In the battle for the environment, activism is not the enemy
The environmental struggle continues and adapts.
“Fresh waters are highly endangered, as they are in competition with interests that seek to exploit them, such as hydropower plants.” Jörg Freyhof, biologist, 2017
It is still unclear why the Albanian government decided this February to grant the Vjosa River the status of a protected area along its entire flow. What is known is that this decision was preceded by a growing international campaign for the protection of the largest remaining wild river in Europe under the slogan “Vjosa National Park Now.”
Throughout five years of frantic campaigns, with a massive civil society involvement that combined science with environmental activism to prevent damming the Vjosa, activists and the government never converged. In the end, however, the parties reached similar destinations: the state authority decided to protect the river.
The campaign for the protection of Europe’s wild rivers, “Save the Blue Heart of Europe,” started in 2012 with the support of two environmental NGOs, RiverWatch from Germany and EuroNatur from Austria. But only in the last five years, with the involvement of local partners, did they focus on protecting the rivers of the Western Balkans from hydropower construction.
The battle for the Vjosa gained new dimensions in 2017, with the arrival of 30 European scientists who explored the central flow of the river, the segment where the construction of the dams was envisaged. Most departments of the Faculty of Science at the University of Tirana joined the months-long research project. While the initial results confirmed the existence of extraordinary biological diversity, the Albanian government made a provocation, by approving another dam at the same time that scientific research was taking place.
“For Vjosa we obtained the support of scientists from different universities. Activists, artists, politicians and lawyers, local government representatives and local activists were involved in this campaign,” said Olsi Nika, head of EcoAlbania, the Albanian partner of the campaign. “The data provided by the campaign attracted the interest of some important media outlets. We did everything possible; it was constant, open and direct pressure.”
In 2018, the Vjosa gained new international attention. The Bern Convention, the International Treaty for the Conservation of Nature, recommended that Albania suspend the dam projects on the river. At the same time, the European Parliament recommended that Albania review its renewable energy strategy in order to reduce the country’s energy dependence on hydropower plants.
The government promised that it would act in accordance with the recommendations, but backstage the authorities continued with the procedures for the implementation of the signed contracts. In Tirana towards the end of 2018, European scientists presented the scientific results of the research. According to their findings, 40% of the species found hadn’t previously been discovered at the site, while two of the species were previously unknown to science. The study had scientifically confirmed the ecological importance of the river system’s intact riverbed, as well as the risk of degrading the ecosystem with the construction of dams.
The authorities did not respond. A group of international academics requested a meeting with Prime Minister Edi Rama in December 2018 but they were turned away. Meanwhile, the company that would do the construction, was concluding the process of obtaining permits in order to start work.
The activists were not the only ones to stand against the government. In Tirana last September, President Ilir Meta, a political rival of Prime Minister Rama, supported an international scientific conference about the Vjosa under the slogan: “The future of the Vjosa River — construction of dams or a National Park.” He even agreed for invitations to the conference be distributed under his name.
The government did not respond to the invitation, although the day following the conference Rama tweeted in favor of declaring parts of the Vjosa a “National Park,” a categorization that precludes the construction of hydropower plants. This was the first public statement on behalf of the Albanian government since the Vjosa became an international environmental issue. It seemed that the activist tactic of mixing the issue of the Vjosa in with the conflict between political groups had worked out.
“The support of the President was important, as it gives the issue a new dimension,” said Ulrich Eichelmann, CEO of RiverWatch. “The idea that environmental decision-making be based on scientific data was the right attitude and model, it was what we have been seeking for years.”
This February, as the country was heading to the April 25 central elections, some Ministry of Environment maps leaked into the media, unveiling other plans. The Vjosa had not been granted the status of a National Park. Worse yet, its main channel, the segment where the construction of dams was envisaged, remained unprotected.
The reaction from many stakeholders was immediate. EcoAlbania and RiverWatch reacted publicly. A number of organizations, both national and international, signed a petition to the government, reminding them of the promises made regarding the Vjosa’s sustainable future. On March 25, through a resolution, the European Parliament urged the Albanian government “to establish, as soon as possible, the Vjosa National Park along the entire length of the river.” Several media outlets distributed the news.
Yet in the style of Balkan political leadership, in which action is spurred by benefits rather than by convictions, playing with pre-election promises has often resulted in some gains for the public interest too. Thus, the government issued other maps. This time the Vjosa’s riverbed was fully protected as a Natural Park, though not as a National Park. As a Natural Park, protections for the Vjosa are much weaker and its biological importance is understated. At the same time, this designation increases the chances of future hydropower construction. Moreover, the main tributaries of the river, Shushica and Bënça, remained unprotected. The decision was final. However, something had been achieved.
“The situation has changed, the risk from the dams has dropped,” said RiverWatch’s Eichelmann. “We demanded the declaration of Vjosa a ‘National Park,’ while the status given, a category lower, does not represent the extraordinary and unique values of the river. However, it’s still something and better than nothing.”
With a post on Instagram, the decision was also celebrated by Hollywood actor Leonardo DiCaprio, who is known as a prominent environmental activist of environmental issues, thus bringing even more attention to the campaign.
“During this campaign we discovered and used previously untried mechanisms, such as international conventions, or other institutions of global environmental governance; we also used the rights to take cases to the courts,” said Nika from EcoAlbania. “It is this very practice that showed how activism can challenge and overthrow wrong decision-making, not necessarily only on environmental issues.”
In the Balkans, the “Save the Blue Heart of Europe” campaign is becoming a regional movement. The action to protect rivers has expanded to Kosovo, North Macedonia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Serbia and beyond. Under the motto “Rivers unite, dams divide,” the countries of the Western Balkans, once separated by ethnic conflicts, are today uniting against a common enemy thanks to environmental activism. A development plan supported by the European Commission, the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development and other international financial institutions envisages over 3,400 river hydropower construction projects, a third of which would be in protected areas.
As environmental activism explores new avenues to support the conservation of finite resources and opposes so-called sustainable development practices, it faces dual enemies. One enemy is financial corporations, whose shareholders are the main beneficiaries from the use of these resources. The other, governments, are seeing the act of supporting businesses as a moral obligation.
This year in June, some activists and residents of the Dibër area in Albania were detained by police for three days and were then fined after peacefully opposing the construction of a hydropower plant within the territory of Lura National Park. Last year in Kosovo, Shpresa Loshaj, an activist who opposed the construction of a cascade of hydropower plants within the territory of the Accursed Mountains National Park, was sued for 100,000 euros by Kelkos, the subcontractor of an Austrian company that operates electrical plant across much of the Western Balkans.
However, the symbol of environmental resistance is the women of Kruščica (a village northwest of Sarajevo), which, starting four years ago, under police violence and threats, for 503 days blocked the passage of machinery for the construction of a dam, forcing the cancellation of the concession contract for the construction of two hydropower plants on the Kruščica River, which threatened to leave the village without any water.
For the inhabitants of the Western Balkans, an area with a legacy of authoritarian leadership, the view on environmental activism and its progress through history risk being misinterpreted. Given the lack of any activism in the past in this region, there is no alternative to the friendly environmental activism approach in liberal western democracies, where it first appeared.
Roots of activism: Greenpeace
“Man with his own free will cannot control the rain or the sun, the wind, the frost, or the snow, yet it is certain that the climate itself has gradually changed and improved, or worsened by human action.” George Perkins Marsh, Philologist, September 30, 1847, Vermont, USA
It is hard to imagine today the adventure of a small fishing boat, which 50 years ago traveled a distance of 4,000 kilometers to the Gulf of Alaska trying to prevent nuclear tests that were 400 times more powerful than the bomb that hit Hiroshima. It was the height of the Cold War when the world, involved in an arms race, faced dangers beyond environmental ones.
On September 15, 1971, a group of ecologists and visionary journalists traveled from the Port of Vancouver in Canada to Alaska’s Amchitka Island in order to stop the US military’s nuclear explosions. From their ship’s deck close to the testing site they addressed the world through radio: “We call our ship the Greenpeace because that’s the best name we can think of to join the two great issues of our times, the survival of our environment and the peace of the world,” they said. “We do not consider ourselves to be radicals. We are conservatives, who insist upon conserving the environment for our children and future generations.”
The ecological movement had just begun.
Greenpeace activists did not stop the blast, but the event became international, sparking a series of political and diplomatic reactions against the United States. President Nixon canceled some of the other tests, but the arms race continued. Greenpeace gathered around itself thousands of sympathizers, volunteers and donors, expanding its activity and fleet.
But in 1985, Greenpeace’s best ship sank in Auckland, New Zealand after the explosion of two mines, which, as was later proved, were set off by French secret service agents by the order of President François Miterrand. France, which at the time was preparing to conduct nuclear tests on several Pacific islands, eliminated the ship before the activists could protest them.
Greenpeace did not come out of nowhere. Fueled by earlier circumstances and movements, Greenpeace reflected the shared courage of a group of visionaries to defend the planet. In fact, some of the activists aboard the ship, who later founded the Greenpeace Foundation, were inspired by the book of the American biologist Rachel Carson, “Silent Spring,” which in 1962 had drawn attention to the dangers of widespread pesticide usage.
At the dawn of the economic boom following World War II, in addition to the risks of nuclear weapons production, the environment was being put under the pressure of consumerism, a model of capitalism that relied on mass food production and population growth. The massive increase in cars, aircraft and supporting infrastructure was increasing the level of carbon dioxide emitted into the atmosphere.
Efforts to understand the impact of emissions into the atmosphere due to economic activities began long before the correlation was formally accepted.
British chemist Robert Angus had discovered as early as 1872 the change in weather due to the burning of coal at garment factories in northern England. Yet it took more than 140 years after this study for humanity to acknowledge its own impact on global warming. The United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), concluded for the first time in 2013 that “it is extremely possible that human influence has been the main cause of the observed warming since the middle of the 20th century.”
This finding was extremely important to scientifically clarify concepts that were still vague. From these findings emerged our common understandings of climate change, global warming, and the idea of the Anthropocene Period (a new geological time frame defined by the massive impact of humanity on the earth), as well as the environmental movement itself.
The advancement of neoliberal policies, the strengthening of anti-globalization movements due to the expansion of global finance, and the development of the internet in the late 1990s, found environmental activism in alliance with anti-capitalist rhetoric.
In the 1980s, Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in Britain was implementing new economic policies. The opening of markets to continental Europe, combined with the liberalization of financial banking policies, was creating opportunities for rapid development. In America, President Ronald Reagan pursued a similar policy in opening markets, establishing the North American Free Trade Agreement. State obligations towards social issues were fading. The risk of environmental degradation was high.
Under these conditions, activists began to protest. Several European countries, the U.S. and Australia made their national legislation highly aggressive towards environmental activists. But the movement sought new strategies and tactics.
The advancement of neoliberal policies, the strengthening of anti-globalization movements due to the expansion of global finance, and the development of the internet in the late 1990s, found environmental activism in alliance with anti-capitalist rhetoric. A number of activities and protests against the corporatization and commercialization of resources took place globally.
Protests for global justice, against rapid economic growth and neoliberal policies, engulfed Europe on a large scale. International intergovernmental forums like the G8 (Group of Eight) and the G20 (Group of Twenty) or later the Cop21 (2015 United Nations Climate Change Conference in Paris) became the main target of these protests.
The future: an outline of environmental dystopia
“Albania must become a small energy superpower of the region.” Former Prime Minister Sali Berisha, 2011.
Since the beginning of the millennium, the G7 countries are the largest carbon emitters on the planet, while the emissions of the Western Balkan countries, taken together, are negligible. Equally negligible for Europe will be the total power output produced by the possible construction of 3,400 hydropower plants envisaged for the Western Balkans.
Let us illustrate with an example: the total energy capacity of about 900 construction contracts for hydropower plants, approved only in the last decade in Albania, does not reach even half of the total capacity of all hydropower plants built in the country up until 1985. The investment will only damage the environment and provide income for a small group of beneficiaries, some of whom are representatives of foreign corporations.
In Albania, and in the Western Balkan countries as a whole, the environmental crisis mainly refers to the overexploitation of natural resources and the alienation of wild ecosystems, to the benefit of foreign investments financed by development banks and supported by state incentives. Thus the environmental battle for the protection of resources against the aggressive model of continuous economic growth, especially in countries with relatively small areas, should be the number one focus of environmental activism.
A few months ago, in the festive ceremony of his third mandate, Edi Rama announced the objective of the new government, for Albania to be the champion of tourism in the region. This is similar, from the point of view of the dystopian environmental image he projects, with what his political opponent Sali Berisha announced ten years ago under the motto: Albania, a mini energy superpower in the region.
The government has accelerated procedures for private companies as a way of attracting investments in natural resource exploitation. However, this action has added to the concern that in practice it has avoided the accountability of the authorities, while excluding residents from the right to information.
Some experts think that the division of responsibilities between the state and private partners shows lack of oversight. Economics, the science that examines the degree of utilization of natural resources, has proved that capital is able to operate even in the absence of restrictive measures. The decision to transfer responsibilities to private businesses limits the government’s ability to enforce compliance with environmental standards.
“They are more consumption plans than policies for maintaining standards,” said Klodian Ali, an independent Albanian environmental governance expert. “The model we feed encourages energy consumption to produce even more energy, to serve the economy. Thanks to this economy, we can produce even more energy to support another economy, even bigger, and so on endlessly.”
But the pressure on resources has resulted in the emergence of new community-based environmental movements.
Protests are no longer always led by ecologists, or so-called environmental experts, but by residents themselves, whose local resources are being endangered. Although smaller in number, they are frequent and some end in physical clashes.
The Valbona River was considered untouchable and its untamed nature had become part of popular consciousness.
In Valbona, in northern Albania, the community protested against the construction of hydropower plants within the National Park. Residents organized themselves and their protests spread to Tirana. The Valbona River was considered untouchable and its untamed nature had become part of popular consciousness.
Prime Minister Rama tried to excuse himself by claiming that the contracts were awarded before he came to power, but it was during this period that the media reported that three more hydropower plants were planned in Valbona, one of which would be inside the protected area. Catherine Bohne, an American woman who fell in love with Valbona and moved there almost two decades ago, helped lead this protest. She was soon sued for defamation by the construction company that won the dam construction tender. The company was seeking 150,000 euros in damages.
Other residents have been protesting for the last three years against the construction of hydropower plants on the Zall-Gjoçaj Stream, which is part of the Lura National Park. So far, police have stopped the protesters more than four times, while the illegal works in the park territory continue.
During 2020 protest rallies were stopped due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but the implementation of concession contracts continued — not only for the use of water resources, but also for the use of other natural resources. In lockdown conditions, environmental authorities continued to approve construction permit applications, deciding in the favor of the businesses, although in some cases there was a lack of public involvement.
Restrictions due to coronavirus were combined with other legal restrictions, due to inconsistencies between the Criminal Code and the Constitution.
“The police have often used the ‘obtaining permission from the competent body’ clause of the legislation, confusing it with the ‘right to notify,'” said lawyer Dorian Matlija, executive director of the non-governmental organization Legal Center Res Publica. “The legislation itself is unclear, which has led to some protests being selectively banned.”
Indeed, what was allowed by one law was forbidden by another. According to the Criminal Code, rallies require prior permission, while according to Law on Assemblies, applicants planning public rallies only have to notify the authorities.
In May the Constitutional Court abolished the “obligation” to obtain permission from the competent body, in favor of “notification,” which is a step towards greater freedom of assembly. However, the decision is not immediate and it will be another six months until protests are not limited a priori, but are presumed as a right.
The environmental movement has forced the governments of some countries in the Western Balkans to review concession contracts for the construction of small hydropower plants and limit financial incentives, but so far there are no clear results. In Albania, the Ministry of Energy started the process of evaluating existing contracts, but the conclusions are being kept secret by the government.
"Movements against hydropower plants in the Balkans are becoming the strongest civil society movement in Europe," said Eichelmann of RiverWatch.
Meanwhile in Montenegro there is a fear that the process of reviewing these contracts will only be used to harm political opponents. In Kosovo, a recently published expert report prepared by the Ministry of Environment and Spatial Planning has found irregularities and legal violations in the issuing of permits for the use of waterways by private companies, but so far none of the permits has been revoked.
“Movements against hydropower plants in the Balkans are becoming the strongest civil society movement in Europe,” said Eichelmann of RiverWatch. “The environmental movement is gathering more people. Thus they protect not only the environment, but also the country from corruption.”
How to manage environmental protest?
“Activism means action!” Arben Kola, activist from Albania
The inclusion of environmental activism in protest politics dates back to the late 1960s. Older organizational practices had a top-down hierarchical formation. These organizations were rich in resources and reached across borders. Meanwhile, new movements, mostly in the form of local grassroots groups, tend to be even more radical, fueling a growing civil disobedience.
In Albania, some activists think that long police detentions, fines, community service sentencing by the criminal court, campaigns of denigration, and the aggravated use of the Criminal Code against them, serve the common interests of the two allies: the government and financial corporations. Of course this has provoked the apparent rise of a more radical type of environmental grassroots activism, compared to more traditional forms. But, though more independent, grassroots activism is not necessarily violent in its origin.
“I have joined a network of volunteers, with the desire to stay away from organizations,” said Arben Kola, an activist from Shishtavec near Kukës. “Some of them have abused volunteerism. The vast majority of them spend more time and money on workshops than in the field.”
If we need gloves, transport or bags, people help us," said Kola.
He wears a traditional folk hat and often exchanges t-shirts with national symbols, combining a passion for nature with patriotism. Specializing as a tourist guide, Arben has traveled throughout the country, introducing tourists to the magical wildness of Albanian nature. He is a ubiquitous activist who takes a different approach from others.
His collaborators are deans with scientific degrees, economists and teachers, engineers and students. They assemble anywhere to protest pollution, whether the issue is mismanagement of waste or overuse of resources. Hierarchy is replaced with a network of coordinators. Decisions are made on the basis of a broad consensus. Utilizing social networks, the movement coordinators organize weekly activities for the benefit of environmental action.
“We address the public through personal profiles. If we need gloves, transport or bags, we announce all the requests publicly before we carry out the activity and people help us,” said Kola. “If someone wants to give us money to cover the costs of the activity, we accept it. The reaction has been good and it is very inspiring for us.”
Another similar effort is ongoing in Laknas, north of Tirana. For some time a group of young people, mainly women, has been supporting local residents in the fight to protect the green spaces around their homes from investors. Earlier, they supported another community that protested against the construction of hydropower plants in Mirdita.
“We support the residents. Most of us live here. We are young and we want to come to the aid of the elders,” said Diana Malaj, one of the founders of the group. “In Laknas, some investors want to cut down a forest in order to build a slaughterhouse. The municipality is not supporting the residents.”
Most of the inhabitants of Laknas arrived there about three decades ago. The site where the slaughterhouse was planned to be constructed was used by children for camping. Over time, while it Laknas’s population grew, nature continued to do its work and after 30 years, along the riverbanks a magnificent forest had grown, which the inhabitants call “Bruka’s Trees.” For them, this forest is something that is directly related to their recent past.
Malaj, a newly licensed lawyer, along with Aurora Leka, a co-founder of the group, established the Kujri Legal Center, which provided free community support services for social and environmental equality.
Kujri, an old word for public property that is mentioned in the Kanun of Lekë Dukagjini, can serve future communities to protect their common spaces.
Meanwhile in 2019 Rural Observer, an organization committed to protecting communities from the consequences of extractive industries and hydropower plants, supported local communities in four regions throughout Albania.
Funded by the European Union, the project aimed to improve the transparency and accountability of state authorities and of businesses that use natural resources. Some communities saw the project as the only tool that could protect resources from corporate aggression.
Over two years the project involved a number of stakeholders. Experts, journalists, lawyers, activists and engaged ordinary citizens organized forums and workshops, built an online platform with abundant information, and conducted promotional interviews on central and local television.
Shortly before the project ended, they discovered and documented the construction of a hydropower plant within the territory of the Shebenik-Jablanica National Park in eastern Albania, on the border with North Macedonia. The case was flagrant, as no construction of hydropower plants is allowed within the National Park. All that needed to be done was to file a lawsuit on behalf of the residents.
But the lawsuit was not opened. The contract with the lawyers and the entire project was ending in a few days, while the court proceedings could take several months, meaning the time was insufficient. Project leaders did not negotiate to postpone or renegotiate the contract. The issue was abandoned and the hydropower plant was built where it continues to illegally generate electricity to this day.
“Organizations are more framed and actions are often conditioned by increasingly stronger bureaucratic schemes of donors,” said Ermelinda Mahmutaj, executive director of EDEN, Environmental Center for Development, Education and Networking.
“Although activism remains a moral individual responsibility, I believe that the filing of reports and documents should not become the end goal, as that risks undermining the effectiveness of the action.”
The Agency for Civil Society Support, the public budget institution that promotes the sustainable development of civil society, has distributed about 1 billion Albanian lek (about 10 million EUR) of financial support in ten years. But the environmental projects that have received support have been few and lacking an impact. None of the projects or their implementing organizations have been significant, at least compared to the environmental issues that are widely considered relevant.
The review of data publicly provided by the Agency shows that no individuals or informal groups have ever received financial support from the Agency.
Technology and new challenges for activism
“No, no, I do not know you, because we are not Facebook friends.” Whatsapp message, 2017.
The environmental crisis has become a global concern. The environmental movement is becoming just as global. Of course, we would not have gotten here without the support of the media. It has been the main instrument in shaping opinion and has influenced the growth of environmental awareness. In the last two decades nothing has changed more and faster than the production and dissemination of information. Thus, in a sense, the dynamics of the environmental movement are also products of this pressure.
But just as with the environmental crisis, where consumerism leads to the mismanagement of resources, in the media, news consumerism does not guarantee sound reporting.
According to a study on media reporting on environmental issues prepared by EcoAlbania, it turns out that during 2018, in central news editions on national television outlets, environmental reporting was rare.
To date, no Albanian newsroom has a specialized journalist reporting exclusively on environmental issues. The editorial structure still prioritizes tabloid and crime reporting, leaving behind reporting on the resource crisis.
New media technologies have obvious benefits, but have also created some problems for activists.
Implementing a media communication strategy in practice, especially on social media, can result in a loss of focus, which can impair the achievement of goals or degrade protests. Success in getting media attention should not serve as a sign of success, but rather as a consequence of success.
The editor of a relatively popular news platform in Tirana did not stop his reporters from reporting on an activity in defense of rivers, which took place in the city’s central square (according to an artivism model), but advised them to make fun of the event organizers. This attitude reflects the public perception that some organizations see activism as a means to advertise themselves rather than to solve the problem. Activism should not be turned into a marketing strategy.
Another disappointing circumstance may be the creation of false illusions; social media likes do not necessarily translate into physical participation on the ground. Further, social networks can harm activists, as their public statements and awareness posts can be used against them by companies, the police or as evidence in courts.
In Tirana in 2016, the personal posts of some activists in defense of the Grand Park of Tirana, were used as evidence against them by the prosecution in court. In Kosovo, activists Adriatik Gacaferri and Shpresa Loshaj were sued in 2020 by KelKos Energy Ltd. for their stance against the construction of hydropower plants within the Accursed Mountains National Park. The plaintiffs used the activists’ posts on their personal Facebook accounts and presented them as evidence in the lawsuit, demanding damages of thousands of euros.
But in addition to a wide and active debate on the relative usefulness of social networks, they are being used successfully to spread environmental messages and are serving as a loudspeaker for activists, despite the risk of inaccuracies and manipulation.
On the other hand, the new virtual generation created a platform for the development of an alternative journalism, so-called “citizens’ journalism,” which is transforming activists from consumers of media to producers.
For example, in 2016 a group of activists protested for 77 days against the municipality’s plan to turn a forest into an urban park. During this defense of green space, the activists appointed one protester to record continuous video, which they transmitted to networks and traditional media in real time.
The environment: everyone’s business
“In capitalist countries, the priority of governments in environmental policy and elsewhere is to make corporate investors happy.” John Dryzek, Professor of Political Theory, 1997.
The battle for the environment and the action for green policy have followed a common itinerary since the dawn of the environmental movement. But green governance did not become acceptable until an alternative market appeared on the horizon.
In 1992 the United Nations organized the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro. At this conference the concept of “sustainable development,” the inclusion of environmental potential in neoliberal economic policies, first came into broad use. But this in practice only served to shore up destructive economic policies at the expense of the environment.
The impression was created that the opening of markets and financial liberalization were consistent and even necessary for environmental protection. The 1997 Kyoto Protocol, a continuation of the conference in Rio de Janeiro, served as the focal point to pave the way for the creation of alternative energy markets.
By creating an environmentally friendly image in the name of fighting climate change, so-called “green governance” generated new markets to feed corporations through public-private partnership schemes.
Everything culminated in 2015 with “The Paris Agreement,” when most countries (excluding China, Turkey, Iran and a few others) promised to keep the average global temperature from rising more than 2°C above the levels of the pre-industrial period.
By promoting environmental education and organic products, green global governance is adapting to an environmentalist behavior, which is threatening to dominate the environmental issue. Resolving situations from the top-down has weakened environmental actions and demotivated civil society from protecting the commons.
At the end of June, the Ministries of Environment of Kosovo and Albania conducted a joint action to clean plastic waste in Vërmicë, near the border between the two countries. The Ministers of the two countries attracted activists and distributed green messages to the media.
“Cleaning actions are necessary, as they cultivate an environmental civic consciousness,” said Mahmutaj from the environmental organization EDEN. “But the actions organized by the governments are extremely dubious and serve other propagandistic purposes. Maybe they are thus trying to hide their responsibility for the situation?”
Activist Arben Kola thinks along the same lines. “The task of the government is to enforce the law and not to indulge in demagogy,” he said. “We are in this chaotic situation, first of all due to the mismanagement of waste by the state authority.”
Another contested idea about environmental action is the view that environmental issues are purely technical.
Indeed, using this greenwashing tactic the Albanian Minister of Environment has built his ecological image like few others before him. Every weekend, with his PR team he travels across estuaries laden with plastic dumps, cleans fragile but polluted beaches, inaugurates inns in rural wilderness, or welcomes and sees off airplanes with foreign tourists who, according to him, eagerly seek to discover the magic secrets offered by virgin Albania.
But the government’s propaganda to associate its green vocabulary with supposedly green practices is just one of its goals. Another propaganda benefit is related to the coverage of responsibilities through misinformation, due to the misbelief that improving the situation calls for raising of public awareness, while forgetting the liability of the authorities for the situation.
Another contested idea about environmental action is the view that environmental issues are purely technical. The argument is supported mainly by bureaucrats, and not infrequently by a section of civil society, represented by technicians operating within conventionally structured environmental organizations.
The promotion in public debate of this view of environmental issues serves several purposes. First, it seeks to make environmental decision-making non-transparent; second, it seeks to preserve the exclusive privileges of expert supremacy; and third, it seeks to undermine the environmental issue by excluding activists from the battle for the environment.
Although the environmental movement needs scientific data, its focus is social. The transition of the environment to environmentalism reflects a relationship between man and nature. The environment should not serve narrow interests, but be for the benefit of all of society. In the greenwashing propaganda strategy, the environment is considered a “technical issue” for some bureaucrats while in the bureaucratic administration practice it is seen as an opportunity to feed the markets in favor of corporations.
Code red for humanity
“The more we learn about Climate Change, the more we need to worry.” Mark Howden, Vice President of the International Panel on Climate Change, IPCC, 2021.
The planet is warming up due to human activity. The latest report from the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), published earlier this August, clearly concluded that temperatures are rising. UN Secretary-General António Guterres said the report was “code red for humanity.”
The IPCC has expressed optimism about promoting and supporting opportunities for governments to use renewable energy. The same optimism was shown by US President Joe Biden earlier this year, when he asked the leaders of the American car manufacturing industry that by 2030 half of car sales be electric vehicles. He even signed an executive order asking for government support in achieving the goal.
In practice, the rhetoric about renewable energy follows a different dynamic. It seems that corporations and financial groups will use tactics to slow down environmental measures.
The environmental crisis is a global one and calls for global cooperation. IPCC data is intended to reach a much wider audience beyond decision-makers. In the same way, field action by environmental activists can serve the IPCC in helping them understand how their findings are perceived by the general public.
Today, when everything seems so unstable, when the magnitude of the environmental crisis is so serious, environmental activists constitute a force to reckon with. The tendency of governments to criminalize environmental activists, as well as the attempt to seize the powers and freedoms of organizations, pose as serious a threat to ecosystems as their ongoing physical destruction.
But one thing is clear. Activists are the only ones who so far continue to reject, often even radically with direct action, the propaganda of green governance. They continue to be on the streets, in the forests and at the lakes, alongside communities, in front of bureaucrats and corporations, in the name of environmental equality and justice, the protection of resources and the past, for their country and for generations to come.
Feature image: Artan Rama.
This story is supported by the Rosa-Luxemburg-Stiftung Gesellschaftsanalyse und politische Bildung e.V. – Office in Bosnia and Herzegovina.