Last week Alistair Maltby our Operations Director returned to the Balkans to join the third Balkan Rivers Tour. Here is his account of the biggest direct river conservation action in Europe. I keep a postcard of the River Una in Bosnia above my desk. Una means the One, and it reminds me why after 20 years, I still work to restore wild rivers and natural processes. Una was my first experience of a Balkan river, and the location for Patagonia’s Tools for Grassroots Activists conference earlier this year - world-class training in strategy and tactics, mixed with space to network, fish, kayak and swim in the most beautiful river I had ever seen. It was here that I met Rok Rozman, ex-angry ice hockey player, ex-Olympic rower, fly fisherman, biologist and professional white-water kayaker. Rok found out about plans for around 2700 proposed dams that threatened to destroy everything he loved about the rivers of the Balkans and he decided to act. Whilst attending a river conservation conference, Rok became fed up with the familiar complaints of lack of funding, organisation and bureaucracy. He stood up and drew a red line down the rivers of the Balkan peninsula and said that he and his friends would kayak this route to show the world what is at stake if these rivers are dammed. And so The Balkan River Tour (BRT) was born, and like the 1978 film Convoy, his trip grew from a few individuals into crowds of people from all over the Balkans and indeed the World. I joined BRT3 in Montenegro with Dan Yates from Save Our Rivers to lend our support to Balkan River Defence (BRD) and to see first-hand how this movement is being so successful in growing support to save rivers from the pressures of growth and industry. We arrived first at the pre-arranged hostel in the Capital Podgorica and were just giving up hope when a convoy of vans laden with kayaks, smiles and waving arms, and one British mini rolled around the corner. The mini belonged to Mark, who lives near Gunnislake in Cornwall, just minutes from the RT office. Mark is a chef who read about the tour, got in his car and drove across Europe to join the action. I think we might see more of Mark in the future! The next morning, the team operated like a well-oiled machine and Dan, Mark and I were pulled into jobs. The team travel with a chef and Mark joined the critical effort to keep the team well fed. Dan travelled into the city to walk the event route, check safety and security, while I worked on social media and a press release. Finally, when the keys to the local park and the basketball court, which would be later set up as an outdoor cinema, were secured, we rolled.
We gathered in the city centre with signs, banners, kayaks and fishing rods. Slowly people gathered in the square while Veera, a Dutch professional kayaker and MSc in River Hydraulics who leads the BRD River Intellectuals project, took her own protest, and kayak, into the fountain.We marched through the city centre, kayakers, fly fishers, young and old, horns of support from the local traffic making us walk tall. Over the River Morača, still running wild through the city centre, and down to the foreshore where we set up a raft and kayaks for local people to enjoy a paddle, or just a river cooled beer on the beach. As the sun went down, we moved to the basketball court and watched BRD’s new film, Undamaged. The team travel with professional photographers and young film-makers. The use of video, stunning photos, and modern media messaging has undoubtedly contributed to the success of this movement. Conservation has to be cool to win the support of the next generation and to fight the messages of growth and development. Vera's protest! The march! Piva Dam - 220m high The next morning, we headed North to see the 220m Piva dam and the impact it has had since 1976, before ending up at Kamp Grab on the River Tara for a weekend at the Tara Kayak Festival. Driving into the Piva canyon, the first thing that was notable was the silence. Not the sounds of wildlife we had experienced before. The new town that had been built to flood the valley was soulless with its metal roofed apartment blocks and EU funded (and empty) children’s play areas. We spent little time looking at the reservoir, its faded post-apocalyptic adverts for boat trips, and the dead and dying trees along the shoreline. The reservoir is being held at a low level due to the disrepair of the dam. A deal was struck in August for 10 million Euros, mostly from a German development bank, to refurbish the turbines, so the stunning Piva canyon is unlikely to flow with water other than with occasional dam releases in the future. We quickly moved on, past the Montenegro border post, and just before entering Bosnia dropped into the Tara canyon and down to Kamp Grab. The weekend was about enjoying the river. Something that we often forget to do, but which recharges us for the fight for clean and free running rivers. We were met by Pippa from Bankwatch who is challenging the banking community on their investment in hydropower, and Marieke from the Free Rivers Fund who is funding projects to prevent and remove dams, supported by the outdoor industry. I paddled white-water for the first time in 20 years. I didn’t drown. There were presentations on river conservation, films, we swam, we fished, and we talked about how we were going to save our rivers. I personally need to do more of this again. When rivers become work, it becomes harder to enjoy them, and we risk losing the passion that drove us in the first place. I wonder how many of us feel like that in our Rivers Trust movement? Soulless Piva reservoir & the artificial beach created for 'tourism' A dry canyon apart from occasional releases of water from the dam Rok says that his mission has become clear:
“…it is about creating a movement – a shift of perception of dams, making conservation cool, accessible to everyone and fun. We are the ambassadors of rivers, the simple people that address society and raise awareness in a way that we get heard, not boring people into reading a 300-page document. We are connecting dots by bringing adventure sports communities and nature conservation organisations together. Where kayakers and fly fishermen become friends. We are helping small, local NGOs get exposure in international media.”New. Unconventional. Doing things in a different way. Ambassadors of rivers. Sound familiar? The Rivers Trust movement can learn a lot from Balkan River Defence, particularly about making conservation cool, but we have a lot to share too on getting things done on the ground and supporting local groups to do it. Our mission is the same; we do it by helping local groups to fight their own fight, and we look forward to supporting each other in this mission.