What does the development of a mountain region entail, whether it be Stara planina (Balkan Mountains) or any other mountain in Serbia?
It entails a few tight-knit segments that could preserve the wealth of nature to the benefit of the local population and, consequently, the economic development of nearby urban areas and state economy.
Since humans have already made a huge mark on the nature, hydrology and geomorphology of mountain regions throughout centuries, words such as “untouched” or “pristine” cannot be taken quite literally when talking about mountain regions, including even the remotest ones. However, for very long, those regions used to be exploited exclusively in traditional ways. Due to that fact, as well as the proximity of the state border, the region of Stara planina (Balkan Mountains) abounds in diverse plant and animal species and is the closest there is to untouched nature. This region’s biodiversity (i.e. the level of natural balance preservation) may be its most interesting segment.
Villages and people in this area and their influence on the immediate and wider environment make up the second segment. The expansion of pastures on the account of woodland areas, the construction of roads and accompanying infrastructure, the establishment of villages and similar settlements, hunting, fishing and fruit gathering are only some of the factors that had a noticeable impact on this area’s biodiversity. Though significant, those changes were far from harmful or devastating because the mountain residents of the past followed certain written and unwritten rules that are nowadays considered traditional. In the light of climate change, industrial exploitation of forests, mindless search for energy sources regardless of the consequences, the traditional ways now serve as a shining example of what the relationship between humans and nature should be like. We should rely on positive experiences of previous generations, which were far more in line with the intricate system of mutual relationships and boundaries that should not be crossed in order to maintain the delicate balance of the ecosystem.
Socio-demographic and historical circumstances, customs and cultural heritage, traditional crafts and everything else existing between humans and nature has a part both in the development and degradation of the area.
The most dangerous segment that has reached mountain regions due to industrialization is the commercial attitude toward mountain resources, including forests, water, rocks and even the local people, who are forced to relocate, adapt to life in cities and completely break connections with their place of origin, traditional lifestyle and predecessors because of industrialists’ insatiable appetite for profit. Back in the 90s, those people were presented with economically and environmentally unsustainable grandiose plans to build impressive tourist resorts, huge hotels and ski centers and offer leisure and sports activities, which were supposed to boost the demographically impoverished villages. The nonsensical idea of tourism development, accompanied with extensive exploitation of forests and an orchestrated attack on mountain rivers for the sake of inefficient alternative energy sources, paves the way to utter destruction of Serbian mountains. This horrible scenario has, unfortunately, already come true at Kopaonik – one of the most beautiful Serbian mountains. Although this area is under the highest level of natural resource protection, all of its rivers have been piped and forests have been cut down for the sake of two months of ski fun at illegal hotels and neighborhoods built at the top of the mountain.
Who is there to oppose all this? Who can help the desperate local population? What is the only thing between the gloomy exploitation scenario and the preservation of nature, local people and places and traditional life values?
The answer is individuals and movements that have realized the importance of opposing bare ski slopes, derivative small hydropower plants, senseless deforestation (both legal and illegal) and all other negative factors. They are backed up by all kinds of relevant experts, who are continually expressing their concerns that we are wasting the last bits of our planet’s natural wealth – its water, air and soil, its forests and natural food resources. All those people are guided by the idea of having clean air, forest paths, rivers with drinking water, woodlands and pastures that are as good food resources as the best agricultural fields. Those ideas continue to oppose the intention to seal our view with glass surfaces.
Is there a better way to use the full potential of the mountain regions than to give the local communities a chance to organize their lives the way that suits them best, with the most benign exploitation of natural resources possible? That way, the rest of us would have a chance to become familiar with the intricate relationship between nature and locals and get a glimpse of the ancestral bond formed by the centuries of their harmonious coexistence. That way we would be able to fully understand the harmfulness of human vanity and mindless consumerism. But that would, of course, go against modern business plans merely focused on earning as much money as possible.
The single idea we are gathered around contains all the positive and necessary factors to present the development plan that would enable the preservation of natural resources and provide moral and material support to the local communities, with the possibility of attracting what’s currently missing the most – young professionals willing to invest their scientific enthusiasm into cooperation with the locals, aimed at identifying and promoting natural, cultural, aesthetic and sports potentials of the mountain. These young people could be attracted by founding scientific and training centers, in which all those potentials could be scientifically analyzed and presented, which would be the basis for gathering likeminded people and nature enthusiasts to enjoy this vanishing world.
Those centers could be more than mere university outposts: they could be places where the ideas of nonconformance to injustices committed against the mountain and nature would be cherished and developed.
At the moment, this idea is based on the enthusiasm of the locals and activists, who are not only fighting to preserve nature but also to help sustain the lifestyle of dignity and adherence to traditional values. Those ideas are not tolerated by various political establishments, which fear them because they are unsure of whether to use them to their benefit (and how to do so) or to rely on the misuse of regulations and influences to incite fear of what is too forward-looking and unfathomable to the avaricious people.