6 countries, 18 rivers, and 36 days of paddling is what it takes to start a movement that has the potential to save the last remaining pristine rivers on the Balkans.
Here’s the final part of our interview dedicated to Saving the Balkan Rivers.
~ Tell us more about the Balkan Rivers Tour? ~
The idea was to bring awareness to the problems that potential dam projects can cause. We did not have a solution on how to stop those plans, our purpose was to get the word out, state the facts, inform the public and see what happens. For this purpose we combined paddling with community meetings and parties.
Creating these types of events was made easy by the local NGOs who supported us and synchronised their protest actions with our itinerary.
My personal goal was to show that nature conservation can be cool and I think we managed to do this by creating momentum through social and local media. This was key to the success of our tour as it informed a significant amount of people about dams and their negative impact on nature.
~ Share some interesting stories from the tour. A moment you will never forget? ~
There were many unforgettable experiences, the one that was particularly interesting happened in Tirana. So one of the big NGOs was responsible for the communication with the Albanian government months before the tour. Two days before our protest action, representatives from the NGO went to meet the environmental minister and the deputy prime minister. After everything was agreed and confirmed, a day before we arrived in Tirana the NGO got a call from the government office demanding from us to cancel the action, they didn’t want us to protest…Of course, the NGO wanted to follow the rules but I insisted that since we have come so far we should make it happen regardless.
As part of the protest we headed to the prime minister’s office. We walked with the kayaks through town and when we arrived we saw a huge group already protesting. Again the people from the NGO were like: “We can’t do our protest because there is already a protest”.
Turned out those protesters were miners working for the government which failed to pay their salaries for over 8 months! I found a guy who spoke English and he told me that no TV wants to broadcast their protest. They’ve been completely ignored by the media.
I tried to explain that even though the problems we are facing are a bit different we have a lot in common. I told him that we are not fighting only for the rivers and the little trout but also trying to protect the local communities that will be devastated if their land is flooded. The miners decided that we should join forces and protest together. So we shouted our slogans for half an hour and then we shouted theirs. We managed to convince a journalist to cover their protest and they appeared in the evening news. That made us super happy. Our crowd was 200-250 but united we doubled the numbers and made a bigger action.
~ What was the goal of the Balkan Rivers Tour and do you think you’ve achieved it? ~
I used to have a goal concept because I was trained as a professional athlete and that’s what they teach you when you are young. After I left the field I realised this goal oriented concept is completely lost. I feel it is too much of a build up of expectations and unnecessary planning, and on top of this once achieved you feel empty and that’s not how I’d like to be so now I just have a direction.
Of course when you speak to sponsors they require from you to have goals so for the Balkan River Tour I had those, but the trip exceeded them significantly.
I guess to try and answer the question, the purpose of the Balkan Rivers Tour was to create a movement showing that it is possible to save nature and have fun at the same time. And you don’t need to be a biologist or geologist. You don’t even need to have a degree. The only thing one needs is passion for nature and then it doesn’t matter who you are and where you come from.
What gets me sometimes is that among the nature conservation NGOs there is this idea that adventure people harm the environment. Even now they make us send them photos of rivers without kayakers. So another good thing would be to help open the doors for collaboration between NGOs and outdoor enthusiasts. They’ve been closed for too long. Sometimes kayakers would reach out to the organisations who preserve the rivers in an attempt to help, but would be quickly turned away because the nature conservationists think kayakers damage the rivers. There is minor impact but it is definitely less than the significant contributions kayakers can make to saving the rivers. Proper collaboration could bring big benefits!
~ Do you think it’s possible to engage people in direct action in order to preserve nature by introducing them to adventure sports like kayaking? ~
It’s definitely the easiest way. Some people including conservation NGOs speak about nature as something isolated that needs to be protected and left alone but I don’t see how this can be positive because it creates a concept of separation from the environment. It’s like, saving an exclusive luxurious place so some people can visit it for couple of days when released for holidays. I feel nature is much more fundamental for us than a separate remote area reserved for short visits. To understand that one needs to truly connect and that can happen by practicing outdoor sports. Then one develops a need to be outside every single day. It is a genuine meaningful interaction with nature which eventually evolves into love, friendship and appreciation. And when something or someone threatens this relationship people who are connected start to act as protectors. It is how I see it. Because I wouldn’t fight for the rivers the way I do if I didn’t know them so well. They are my closest friends and like you I simply won’t let somebody harm my friend…
~ What next in the development of movement? ~
Yesterday I received a call from Patagonia that my application for a grant was successful so that makes me really happy. It is a good start.
Next on the agenda is making a documentary. For that one, in September we went on a smaller Balkan tour, to film not only the rivers but also local people and their stories. Then to put this film into a wider context we are planning on going to Tasmania where we will make a parallel with the biggest success story of saving the Franklin river. In the 80s fisherman and kayakers united and won the battle for the river against the dam project.
We are also planning on putting up a lot of presentations in the form of discussions and kayaking, so we can get more people involved and show them why it is so important to save the rivers.
Next year we plan to organise an action that will combine exploratory paddling in the region along with an event to which we will invite everyone. Expect more about it in a month or so…
In the future we might make another Balkan Rivers Tour, this time in collaboration with the fly fisherman community. We would like to see them supporting the cause, it will mean a lot to us. I feel they have pretty good reasons to join in. Also, we can start calculating the economic benefits of fly fishing and compare them with the economic benefits of the dam which can be used when communicating with politicians interested in numbers.
Another plan we have in mind is paddling 1000 km through Sava River and making a 4 min long film about the adventure.
~ How do you prioritise endangered rivers? What is the most urgent one that needs to be saved? ~
We try to raise awareness about as many rivers and dam projects as possible. We are not focusing on specific projects but trying to be the umbrella ‘organisation’ for the movement. In this way we can support the local NGOs fighting for a specific river.
If we save Vjosa that would be a big success. It will send a strong message to the organisations supporting the dam development plans. So at the moment we could say the priority is the Vjosa River.
~ What would you say to people who would want to create a similar movement? ~
My advice is to not think too much. Just act. If you start overthinking you won’t do it. I have this friend who was telling me how he feels that maybe it is time to quit his job and start doing meaningful things. I told him: “Don’t think, just do it. Call your boss now and tell him to f*** **f”. If you plan too much in advance you will feel the pressure of the plans. But if you just act step by step you will do it effortlessly. It’s more fun, it’s true exploration.
~ How can one support the movement? ~
Joining our actions is the first thing one can do. Information about protests can be found on our facebook page: Balkan Rivers Tour.
If you are not able to join the direct actions there is an option to donate. The account number is SI56 6100 0001 2315 855. For more information, please contact: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Starting a small, independent ‘organisation’ to fight for your home river is another good option. Contact us, let’s connect and join forces. This is the way to bring justice over greed. Once we grow the numbers of ‘crazy nature lovers’ the developers, banks and bureaucrats will back out.
And last but not least, spend some time next to rivers, they will give you all the inspiration and energy you need to embrace this fight and preserve their freedom.