Protecting Lake Skadar

Protecting Skadar Lake, Montenegro

The Balkans – the last European wilderness frontier, a place of incredible bio diversity has been under attack by big capital, corrupt state institutions and impoverished, uninformed local population.

In a recently installed capitalist system nature has no value for the “people in power”. After infringing the natural rights of the coastal areas the greed infused attention has turned to the truly pristine and uninhabited, magical areas on the peninsula.

Such is the story of the largest lake on the Balkans – Skadar Lake – “home to an estimated 281 species of birds, 48 species of fish, 50 species of mammals, numerous amphibians, reptiles and insects including some of Europe’s most threatened wildlife such as the rare Dalmatian Pelican and the Eurasian otter.

Concerned about what has been happening with the lake, Balkan Vagabondz reached out to the lone protector – Milan. A veterinary doctor who grew up in Montenegro, he is the first person who had the courage and determination to oppose the devastation of one of the most beautiful parts of Skadar Lake National Park.

Protecting Skadar Lake, Montenegro

In the following paragraphs we will discuss just one of the threats looming over the lake – The Porto Skadar Lake Project. Hopefully by spreading the word we can unite and make a change.

Thank you for taking the time to read the story of Milan – the protector of Skadar Lake, a true Balkan Vagabond.

~ Milan, tell us about what is endangering the natural balance of Skadar Lake? ~

It is called the Porto Skadar Lake Project, a planned construction of a luxurious tourist facility that is supposed to accommodate up to 600 guests. It was initiated in 2012 by a french businessman called Lionel Sonigo who used to own supermarkets in Eastern Europe. Eventually he sold his retail business, established the Montenegro Resort Company and started buying land around Mihajlovici – a village located on the  border of Lake Skadar National Park. This was in 2007-8. Land there was not so expensive and the French businessman bought quite a lot of it. Then he started negotiating with the government of Montenegro, promising he will invest a lot of money in the area by building a 6 star luxury resort, creating jobs, bringing prosperity to the lake… At first the government refused his offers but as he insisted, probably using diverse persuasion methods, the state backed down. There was one detail, the Spatial Plan of the lake did not allow construction of any buildings in the area so the politicians had to pass a law which said that if they create a state study (costing the taxpayer 20 000 EUR) that would be enough to legalise potential buildings on the territory of the National Park which is essentially bypassing the current Spatial plan.

The public consultations for this state study and the Porto Skadar Lake Project were held almost behind closed doors as they were announced only in the Official Gazette of Montenegro (state newspaper that not many people pay attention to apart from lawyers and accountants). The open discussions were not advertised properly so nobody participated. The project went through without any opposition.

The strategic environmental impact study for the Skadar Lake Resort Project did not include a specific research to show the biodiversity of the area. They have used old data concerning the entire lake.

Protecting Skadar Lake, Montenegro

Then the company was supposed to do a detailed environmental assessment however no biologist was hired for that, instead an agricultural engineer did it…

Of course all documents say that the construction won’t harm nature. Somehow all this passed through to the Montenegrin Environmental Protection Agency. The entire project got approved in 2015.

According to the agreement with the state, the company had to start in the next 2 years but nothing has been built so far, they have recently brought two diggers on the site and dug some earth to show they have “started”. Currently there is no access road to the site, neither water or electricity. With the cost estimated to 115 000 000 EUR, I assume the investor was hoping to pre-sale some of the planned villas in order to fund the project as it is too expensive for the company to start on its own.

Protecting Skadar Lake, Montenegro

~ The Porto Skadar Project aims to develop an ECO-resort. You don’t seem to be convinced in the ECO part of the project. Why? ~

Yes, in my opinion the investor does not have the capacity because he lacks experience in building eco-resorts or anything in a National Park. He owns a little hotel in Zanzibar but that is not on the same scale as a 6 star resort.

I also did some analysis of his claims, one of which is that he has a Green globe certificate but when we called the people who issue those it turned out he doesn’t have one.

He was claiming that the park was going to be UNESCO listed in 2 years, that was also false, as the office in Paris threaten to sue the company if it doesn’t remove this statement from its website.

Also Dr. Mrdak, who analysed the environmental impact assessment, found out it borders on science fiction as the plants that are supposed to purify the water sleep from October to May. On top of that the lake can flood up to 4 meters and if they use the natural drainage of the water the purification fields risk to be flooded every spring. Every villa has its own swimming pool so you can imagine…

In short, there are no internationally recognised eco standards that can be applied to this project in order to ensure the natural balance of the area.

Protecting Skadar Lake, Montenegro

~ How did you find out about the Lake Skadar Resort Project? ~

I came across a person who was selling the land and he told me that the whole area will be developed with eco facilities. I thought this is not possible, it is a Natural Park, a protected area. I then discovered the project and didn’t sleep for 2 nights. I couldn’t believe this has gone through. Since May I have been working on creating an awareness about this project. I also had met with the locals, some of whom think the construction of the resort is a positive development.

There are sustainable tour operators who live off the beauty of the lake and they know that once this project starts, that’s it.

Protecting Skadar Lake, Montenegro

~ Who else is involved in protecting the lake? ~

  • Green Home – working in collaboration with the WWF & the IUCN to fund and work on a 5 year management programme.
  • There are other NGOs who would support us with signatures on different documents.

Protecting Skadar Lake, Dalmation Pelican

~ This is pretty impressive work for a single activist given it has been going on for less than a year. ~

Yes, I have a website, facebook page, the Guardian also covered the story. We did put the investor under pressure. It’s been good but the problem is there are more and more people willing to sell their land. If the project goes ahead the development of the lake will be unstoppable.

The investor is promising to employ 200 local people but I don’t see how this will happen. Realistically, to work in a 6 star resort one needs to speak at least 3 foreign languages. This is not real…

~ Why did you start the protection of the lake? Tell us your personal reasons for putting so much effort and energy into this. ~

I have probably reached the point of my life where I am not really seeking anything material. I’ve seen the world, learned 6 languages, finished university, done charity so in my life generally I don’t need to gain anything for myself, so this is a way to give something back.

When I go to the lake I get goose bumps, you have all this untouched nature around, the place is truly unique…it is unrepeatable.

I witnessed what happened on the coast on, the other side. I saw what kind of destruction has been unfolding there and I could see how this cancer is moving up north. And the problem is that there is no protection on the lake whatsoever. Not a single illegal building has been removed. That sends the wrong message. The message that, yes you can be building illegally and nothing will happen to you. And another message is that you can claim you are eco-investor, and you are not and so on.

It personally bothers me the most that for 3 years they have been announcing the project and not a single person anywhere has come forward to say this is wrong.

Protecting Skadar Lake, Montenegro

~ So it was you or nobody. Nothing would happened if you didn’t start it. ~

Yes, and then the others joined me. So far we have created awareness but we don’t have a lot of support. The petition reached only 6021 signatures. That would do very little. Mavrovo had 77 000 in 7 months. I have to ask people personally if they can write a report,  tell me their opinion etc.

~ How many hours do you spend on working to save the lake? ~

I have to juggle with my work, I am a full-time veterinary doctor and then I spent at least 5 hours a day – writing letters, networking, asking for help and managing social media. For example, now I am preparing a letter which I will send to the Bern Convention. The annual evaluation report for the progress of Montenegro’s application to the union is due soon. I am hoping they can put explicit reminder to the government that if they want in they need to preserve the National Parks. Nothing in this reminder will be explicit and detailed but hopefully it will make the government change its policy towards nature and Skadar Lake.

~ What kind of support do you receive? ~

I have support but it doesn’t really translate into concrete actions. The problem in Montenegro is like this, if you are a little tour operator there and your livelihood depends on the lake you would send me an e-mail you support me but publicly you won’t put your name anywhere, because in a way you are drawing attention to yourself and suddenly you might get some official to come and check your books and find something to make your life difficult.

This is the problem on the ground. People that speak are labelled that they are against progress. We are ecological mafia, economic terrorists because we don’t want the country to “develop”….

Protecting Skadar Lake, Montenegro

~ How close is the resort area to the protected species in the lake? Surely the construction of a big resort can have a negative impact on the birds and animals in the area? ~

Yes, it would have an impact. Skadar lake is divided in 3 zones. Zone 1 is where most birds along with the Dalmatian Pelican reside. And also where fish is wintering.

Zone 3 is where they want to build the resort. Visually the most beautiful part of the lake and completely untouched by human presence. This is the part where we think the Eurasian otter lives. There was a study from 2012 which suggested the area is its habitat however nobody so far has put any cameras on the lake to document and investigate this properly.

~ So the Eurasian otter can save the lake, get the area protected? ~

Yes, the animal is on the red list so if we prove this is where it lives nobody would be able to touch the area. We are in the process of arguing but it takes time and proper investigation needs to be conducted. I think government should ban any development before an independent investigation has been conducted to show what lives where.

Euroasian Otter, Protecting Skadar Lake, Montenegro

~ Which organisation can make that investigation? ~

Initially I wrote so many letters to WWF, GreenPeace, EuroParks, European Parliament. I sent 50 letters, I got only 3 responses…This was in May-June 2016. I kept on working and as result suddenly more people were writing about this issue. I really hope that there will be an amendment on the resolution related to the EU membership of Montenegro and once this is in, it will be read by government and they have to pay attention.

I feel there is a need for a large international organisation with know how and capacity in environmental projects to step in otherwise all this work could be soon lost.

~ What other issues are looming over Skadar Lake? ~

Yes, it is not just the resort, the government is in the process of changing the Spatial plan of the lake. The changes will essentially pave the way to more investments and construction. They are lifting the current restrictions.

~ Sounds like Skadar Lake National Park and Pirin National Park have a lot in common. ~

Correct. “People in power” on the Balkans are not looking into sustainable development. What they are doing is forcing the unsustainable development for the short term benefit of few and long term lost for a community. 

Protecting Skadar Lake, Montenegro

~ Does this mean all the NGOs working on the territory of the park are united and resisting the Spatial plan? ~

The upcoming Spatial plan has not been advertised properly. I first found out about it and alerted the rest of the organisations. NGOs like Green Home and the NOE Conservation who are involved in conservation work on the lake since 2004 had no knowledge of the changes. They were not notified by the government.

~ So nobody from the people who are trying to protect the area knew about a plan that will radically change their work? ~

Yes, the people that should have been informed first did not know anything. I broke the news to them. Eventually they were included in the third, last draft of the Spatial plan when most of the details were already finalised. And you know how they do it? The government would send you an e-mail on Wednesday which says: “We have a meeting  on Monday at 11 o’clock”, so you have 5 days to organise yourself and if you are working you can’t participate. Then they present you with a 124 pages document and tell you how you need to submit your comments in 7 days. This is how it works. After that the state officials will organise a public discussion in such way that almost nobody would know about it and finally without opposition they will approve their plans. And everything is done legally and according to their laws. This is the type of bureaucracy we have to work with.

Protecting Skadar Lake, Montenegro

~ If you could have a wishlist of what needs to happen in order for you to feel more empowered in the struggle for protecting Skadar Lake? Is it international support, financial support, direct action? What would be most effective in the given situation? ~

I am convinced that the only way to save this place is for the people who care about the lake to unite their forces. I also think this needs to happen not only on international but on a regional level because it is not just this project and not just this lake. It is a question of time for greed to reach the next lake. We should start creating a regional alliance of NGOs, activists, sustainable tour operators, sustainable farmers, everybody who cares and have an interest to protect nature needs to get together. In this way we can share expertise, experience and use money and the little resources we have in an effective way. If in this way we manage to stop one project and after another this will send a clear message to everyone who is trying to destroy our natural resources and eliminate the biodiversity.

The problem in Montenegro is that we have a small population and not enough scientists to conduct proper studies and research. Imagine if we succeed in putting all the scientists from the region together so they can support the Balkan environmental struggles for nature conservation. They can contribute a lot. It is very important to also talk and work with the local people who must be able to benefit from protected areas. If we don’ t put economic value from sustainable tourism then we will not succeed with whatever we are doing because these people will keep selling their lands to the investors.

People need to see economic value in order to support us.

So yes, that would be my wish, to create a regional alliance of NGOs and scientists on one level and local people and ethical, eco tour operators on another so we know that Vjosa is not left just to the Albanians, Moraca to the Montenegrians and Pirin to the Bulgarians.

We all have a common natural heritage that doesn’t know borders and nationalities. We all have the responsibility to protect it. Our children have the right to experience it.

Protecting Skadar Lake, Montenegro


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