For Love of a Mountain in Montenegro

The whole frame of geopolitics…seeks to manage tensions and power struggles among those who rule, while the vast majority of people—as well as plants, animals, land, and water—are controlled, confined, or killed to serve those interests.—Ray Acheson, ‘Abolishing Geopolitics and Building a World Without State Violence,’ Metapolis, September 2022


For vast stretches of human time, Sinjajevina Mountain in Montenegro has been home to pastoralist communities living in peace and harmony with each other and the land. Part of the Balkan nation’s Tara Canyon Biosphere Reserve, Sinjajevina is one of the largest unspoilt mountain pastures in Europe. But Montenegro joined NATO in 2017, and in the eyes of the world’s most powerful military alliance the mountain is indeed a perfect place…to practice for war.

A photo of Save Sinjajevina protestors seated on a hillside in Montenegro.

(Source: Save Sinjajevina website gallery)

In September 2019—in the absence of any environmental assessment or community consultation—plans for a training ground were announced. Two months later a campaign to ‘Save Sinjajevina’ was launched, and in October 2020 activists led by 150 farming families “formed a human chain in the grasslands,” prepared to use “their bodies as shields against the live ammunition” of an imminent exercise. The remarkable story is told by ‘World BEYOND War,’ which named the ‘Save Sinjajevina’ campaign as its ‘War Abolisher of the Year’ in 2021:

For months they stood in the way of the military moving from one side of the plateau to another, in order to prevent [them] from firing and executing their drill. Whenever the military moved, so did the resisters. When Covid hit and national restrictions on gatherings were implemented, they took turns in four-person groups set in strategic spots to stop the guns from firing. When the high mountains turned cold in November, they bundled up and held their ground. They resisted for more than 50 days in freezing conditions until the new Montenegrin Minister of Defense…announced that the training would be cancelled.

The non-violent battle was won, but the war against the war on the mountain goes on, with a large-scale live-fire exercise scheduled for May, expected to involve NATO troops from Montenegro, Italy, North Macedonia, Slovenia, and the United States. And in early February, over 200 NATO troops arrived – to be emphatically ‘unwelcomed’ by protesters—to flex military muscles in assorted “alpinistic exercises”: a sour taste, perhaps, of a range of routine intrusions to come as NATO seeks to make itself ‘at home’ on an ancient homeland.

A photo of "Save Sinjajevina" protestors in the snow.

“Save Sinjajevina” protestors in the snow. (Source: Save Sinjajevina website gallery)

In July last year, Maja Kostić-Mandić, professor of international environmental law at the University of Montenegro, answered the critical question, “why Sinjajevina should be preserved,” in the words of mountainside cattle breeders interviewed in 2020. “This,” one told her, “is the only thing left untouched. Here, they took the sea, they took the rivers, they took everything. If they take this from us, where are we going then?” Another noted that the people of the ‘katuns’—highland pastoralist settlements—always obeyed “unwritten rules” about conservation, particularly of water supplies, and “I don’t believe that these people kept it [conserved] for our government to build a military training ground or a shooting range there… People kept it for themselves, and for those after them.”

“All the interlocutors,” Dr. Kostić-Mandić wrote, “learned about the decision to build a military training ground from the media,” and none were asked to participate “in any public debate” to express “their readiness to defend Sinjajevina and their multigenerational way of life in harmony with nature.” Or as the President of ‘Save Sinjajevina,’ Milan Sekulović, eloquently exclaimed:

We are not just people from the mountain, we are the mountain, we have merged with it. … When we say that Sinjajevina is our mother and that she raised us, it may sound strange to some, but it is the truth. Look at the hands of our mothers—on their hands [is] Sinjajevina, you will see there its hills and valleys. From those hands comes all this food, healthy and natural and clean. Homemade. Today it is called ‘organic.’


What we have here, in sum, is military-industrial imperialism, a curse grimly familiar to so many tribal communities (which is how many residents of Sinjajevina describe themselves) and Indigenous peoples. For this reason, the ‘Save Sinjajevina’ campaign is supported by global protest movements led and inspired by Indigenous resistance, including the International Land Coalition, Land Rights Now, the Perangua activist network and the ICCA Consortium, fighting for the establishment of Indigenous Peoples’ & Community Conserved Territories & Areas (ICCAs).

The Consortium—based in Switzerland and active in North America, Latin America, Europe, Asia, Africa and Oceania—seeks to combine the “close association…often found between a specific indigenous people or local community and a specific territory, area or body of natural resources,” with “effective local governance and conservation of nature,” generating a mutual empowerment—or, as Sekulović might say, a cooperative “merger”—of people and place.

A photo of huts in the snow in Sinjajevina, Montenegro.

(Source: Save Sinjajevina website gallery)

Ironically, the Montenegrin Constitution, adopted when the nation of just over 600,000 voted narrowly to secede from Serbia in 2006, enshrines the right to a healthy environment, participation in relevant decision-making, and access to information about the impacts of proposed ‘developments’—although tellingly, as if anticipating NATO membership, there was an exemption for defense-related projects. Although—or because—public opinion was so clearly divided, no referendum was held on NATO accession. But the alliance’s salivating designs on Sinjajevina have caused widespread offence, and incontrovertibly run counter to the government’s own plans, unveiled in 2016, to create—originally, by 2020—a protected national park on and around the mountain.

In July last year, Montenegro’s Ministry of Ecology and the Agency for the Protection of Nature and the Environment reaffirmed their commitment to protecting Sinjajevina; yet the same month, Defence Minister Raško Konjević reaffirmed his commitment to using Sinjajevina for “new military exercises.” Such a state of split governmental personality is extraordinary, and helps explain why Professor Kostić-Mandić believes the outcome of the tussle will “clearly show our public opinion whether we want to be a legal, democratic and ecological state.” In question here is fidelity to both domestic and international law, for example the 1998 Aarhus Convention–a.k.a. the United Nations Convention on Access to Information, Public Participation in Decision-Making and Access to Justice in Environmental Matters—to which Montenegro is bound. Again, the Convention provides a potential exemption for defense-related projects, but only under certain conditions—such as national legislation defining the exemption, and a state declaration that applying the Convention would be detrimental to national interests—that have not, in the case of Sinjajevina, been satisfied.

A photo of a man sitting on a hillside in Sinjajevina with sheep in the distance.

(Source: Save Sinjajevina website gallery)

Montenegro in part joined NATO as a milestone to membership in the European Union (EU), yet the EU—which is also bound by the Aarhus Convention—supports plans to protect Sinjajevina, viewing its precious biodiversity as a potentially valuable ‘asset’ in its Green New Deal and natural habitats strategy. A new petition—so far signed by over 20,000 people—requests Olivér Várhelyi, the EU Commissioner for Neighbourhood and Enlargement, to establish a protected area “co-designed and co-governed by local communities” as a pre-condition for Montenegrin accession; and in June last year the European Parliament’s annual ‘Progress Report for Montenegro’ expressed “concern about damage to bodies of water and rivers related to infrastructure projects, including…Sinjajevina,” regretting “that despite initial progress the Sinjajevina issue is still not solved.”


In late January, in my capacity as Campaign Coordinator for Peace Quest Cape Breton, I wrote to Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, Minister of National Defence Anita Anand, and Minister of Environment Steven Guilbeault, urging them to raise the Sinjajevina issue with their NATO counterparts, requesting at a minimum a moratorium on any military activity pending a full policy review. (I have since been assured by the Prime Minister’s Office that my “comments have been carefully reviewed,” and forwarded to Mélanie Joly, Minister of Foreign Affairs.)

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, Canadian Defense Minister Anita Anand and Prime Minister of Canada Justin Trudeau during their press conference at the Royal Canadian Air Force base in Cold Lake.

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, Canadian Defense Minister Anita Anand and Prime Minister of Canada Justin Trudeau during their press conference at the Royal Canadian Air Force base in Cold Lake, 26 August 2022. (Source: NATO)

I also raised the issue with Montenegro’s Honorary Consul in Canada, Dr. Douglas Elliott, who—while admitting he was “unaware of the particular concerns that you raise regarding the alleged impact of the NATO exercises on the environment or on rural communities”—described Montenegro as “a rarity among nations of the world as it has a constitutional commitment to the environment.” Not only that, it is also:

…a proud member of NATO, an organization whose key importance is only underlined by the ongoing criminal aggression of the Putin regime toward Ukraine. As Montenegro has a tragic and recent experience of real civil war, I utterly reject any suggestion that NATO forces are engaged in any kind of aggression toward the population of Montenegro. You may be unaware of the fact that a few years ago there was an attempted coup in Montenegro orchestrated by the GRU [Russian military intelligence], and aimed at undermining Montenegro’s membership in NATO. NATO enjoys strong support in Montenegro. Her people know that the threat to the security of the country’s citizens clearly emanates from Moscow, and not from Mons.

It is true that in May 2019, 14 people—including two GRU officers, tried in absentia—were found guilty of planning to instigate a coup on the day of the October 2016 general election, and plotting to assassinate prime minister Milo Djukanovic, the dominant figure in Montenegrin politics since the early 1990s. The verdicts were overturned in February 2021, with the appeals court citing “significant violations of the provisions of the criminal procedure,” and a retrial ordered.

Between the conviction and appeal, Djukanovic’s Democratic Socialist Party lost power for the first time, making way for a volatile coalition seeking closer links with Belgrade and Moscow while continuing to pursue EU membership. Last August, the coalition lost a vote of no confidence; on January 4, efforts to reconfigure a governing majority failed, and snap elections loomed, though the process may be complicated by a parallel paralysis in the Constitutional Court, unable to convene in quorum since last September.

A photo of a man on horseback and a car sharing a road in Sinjejevina, Montenegro.

(Source: Save Sinjajevina website gallery)

The only thing this confused picture clearly shows is that Montenegrins are not the united, happy, pro-NATO family depicted by the Honorary Consul. But even if they were convinced, as Dr. Elliott claims, that only ‘Mons’ (shorthand for Belgium-based NATO) was keeping Moscow from pouncing on Montenegro, does it follow that Sinjajevina needs to be desecrated? And wouldn’t such a desecration rightly be registered, by the people of that place, as a “kind of aggression?”

I shared Dr. Elliott’s email with supporters of the ‘Save Sanjajevina’ campaign, one of whom—eco-anthropologist Pablo Dominguez—dryly described his response as “further confirmation of the very thin evaluation capacity of public servants about the Sinjajevina case.” With regard to the depiction of Montenegro as a “rarity among nations,” Dominguez assured me that its “constitutional commitment to the environment” had long been honored far more in the breach than the observance, an abysmal record culminating in the failure to object to Sinjajevina—“an absolutely central Montenegrin landscape and ecological corridor” – being turned into a “bombing ground.”

“Sinjajevina is not just a local issue but also a global cause,” insists Sabine Pallas of the International Land Coalition. Most immediately, that cause is to prevent “pasturelands becoming inaccessible to those who have managed them sustainably for centuries, creating a unique biodiversity that would disappear without them.” But because winning that fight means that “the pastoralists of Sinjajevina should always have the last word on what happens in their territories” – to quote Clémence Abbes, Coordinator of the Land Rights Now coalition – the struggle is also one for radical communal autonomies and freedoms, breaking free of state domination.


In April 2021, Aleksandra Tomanic, Gazela Pudar Drasko, and Vedran Dzihic—activist-scholars from the Engaged Democracy Initiative (EDI)—placed the struggle to save Sinjajevina in the context of citizens’ movements across the Balkans in the wake of the 2013-14 ‘Bosnian Spring.’  At that time of upheaval, and violent state repression, they wrote, a “new dimension of deliberation was practiced for the first time in the region—the citizens’ ‘plena,’” community assemblies intended to replace “gridlocked political and economic systems” with the “transformative power” of participatory self-governance. And even though the bold experiment “in the end collapsed,” it “created new narratives that can be mobilized in future,” trailblazing “a way for new platforms for civic activism.”

A photo showing a brook in Sinjajevina, Montenegro.

(Source: Save Sinjajevina website gallery)

As examples, in addition to “the resistance of citizens on Mt. Sinjajevina,” the authors cite the “Rakita resistance in Serbia,” which “united villagers by organizing direct actions to stop the construction of a hydropower plant on the Rakita river”; the ‘Brave Women of Kruščiva’ in Bosnia-Herzegovina, awarded the prestigious Goldman Environmental Prize in 2021 for their 500+-day occupation of a bridge to prevent the construction of two hydroelectric plants; and, in Albania, protests that successfully “stood up against the demolition of the old National Theatre in Tirana”.

“We could,” they write, “go on listing and honoring all those brave, courageous, and engaged citizens” whose initiatives “manifest a will to democratize societies” on entirely other lines than “the old ethnic narratives and divisions.” And “looking for a powerful metaphor for this kind of horizontal process of working together and acting equally, and without hierarchies,” they “rediscovered the term ‘rhizome’,” which “in biology stands for a plant stem that grows horizontally, often under the ground, producing a multiplicity of roots and leaves,” and which the French philosopher Gilles Deleuze deployed as a “metaphor to develop an entire philosophical concept…focusing on principles of connections,” the generation of resurgent energies—for “even when a rhizome breaks it starts to grow again along its old or new lines”—inherent in the “multiplicities of our relations to other peoples.”

Although such a perspective is alien to the artificial discourse of ‘national security’ and ‘state sovereignty’—the unreal world of ‘realpolitik’—such ‘rhizomic’ relationships are far more real than the ‘bonds’ established in recent centuries between states and citizens, even in constitutional democracies, like Montenegro’s, ostensibly guaranteeing basic freedoms while leaving massive ‘vertical’ violences (self-serving, top-down power structures) untouched.

A photo of Maida Bilal and the women of Krusicica

Maida Bilal received the award on behalf of the all the brave women of Kruščica. © Goldman Prize

But is it realistic to work for a world no longer (dis)ordered along fundamentally unnatural, inhuman state lines? Nearly a century ago (1927), D.H. Lawrence wrote that “realism is just one of the arbitrary views man takes of man,” an “aeroplane view” which “sees us all as little ant-like creatures toiling against the odds of circumstance.” And because this “became the popular view, today we actually are, millions of us, little ant-like creatures toiling against the odds of circumstance, and doomed to misery; unless we take a different view of ourselves.”

Unless we take an ‘organic’ perspective. And refuse to be climbed over.

Sean Howard


Sean Howard is adjunct professor of political science at Cape Breton University and member of Peace Quest Cape Breton and the Canadian Pugwash Group. He may be reached here.