In Part 1 of the interview with Rok we discussed how damaging dams can be to our rivers and communities. In Part 2 we will talk about the complexities of building a movement around a cause and the different players involved in river nature conservation on the Balkans.
~ Tell us how you came up with the Balkan Rivers Tour idea? ~
After we made the documentary we were invited to the “Balkan Rivers Days” conference that was held in Belgrade in September 2015. There were 140 experts concerned about the rivers. For two days we were listening to their presentations and they were doing a really good job. However I realised that something was missing. They were explaining things they already knew to one another and nobody outside of the room had a decent way to find out about these issues. I said to them that they have a strong case and with the right approach we can get a lot of support. So that’s how the idea about the “Balkan Rivers Tour” was born. I got a chance to talk at that conference and made a google maps screenshot on which I draw a red line from Slovenia to Albania and told them that Zan and myself will make a tour and if they don’t want to join we will still go but if they stand behind us the whole world will hear about the campaign. The NGOs firstly refused to give us their support, they said that the idea is rubbish but the local NGOs & community representatives backed us up.
We also invited a representative from Patagonia, the chief of environmental initiatives in Europe came to Belgrade. We were already having conversations with them. It was a big dream of mine to work with Patagonia.
After the conference I realised I jumped into the water without knowing how to swim, meaning I had to start working 12-14 hours a day on planning the tour – getting sponsors, inviting friends, organising lectures, spreading the word. After 2-3 months the NGOs realised this is getting big and joined the tour…would have been a pity for both sides to miss on such collaboration.
~ Can you tell us more about the organisations involved in the campaign “Save the Blue Heart of Europe”? ~
Yes, we have the NGO’s (EuroNatur & RiverWatch) that run the campaign – “Save the Blue Heart of Europe” and WWF Adria which is active in the region and participates in the river conservation scene. They do a great deal of legal and scientific research. Investigations that require a lot of money and administrative networks which activists don’t have access to, especially when it comes to tracing the money funding these projects. Their bureaucratic approach is necessary but it lacks a lot of the passion we have for the rivers and also the engagement with local communities and generally people who are concerned about nature. They are not kayakers or fishermen, they like the rivers but don’t sleep next to them like we do… It is a very different approach but it has its place in the bigger picture. We realised we need to join forces if we want to be stronger. It was very difficult to collaborate with organisations that want to dominate the planning and idea generation processes. I lost 15kg because of stress and countless meetings while working with these groups but I knew there is no other way so I compromised in the name of the bigger goals. I am glad we took this decision as it really helped the project grow.
~ Why are the NGOs important in this story? What are the things they can do that activist are not able to accomplish? ~
Each year the NGOs have at their disposal a sufficient fund which allows them to run the campaign. They are well known, if they show up into the story some companies might get scared. They use legal instruments that can stop projects or at least buy time. Also they can use their financial power for tracing the funding of the dam constructions. Some of the projects were stopped because the NGOs worked with Bankwatch who raised questions to the European Union investment banks. Lawyers don’t work for free, you need to pay them to do the job and they can stop the big corporations by exposing corruption. This proved to be a very important tool in defending the rivers.
~ What was like working with the bureaucrats from the NGOs? ~
One of the biggest challenges was to make WWF and Save the Blue Heart of Europe (EuroNatur and River Watch) collaborate with one another. This was a big goal of mine as I thought that joining forces at all levels is what will make the project succeed. Also the WWF are so influential they are able to make big corporations pull out of projects. For me it was crucial to have big players in the story. However I was completely oblivious about the complicated politics surrounding big NGOs.
There were many occasions in which I was not happy with the way they go about their work. I realised the big NGOs are not able to collaborate with each other as that would be considered conflict of interest…which is insane…in fact they are competitors often fighting about the same bag of money. This is really against my philosophy when it comes to working together to save a common natural heritage.
All in all the core mission of the NGOs is usually well intentioned but the bureaucratic structures and the size of the organisations does not let them have a grassroots activist approach. Truth is there are so many layers to the story and a huge amount of complicated politics, that I must admit, it was quite stressful for me, it literally drove me crazy.
~ Where is the funding of the NGOs coming from? ~
EuroNatur and RiverWatch money comes from a private fund called MAVA. This means the funding depends on one source and if money is redirected to other causes there is a risk nature conservation sector in Europe can be disrupted big time. Getting funds for nature conservation is always a challenge and the risks are high.
~ And the WWF, where do they take their money from? ~
Well, that is a bit controversial but the main point is they did contribute to the Balkan Rivers Tour which I am thankful for.
“WWF has been accused by the campaigner Corporate Watch of being too close to businesses to campaign objectively. WWF claims partnering with corporations such as Coca-Cola, Lafarge, Carlos Slim’s and IKEA will reduce their impact on the environment. WWF received €56 million (US$80 million) from corporations in 2010 (an 8% increase in support from corporations compared to 2009), accounting for 11% of total revenue for the year.”
~ How was Patagonia involved in funding? ~
What was interesting is that all those NGOs, they didn’t want to fund anything related to the Balkan Rivers Tour at the beginning so the entire tour was initially funded by Patagonia, by a brand… NGOs had all their funds allocated in advance and this project just popped up unexpectedly. But we were lucky to have Patagonia’s support. They made the Balkan Rivers Tour possible. Sure, the funds given by them had to go through the NGOs as I only registered Leeway collective as an NGO (Institute for promotion and protection of aquatic ecosystems) in mid December 2015. So it was a joint venture in all aspects.
It is a bit of a tragedy that whenever you try to do something good the money is never enough and very difficult to find. On the contrary if we were doing something that is damaging nature we would have been most likely bathing in cash…It is important to not be motivated by money when doing nature conservation activism. I feel this is my duty and sure it does make me sleep better at night.
~ Did your knowledge & experience in biology help you with the project? ~
Yes and no, we were learning a lot about nature conservation but it was mostly theory. When it comes to saving ecosystems that doesn’t seem to have much value. You don’t really need to know about snails, bacteria and algae to help nature, you need to know about people and politics because society is the one that can protect nature. So this experience is a big eye opener for me. It’s all about skype meetings, taking people rafting and working to spread the message. Of course knowing great deal about biology and how natural habitats function helps a lot and is a fundamental aspect if you want to have science on your side, but it is not the key element.
~ So tell us about your relationship with Patagonia. After all they funded most of the tour. ~
They gave us the money…and much more, their name. The project was listed on their global agenda. It is the first time Patagonia has a campaign in Europe included on their global agenda and they didn’t ask for anything in return. I had to remind them to send over stickers to put on the kayak… With some sponsors, they give you some equipment and expect you to have a tattoo on your forehead but these guys are different.
It was so nice when they all showed up for the last week of the tour. Some of them flew all the way from Ventura, California. Seeing them having fun next to the river was amazing. We didn’t really know who is who, they sent me a list but I lost it…so the first three days we were just having fun and at some point I asked, who are you guys? And they started telling us… (laughing). This is how genuine friendships are born.
~ Seems like they don’t expect much.. ~
No, they really want to save the rivers.
~ Were there representatives of the NGOs? ~
Yes, they were with us the last week too. They acted a bit like businessman, distanced from the next-to-the-river-lifestyle and the outdoor dirtbag people. Regardless at the end of the day both worlds have to work together in order to save the river. To have different approaches is a strength not a weakness. It just took me a while to realise that. (laughs).
We are not over! Part 3 awaits!