors note that, globally, grasslands are diminishing.
About 13% of Japan’s land area was covered by grassland in the early 20th century, a figure that dropped to 1% by the early 2000s. Likewise, in recent decades, Brazil lost half of its vast Cerrado savanna biome, the largest grasslands now left on Earth. Given these precipitous declines, the authors suggest that conservation efforts should target the oldest “hotspot grasslands” where biodiversity is greatest — places like Sinjajevina.
Part of what makes the hotspots “hot” stems from their susceptibility to takeover by powerful institutions such as modern governments or corporations, which in turn derives from how grasslands are typically managed by traditional communities, Domínguez said. Grasslands are often communally shared, rather than being privately owned by a single individual, family or other legally deeded entity.
Domínguez noted that it doesn’t make much sense to divide up a grass-covered landscape among herders for individual exploitation. In expansive range systems like Sinjajevina, livestock need vast spaces so they do not overexploit the grasses available on a single plot. Sometimes, these commonly managed pastoral areas are even pejoratively referred to as “badlands.” He said this misnomer is due to the incorrect assumption that land is only good when it can be exploited intensively. In fact, he added, such so-called badlands often sustain many times more natural and cultural values than does intensive farming.
In contrast with conventional modern agriculture, the herders of Sinjajevina share the sprawling pastures, across which they move their animals from place to place, adhering to a strict code of self-imposed regulations to avoid overtaxing any one location. As a result, the pastures can offer people sustainable livelihoods almost indefinitely. Gara’s family is living proof that this approach to caring for the commons works, Domínguez said.
But the small population — 250 families in the case of Sinjajevina — leaves these herders in a position where they can “hardly oppose a central state or NATO in their land grabbing,” he said.
Humans and nature in concert
Though Sinjajevina has thrived in balance for centuries, it turns out that the “beautiful” symbiosis” found there — so rare, and becoming more so in the world’s grasslands, rainforests, and other landscapes — isn’t well understood by scientists. Ecologist Vladimir Pešić said that the dearth of data on Sinjajevina makes it “very difficult to talk [about] from a scientific point of view” what would happen if the military turns part of it into a training ground.
“We can only speculate,” said Pešić, a professor at the University of Montenegro. But, he added, “For sure there will be an impact on the Tara River canyon ecosystem.” Milan Sekulović, the secretary-general for the Montenegrin NGO Save Sinjajevina Association, still walks with his family’s herds to the Mountain every spring. He noted that the military incursion risks ruining “one big ecological resource because we still don’t know what we exactly have.”
In fact, the government’s Agency for Nature and Environmental Protection of Montenegro (EPA) probed the ecology of Sinjajevina before the military had — publicly, at least — shown interest in the Mountain. That research, released in 2018, was an initial step toward protecting the Sinjajevina Highlands as a regional nature park.
The study revealed a striking amalgam of plant and animal species, many found in few other places.
Researchers recorded 1,300 plant species, 56 of which live only on the Balkan Peninsula. The massif boasts dozens of bird and mammal species, as well as a handful of protected amphibian and reptile species, including the karst viper (Vipera ursinii macrops), a small, venomous snake that thrives in mountain grasslands but whose numbers have dwindled along with its favored habitat. The EPA study led to the promise of funding from the European Union to establish a park that would protect both the ecosystem and the herders’ way of life.
Other government documents attest to Sinjajevina’s ecological value. A 2015 report from the Montenegrin Ministry of Sustainable Development and Tourism notes that Sinjajevina is a bulwark for threatened mammals, of both the wild and domesticated sort, including the Piva sheep that local shepherds developed.
What’s more, scientists say Sinjajevina feeds Montenegro’s other regions. Every spring, alpine rivers swell with melting snow, gushing down from limestone peaks and providing a vital source of clean freshwater for Montenegro’s population. Pešić, the lead editor of a book called The Rivers of Montenegro, explained that the snowfall on the Mountain was a “very important” water source for the Balkan nation.
Zdravko Krivokapić, the country’s new prime minister, recently acknowledged this reliance, noting the urgent need to better understand how altering Sinjajevina will impact not just the immediate environment and the people who live there, but also the broader population of Montenegro.
“We have to be very careful about everything that we are doing,” Krivokapić told NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg at a joint press conference on Dec. 15, 2020. “We have to find the best solution in order to meet the needs of NATO requirements and our [national] plans, and to preserve the essential value, which is, first and foremost, our environment.”
Gara was more forthright in her assessment.
“If they do the military exercises in Sinjajevina, they’re going to pollute our rivers and mountains,” she said. “The waters that come from Sinjajevina — I think they go to half of the country. If those waters are polluted, everything else is polluted.”
Inoue, T., Yaida, Y. A., Uehara, Y., Katsuhara, K. R., Kawai, J., Takashima, K., … Kenta, T. (2020). The effects of temporal continuities of grasslands on the diversity and species composition of plants. Ecological Research, 36(1), 24-31. doi:10.1111/1440-1703.12169
Pešić, V. (2020). The Rivers of Montenegro. Springer Nature.