Montenegrin environmentalists denounce Chinese pledge to repair damage to UNESCO river
PODGORICA – Ecological concerns are mounting on a stretch of a new billion-dollar highway through a scenic river canyon at the confluence of competing influences in the Balkans.
Montenegro’s delayed 42-kilometer stretch of Bar-Boljare highway is already under scrutiny in a decision taken seven years ago by a cash-strapped Adriatic coast country to hire a Chinese builder and take on nearly a billion dollars in debt to build it.
This week, under public pressure, the China Road and Bridge Corporation (CRBC) requested permission to repair a damaged 500-meter section of bank on the UNESCO-protected Tara River crossed by the highway.
The Chinese company’s May 10 proposal included stabilizing the left bank of the waterway under the Matesevo Alpine Bridge, near a mountain tourism hub in the region called Kolasin.
His previous proposal, with the Montenegrin environmental regulator and environmental groups calling for remedies in August, was dismissed as too modest.
Critics say the new plan is still laughable.
“The rehabilitation of 500 meters of the river bed sounds like a bad joke, as 6.7 kilometers of river flow and the main biodiversity area of the floodplain were destroyed on the loop and the access roads in upstream only, ”Natasa Kovacevic of the environmental NGO Green Home told RFE / Service des Balkans de RL.
Green Home has fought for years to suspend the road and other construction work affecting the Tara River until better oversight is in place to protect it.
The clash over damage to a UN-protected river that environmental groups and some ruling coalition loyalists attribute to CRBC, which is indirectly controlled by the Chinese state, could have broader political repercussions.
The first of Montenegro’s payments of nearly $ 1 billion in Chinese highway loans is due in July, and Podgorica has already argued unsuccessfully for EU aid to be provided.
Some Balkan governments would view Montenegro’s call on road debt as a test of Brussels’ appetite for closer engagement and deeper ties with the countries of the former Yugoslavia which are still outside the bloc.
Montenegro joined NATO in 2017 and is a candidate for EU membership.
But many EU member states remain wary of an early enlargement to Montenegro and states like Serbia, North Macedonia and Kosovo, as well as Albania.
The project – which is part of an interstate project to connect Serbia to the Adriatic – could see the light of day on May 17 when leaders of the Western Balkan countries meet at Brdo Castle, Slovenia, to discuss prospects accession to the EU of Montenegro and its neighbors.
“Why should the EU step in … and help Montenegro with this concrete project and problem?” Jovana Marovic, Executive Director of Politikon Network, a Podgorica-based think tank, asked this week.
“Because in this way the EU will show that it cares about the Western Balkans, that the enlargement process is alive and that, dealing with the most pressing problem, it is actually helping Montenegro and the Western Balkans, without them. abandon to the potential negative political influences from third parties, from China and the rest, of course. “
Beijing has made infrastructure projects a key part of its ambitious Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), tying loans and economic projects to political and cultural ties that critics fear will only give the Chinese a too much influence over indebted governments.
The Balkans, and in particular Serbia, have been a clear target for BRI initiatives even as the European Union provides hundreds of millions in aid and diplomatically views China and Russia as intruders in the region.
Marovic noted that a previous Montenegrin government – dominated by the Democratic Socialist Party (DPS) of long-ruling President Milo Djukanovic – signed the deal giving CRBC the lead of the highway project in 2014.
The current government, a hash of Serbian nationalists, populists, and environmental and other groups who have spent decades in opposition, came to power in December and tried to distance itself from the deal.
He also sought to reassure the West that it will maintain pro-EU policies.
“At the end of the day,” Marovic said, “this whole project, this contract, its terms and everything that is problematic about the highway project in Montenegro is not the responsibility of the current government. but from the previous one, and if the EU wants to help the Montenegrin democratization process, they should help the new government so that they can focus on democratization. “
The completed section of the Montenegrin highway is expected to stretch 165 kilometers from Boljare on its northern border with Serbia to Bar on its southernmost coast.
The 42-kilometer section currently under construction by CRBC was originally scheduled for completion in 2019, but has been extended several times.
Its current deadline for completion is the end of this year.
The 80-kilometer canyon of Tara is the longest in Europe and, along with the surrounding basin filled with conifers, has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1980.
It is already threatened by the microdams and other small hydroelectric projects which have proliferated in much of the Balkans under sometimes lax enforcement regimes.
Montenegro’s Nature and Environmental Protection Agency (NEPA) last year accused Chinese manufacturers of ignoring its recommendations.
He noted last year that construction of the road had “led to turbidity” and dug half a kilometer of the riverbed, affecting the biodiversity of the waterway protected nationally and internationally.
Environmental inspectors have also warned of the danger of landslides due to erosion in a loop where the Tara winds.
In November, NEPA gave its approval to CRBC’s idea to repair damage to the Tara River.
In its last sanitation proposal this month, the CRBC is also said to have engaged in an analysis of the state of biodiversity and the possible repopulation of the Tara after the completion of its road works.
The Tara is one of the declining natural habitats of the Huchen, or Danube salmon, a long-lived freshwater species that can grow to the size of a human. Huchen numbers continue to fall despite repeated warnings that the barometer species is endangered from the Bar-à-Boljare highway and other projects.
Ljiljana Jokic of ruling civic movement United Reform Action, a green liberal party, agreed the project had created an ecological catastrophe and China’s supply was insufficient.
“The resolution of the problem is very necessary, but within the framework offered by CRBC, it is certainly not enough,” says Jokic. “We are not sure of the quality of the rehabilitation in the planned area announced by CRBC, because if they had done the job correctly so far, they would not have put the Tara in the state it is now . “
According to her, Chinese society “should be compensated for the destruction of the Tara”.
An official from the Ministry of Ecology, Tamara Brajovic, says they expect the Chinese company to repair all the devastated areas of the Tara.