Milica Kocovic De Santo is an activist opposing the projects of SHPP in the heart of the protected area, Nature Park Stara Planina (Balkan Mountains), stretching between Serbia and Bulgaria. We're here to tell the story about water defense on the World Water Day.
Central idea behind everything which modern economy doesn't tend to question, is the idea of growth model. Even nowadays, when this economic "ideology" obviously endangers sustainability of all the planetary resources." Milica Kocovic De Santo is a scientific researcher at the Institute of Economic Sciences in Belgrade and a lecturer contractor at the Faculty of Dramatic Arts, of the University of Arts in Belrade.
Milica is one of water defenders in Serbia, which oppose projects of derivative small hydro power-plants in the heart of protected area, Nature Park "Stara Planina" (Balkan Mountains), magical place on a Serbian-Bulgarian border. Let's hear what she has to say on the World Water Day.

Mountain Rivers are Destined to a Bad End

"There's an ongoing operation in Nature Park "Stara Planina" which might become a significant precedent: building SHPP backed up with an argument of supporting the sustainable development. If this logic would go through, every river in Serbia, in the Balkans and potentially any river in the world would be predestined to a bad end. That end would apply to us as well", says Milica Kocovic De Santo.
Stara Planina is a Nature Park where it's planned to build 60 SHPP. Serbian regime's attitude correlates with the pre-accession obligations of Serbia towards the EU, to increase the share of energy produced from renewable resources, whereby Balkan countries have opted for the cheapest option. This decision, which they characterize as energetically sustainable, has attracted many domestic and foreign investors, whose names are sometimes very hard to find out.

Story Which Deserves to be Told

Defend the Rivers of Stara Planina movement has started with public activities in 2018, spreading the information, documentary, cultural, artistic and legal content, presented in the FB group which now counts around 90000 members. We're a group of citizens, passionate and disobedient, without any ambition to become a political party. The goal of our fight is to stop or slow down any project which would have negative impact on the environment. We have never believed that pure energy is necessarily equal to sustainability." Milica Kocovic De Santo
The goal of our fight is to prevent and slow down any project which could have negative impact on the environment. We have never believed that clean energy necessarily equals with sustainability.

Milica Kočović De Santo


Battle on Multiple Fronts to Defend the Territory

"We use different methods", says the activist, "depending on the situation. For example, in February 2020, our delegation: Aleksandar Jovanović Ćuta, Aleksandar Panić and Desimir Stojanov Desko, have submitted our request to the Minstry of of Environmental Protection, followed by the art performance. On that occasion, we have brought "the biggest and the most important demand in the history of the written demands" in front of the Government building, and we did that on stools."
Many artists participated in the DRSP events, including Manu Chao, which fully supported the group's demands.
We demand the resolution of the environmental protection inspector to be obeyed. Based on this resolution, we request the pipeline to be removed from Rakitska River and reverting the surrounding to its original state. This resolution was issued by the inspector of the Ministry of Environmental Protection more than a year ago. Nothing has been done yet. The State ignores itself. In the meantime, investor is using this institutional confusion to quickly put the pipes in the river bed."

When the State Favors the Private Sector

"Every river is life and this is fundamental consideration; not political (at least not party-wise), but human and as such, it should matter to everyone. Strategies of our combat are diverse: independent informing of the public, with a goal to contribute to the emancipation of ordinary people through experimenting, creating new eco-cultural areas, to help understand how such projects impact all of us. Everything we've done, we did in accordance with the laws and Constitution of our country, which we all love. We hope that we will motivate other actors interested in this topic to follow our example using different communicative, ecological, cultural and legal interventions.

What's the Essence of the Problem?

"Water and common goods - commons, so everything which has a public interest and importance, are facing tough times because they belong to the society but get usurped by the individuals which return only damage and related costs to the society, while collecting profit at the same time. This basically means that in this case, state acts in the interest of private sector. There's an organized network of attackers on our rivers like mafia, which includes state apparatus, leaders, ministers, public companies, local administrations and investors.
In the example of protected area of Balkan Mountains, sustainability of the natural resources, biodiversity and ecosystem, cultural differences and social vitality are put aside due to the interest of private sector, following the idea that sustainable development is surely not balanced, but a reference for achieving economical growth, at the cost of endangering the remaining pillars: ecological, social and cultural. After all, we only do what institutions should do."

Movement Recognized by the Community - Costs its Members a lot

"Some of our activists are frequently invited to give statements in the police. However, I have to say that more and more members of the army and police approach us and express their understanding and gratitude, but also readiness to help, which is of great value for us. We're in this together."
At the local level, in Pirot district, authorities have blocked several local initiatives where DRSP members were involved. There are several ongoing lawsuits between the investor and the citizens because of psychological and physical violence over the local residents, especially in the example of villages Rakita and Topli Do.

Financing and Rewards

"Financial assets we use to realize the activities come exclusively from the donations. The biggest part of these assets is used to cover expenses for trials. On the other side, there are some nice examples. We have been awarded this year at the National Theater by several organizations which recognized us as a "team with the biggest positive impact on the community in 2019". So, we have been recognized on the both sides of good and bad, as social and political actors, corrective force and that makes us particularly happy."

Apart from the support of the locals and the part of third sector in Serbia , through contacts and cooperation with similar movements

"We established contacts with activists from Kosovo, Montenegro, Croatia, Bosnia, Albania, Bulgaria. Especially in the Balkans, where we're facing bigger and bigger challenges with small hydro power-plants. That established a network: Blue Heart of Europe and we were contacted by many informally gathered activists. We can't say that this cooperation is continuous, international and coordinated, but it exists. We also hope that radicalization of our activities is not the only option and we still hope that it is not the only solution. However, if we consider the fact that laws in Serbia are framework which not even the higher instances obey, making the work of other institutions meaningless, this leads an average person trying to exercise its freedoms, to a dead end. Everything mentioned above closes all the possibilities of legal and institutional operation, although we as a movement insist on obeying Laws and Constitution more than any other stakeholder."

Is there a Plan which can be an Alternative to SHPP, Striving to Sustainability?

We have a proposal in relation to development of new alternatives. "We need interdisciplinary experiments, with a purpose of finding alternative system and development solutions through the development of realistic possibilities, which have a positive impact on the citizens, through fair utilization, allocation and creation of the resources.
New direction we dream of is a common plan, which doesn't exclude international cooperation. The idea is to invite people who face the same challenges to act in solidarity when it comes to economic, social, ecological and cultural alternatives, which they can achieve and live in clean eco-cultural autonomy. The idea of eco-cultural autonomy is still in the stage of conceptual development. The time has come to experiment on multiple levels, through social laboratories for developing new approaches and xxxxxx."
"Eco-cultural autonomy should be started as a civic project, bottom-up, creating an emancipated mass which is strong enough, which understands its role and helps others understand the role of individual in the society. The goal would be to return the law and Constitution in the center of the idea of the rule of law. primarily of the internal legislative, and then international conventions. Next goal would be to ramp up the ability of citizens to a level where people could continuously question legislation, formal and specialist knowledge, as well as any other knowledge which could produce arguments against destructive projects producing negative effects on the sustainability of the natural, cultural and human resources."

Instead of conclusion, Milica Kocovic De Santo has listed some keywords to tickle the imagination about what else is cooking in DRSP kitchen as a systematic alternative for future sustainable solutuons:
"Fair trade, fair share, permaculture ethics, organic and bio-dynamic agriculture, eco-cultural tourism, participative management, management of the natural and cultural heritage by the local community, virtue ethics, creativity through questioning and experimenting - are the tools available to many communities defending water as a public and common good."

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