CRM Journal

Research Report

Sustainable Development in the Republic of Montenegro

by Paul Labovitz


The Republic of Montenegro formally declared independence from Serbia in June 2006. A young nation with an old history and a keen awareness of the need to preserve its natural and cultural heritage, Montenegro determined to become an "ecological state" and so crafted strong legislation aimed at facilitating the achievement of its conservation goals. Yet, self-declaration has not been enough to attain Montenegro's desired ecological condition.

To assist Montenegro's objectives, the United States Consulate, now an embassy in the capital city of Podgorica, invited Len Materman of America's River Communities, a conservation nonprofit based in California, and this author to Montenegro to engage several audiences in discussions about sustainable development practices. The American team had paired up previously to facilitate a similar program in Slovakia in conjunction with the U.S. Embassy in Bratislava. In Slovakia, the conversation centered on the region surrounding High Tatras National Park.

Working through the Montenegro Business Alliance (MBA), a local nonprofit partner, the embassy scheduled a two-week program of meetings with a number of government agencies, citizens, environmental and conservation nonprofits, and business owners. The initial gathering brought the American team together with the MBA, which was followed by a brief tour and introduction to embassy staff. The American team then had several opportunities to interact with members of the media. They contributed to a session of the American Corner at the Cultural Center in Podgorica, a forum where different topics are explored and presented to the public. The team talked to several school groups in high schools in Podgorica, Ulcinj, and Mojkovac, including an economics and tourism development class at a magnet high school.

The American team traveled to many parts of the country. They spent time with the directors of National Parks of Montenegro and three of Montenegro's four national parks: Durmitor, Biogradske Gora, and Skadar Lake.(Figure 1) Those discussions were based on the premise that natural and cultural resource conservation should be a critical part of Montenegro's future economic development strategy.

Montenegro's national parks and its UNESCO designated World Heritage Sites at Durmitor and Biogradske Gora National Parks and the old town at Kotor face many challenges. Development pressures along the coast threaten the landscape and built environment that form the basis for the World Heritage designation at Kotor, in particular.(Figure 2) State funding can cover only a percentage of the operations at all four of Montenegro's national parks, which therefore must be very creative when it comes to generating revenue to operate, provide visitor services, and protect important natural and cultural features. And yet, revenue generating activities such as logging, river rafting, and hunting are the source of increasing public controversy in Montenegro and, by extension, concern among policy makers.

Moreover, the nonprofit community in Montenegro is still evolving and not sufficiently equipped to assist the parks fully in their conservation work. Many nonprofits consist of only a few staff, often just one or two people. Capacity building for nonprofit operations, programs, and fundraising is a self-identified need. Consolidation among the nonprofits will help prevent duplication of effort and encourage the development of more comprehensive strategic plans that focus on conservation. Nonetheless several have proven track records and are succeeding in various parts of the country. The institutional evolution underway has created some strong organizations that will continue to thrive.

Hopeful of encouraging other successful ventures, the American team met with delegates from the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) to talk about rural development and tourism initiatives. A representative of the World Bank Global Environment Facility was also present to speak on efforts in rural communities in the Durmitor National Park region.

Tourism, such as that encouraged by the national parks, is a large component of Montenegro's economy. An equally large part, however, are the two industrial plants that provide employment opportunities and emit most of the country's pollution. Energy consumption at a large aluminum plant near the capital has unfortunately placed Montenegro in the unenviable position, statistically speaking, of appearing to consume three times the amount of electricity per capita on average of other European Union member nations. The European Union energy requirement has led to proposals for hydropower development in Montenegro that could severely impact several large river systems including the Tara River even as Montenegro itself curtails consumption. This catch-22 is particularly trenchant since the Tara River Canyon is one of the deepest river gorges in the world, second only to the Grand Canyon in the United States.(Figure 3) The Tara is also a prominent feature of both Durmitor and Biogradske Gora National Parks.

Getting together in Montenegro forged a connection between people working in related fields and grappling with similar challenges. The embassy wanted to generate proactive discussions that would identify issues and needs and propose ways of addressing them. Among the follow-up strategies: continue to share concerns and experiences, tackle problems, and help build capacity; bring Montenegrins to the U.S. to meet people and visit places facing similar issues, and nurture relationships for future partnerships such as possible sister-park projects; engage the U.S. Department of State in exploring other opportunities for collaboration; and support future U.S.-Montenegro study tours.

Another potential outcome of the trip is the creation of a fifth Montenegrin national park in the Prokletije region along the border with Albania and Kosovo. Montenegro will petition UNESCO to recertify its existing World Heritage Sites, a requirement due to its separation from Serbia. At the time of writing, Montenegro was also in negotiations with the World Wildlife Fund regarding potential conservation work on the Dinaric Arc along the eastern edge of the Adriatic Sea.

In the end, the American team was able to share its success and other stories with its Montenegrin partners. The project demonstrated in irrefutable terms the extent to which Americans and Montenegrins share the desire to protect and interpret their natural and cultural heritage. Both communities grapple with issues related to visitor services, interpretation, and science. All involved in the meeting in Montenegro were recommitted to the idea that resource protection and appropriate development are compatible within both an economic strategy and a desire to be an ecological state.


About the Author

Paul Labovitz is the superintendent of Mississippi National River and Recreation Area in Minnesota.