The day was cloudy and the forecasts called for rain. “No matter what the forecasts say, that won’t stop us,” said Jelena Lacman in a short phone call while walking with two boys, Nikola and Pavle, toward the meeting place at the Vito Nikolić promenade under mount Trebjesa, the hill overlooking Nikšić’s old town.
That November weekend, Lacman, Ivana Čogurić and a group of volunteers from Nikšić — who have been dedicating their free time to cleaning Niksić for almost a year — were gathering for another action. Rallying around the initiatives Ekopatriotizam (Eco-patriotism) and Ekobonton (Eco-manners), they have been urging all of Montenegro to do the same for the past nine months. So far, they have executed more than 40 official activities and who knows how many spontaneous actions.
The movement started around a year ago, in a time of political instability for Montenegro, when a protracted conflict with the Serbian Orthodox Church and the aftermath of the pandemic had led to a change in power. Then a new COVID-19 wave put an early end to the debate via a new lockdown.
That was when Jelena Lacman, Ivana Čogurić, Bojana Kršikapa and Jelena Jovićević decided to replace their ritual morning coffee, and even their afternoon coffee, with a hike. Although they had been living in the “city under Trebjesa” for years, it was only now that they noticed how much litter was all around them.
For the first time, they saw the piles of rubbish in their way and those small trash dumps in the least expected places, such as the hill the people of Nikšić have always referred to as the “city’s lungs.” They decided to replace their hikes with action. In doing so, they brought something new to the debate: garbage bags, cleaning gloves, rakes, shovels and mowers.
A little bit before 11 a.m. Lacman arrived at the agreed-upon location — the empty space between the church and the museum at the start of the Vito Nikolić promenade. This is where they first started cleaning and where they had cleaned a few days before, but there was much more trash to collect. A group of people had already shown up despite the weather, the youngest of them being preschoolers. Colorful gloves were easily visible from afar and a positive work energy could already be felt.
Two days earlier, Ivana said she had a seminar scheduled and that she would not be in town. However, there she was, wearing a simple sweatsuit and backpack instead of a serious outfit; she had had her coffee at home and rushed outside. When someone asked if she was not supposed to be at a seminar she simply replied with a smile, “I canceled. There will be other seminars, but how could I miss this action?”
Everyone was there, though part of the Javorak Mountaineering and Skiing Club would be arriving a bit later — they were busy preparing lunch. They had been there from the very start, Nada Tadić with the youth.
“Whose job are we doing?”
That Sunday was the first cleanup action joined by Nikšić municipal officials, headed by the young Assembly President Nemanja Vuković, who had replaced his suit with a sweatsuit and sneakers.
“We are aware that the environmental image of Nikšić is terrible. I believe that we must all contribute for our city to become a more beautiful and cleaner place for living,” he said, with a rake in his hands.
Lacman, for her part, thinks that what provoked municipal officials to step in and participate in these actions is the sentence “Whose job are we doing?”
“They thought we were calling them out and felt ashamed that somebody else was doing their job,” she said. “That doesn’t bother us, we know that they too need assistance and we are willing to provide it. We want to serve as role models and invite everyone willing to join us.”
She wanted to emphasize that the important thing is that municipal officials finally recognized the gravity of the issue. Ecopatriots, as they have come to call themselves, have been cleaning the city for almost a year with little, if any, official assistance.
Volunteers and municipal employees conduct a cleanup in central Nikšić. Photo: Milica Radovanović.
That day, however, workers of the Public Utility Company were also at the spot with various machines and a truck while the director brought his chainsaw. The president of Nikšić’s local assembly came in defense of its employees, shifting the blame to his predecessors and promising substantial improvements.
Complaints about the utility company are far from new. It once asked for financial compensation for the removal of garbage at Lake Krupac, a few kilometers from downtown Nikšić, even though that is exactly its task and function. This, Vuković said, is a practice of the past.
The municipal authorities are also toying with the idea of introducing a specific environmental rangers service and coordinate with the Communal Police and the municipal inspection in the matter to ensure that those who litter are sanctioned. In their view, this should help to build an “environmental brand” for Nikšić.
However, It is unclear how easily these wishes will translate into reality. Quite often, past political promises were not followed by concrete actions from those in positions of power. That, despite the fact that the Constitution declares Montenegro an Ecological State in its first article. Meanwhile, the garbage continues accumulating.
In April, the Ministry of Ecology, Spatial Planning and Urbanism invited representatives of Ekopatriotizam and Ekobonton to speak with them. However, as it turns out, the volunteers believe that “they invited us to talk for the sake of their self-promotion. I hope the same thing won’t happen with the municipal authorities, that our cooperation won’t be limited to this. We can’t do it all by ourselves,” said Lacman.
Lacman thinks the reason people trust them is that they are not benefitting from their activism. “We are a volunteer group through and through. Everything we do is done for ourselves, for the children whose future depends on this, for all the people living in our city and country.”
She emphasized that fellow citizens have recognized the importance of this work and have accordingly donated equipment, tools and material, but they reject monetary donations. They want to avoid any kind of material profit, she pointed out, adding that they do not declare themselves as a non-governmental organization for the same reason.
Although cleaning up other people’s trash sometimes seems futile to Lacman, she believes that only by shifting individual mindsets can something change. After all, garbage is burying everyone in equal measure.
“We sometimes get the impression that all this is futile. After cleaning some spot up, we come back after seven days and find both old and new garbage at the same location,” she lamented. Still, she added that she remains convinced that making everyone aware of the importance of the environment is worth the effort, even if she is not sure how long that might take.
Jelena Lacman is one of the main drivers behind the actions. Photo: Milica Radovanović.
While climbing the narrow pathway behind the Cathedral Church, with the city graveyard on one side and the promenade on the other, 8-year-old Nikola met her on a slippery path made of a pile of fallen leaves. He was carrying a big bag of garbage over his left shoulder while dragging a tin box with his right hand.
“Is this part of a coffin?” she muttered to herself as she stopped, aware that the main cemetery is nearby. As she turned around and took the tin from Nikola, she was shocked — not by the boy’s cargo, but because they recently removed more than 40 big bags worth of waste from the same spot. Not just that, they had even cleaned up this inaccessible area some six months ago.
Despite everything, everyone seemed cheerful. The team was laughing and joking, encouraging each other to work. In the background, their murmur was joined by the sound of a chainsaw and a mowing trimmer to provide a soundtrack.
At that point, Ivana Čogurić emerged from under some intricate branches. Although she had had a rough week, the journalist showed up again.
“There’s no lack of will, perhaps of strength sometimes, but there is always time for this.” She said she takes these gatherings as a form of relaxation for the coming week, replacing physical exercise in her weekly routine. In her view, everyone can find time for these cleanups with just some will, but that is precisely what is missing.
“The response was far greater during lockdown because everybody needed to vent in some way. The activities attracted many people. At one point, there were more than 50 of us on the ground,” she recalled.
Čogurić blames the end of health restrictions for the lower turnout. In her opinion, people went back to the dojč (the name Montenegrins give to a large coffee with milk) and their phones as soon as the cafés opened to the public.
A voice coming from the branches she had just left let us know that its owner cannot see any garbage there, but Čogurić knew that it was still there — not just garbage, but a landfill. Soon enough, below the branches, a fallen tree, a cloak of intertwined pine needles and damp fallen leaves, it appeared — plastic bottles with faded labels, cans, broken flower baskets, parts of monuments, quilts, mattresses and shoes.
“It’s sad to see to what extent we are neglecting nature!” she said, while glancing at the scene, visibly disappointed by whatever nature is telling her about human nature. “We aren’t doing anything to make the situation better for ourselves. We are demanding that others do something while we refuse to do anything. It’s clear that institutions are responsible, but still, a great share of responsibility lies with us. In the end, we are the ones who choose those people.”
They once built a living space out of the waste they collected. They pulled out a shower cabin from the river, a little bit farther they found a chest of drawers, an armchair, an old door in the woods, a machine buried in the ground, blankets torn in the undergrowth and other prizes they had recovered. With that, they erected an art installation — a mini studio in the open, just when Nikšić’s residents were forced to keep windows closed because the nearby landfill in Mislov Do was burning, making air pollution even worse than it usually is.
This year Montenegro will be marking the 30th anniversary of the Declaration on the Ecological State in Žabljak, when its Parliament proclaimed that the fight for human dignity requires fighting for the dignity of nature. The country prides itself on being the first “ecological state” in the world.
“But our beauty is fading. While talking to tourists, I’m becoming more aware of the extent to which we are degrading and polluting it. We are ashamed of the dirt under our nails, but not when we pass by a landfill we have created or accepted, or when we litter — it’s just a piece of paper, after all,” said Čogurić.
Coming the opposite way, laden with bags, Nemanja Vuković stopped to take a short break. However, breaks are unacceptable. Whoever is caught immediately becomes the target of teasing, no matter the rank of the person — here they are all equals.
“I think that Montenegro has yet to become an ecological state — factually, and not only declaratively. We can only awaken people’s environmental consciousness with a positive example and by educating young people,” he said before resuming work.
This idea permeates the action of the volunteers. That day was the first time that 7-year-old Ana participated in the cleanup action. Her uncle brought her and she said that she can’t wait to come again. Eight-year-old Nikola, one of the most hardworking activists, was bragging about knowing what “eco” means, while he had only heard of “patriotism” earlier and had had the concept explained.
Continuing her reflections, Ivana thinks that nature should be at the forefront of the people’s concerns, and not their neighbor’s nationality, religion or sexual orientation.
“It’s all too sad when we realize the attention we pay to a false social life, while neglecting the real one. We take pictures of the sunset, but we don’t value it in itself, we just want to get a like,” she concluded before returning to the action.
Ivana Čogurić found a real trove in the underbrush. Photo: Milica Radovanović.
Another volunteer present, Željko Lučić, recalled how he often felt the urge to stop and pick up the garbage he encountered during his jogs around Mount Trebjesa.
“But I didn’t have the equipment and somehow I couldn’t get myself to do it on my own,” Lučić said. “Now, I happily engage in every activity, especially because I expect the institutions to do their job.”
The adrenalin and healthy fatigue were obvious in his voice, although he seemed unstoppable. When asked about his feelings regarding the action, he simply said he was doing “good,” but he showed surprise at the question. In his mind, like in those of most other activists, he is not doing anything special.
“Unfortunately, there are other problems to address. Although this is an existential issue, we don’t stop to think about that. This is a state of mind. It cannot be described in rational terms. Still, I think this group of people has already changed something in the past few months. It can be seen and felt,” he said before continuing with his work.
Disarray, neglect and littering are often manifestations of the state of mind and body, Lacman added. That is why essential change needs to happen within the individual, because feelings determine conduct, whether consciously or unconsciously.
“The current situation is due to the bad mental health of people. It all stems from self-destructive impulses in a person,” she insisted. “That’s why I think that people should turn inward, because they are part of nature and they should primarily nurture themselves.”
For her, Eco-patriotism entails loving and nurturing the country and its nature as we do to ourselves. Although sometimes it had seemed to her that the more they cleaned, the more garbage turned up, they started to feel they are becoming cleaner and happier themselves, a statement Čogurić agreed with.
“Eco-patriotism doesn’t only entail doing fieldwork to save the environment. We are also saving ourselves and cleaning the problems we accumulate. In order for us to be well, nature must be well and vice versa. We are part of the same chain that cannot be divided,” she said while Lacman nodded in confirmation.
“Everything around us is a reflection of ourselves. It’s high time to finally deal with this. If not, the consequences will be inconceivable in all aspects. The clock is ticking and red alarms are fired up all over the planet,” she proclaimed.
However, they believe everyone should take action.
“Responsibility shouldn’t only be attributed to the authorities and those whose job titles oblige them to act. We are all responsible for being environmentally aware and for teaching children to behave,” argued Lacman.
Ecopatriots are not waiting for any state institution to do its job. Instead, they are taking the bags into their own hands. The group will gather again in some inhospitable place forsaken by the authorities, but in the meantime, every small step goes a long way. Keeping a pair of gloves and bag nearby might not be a bad idea.
Feature image: Milica Radovanović
This article has been produced with the financial support of the “Balkan Trust for Democracy,” a project of the German Marshall Fund of the United States and the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Opinions expressed in this article do not necessarily represent those of the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Balkan Trust for Democracy, the German Marshall Fund of the United States, or its partners.