Call me crazy: From environmental hotspot to eco-tourism

* This post was originally published on UNDP’s regional blog ‘Voices from Eurasia’
Have you ever been to Mojkovac? If you’re not from Montenegro, you probably haven’t. But up until a few years ago, most people in Montenegro would have said the same. Mojkovac used to be an environmental hot spot – due to a huge mining waste dump in the very centre of the town, only around 15 metres away from the Tara River, a UNESCO World Heritage Site and Europe’s deepest canyon.

This is even more regrettable because Mojkovac is home to two national parks (Biogradska Lake and Durmitor) and features impressive beauty of the surrounding mountains of Bjelasica and Sinjajevina. Together with the striking canyon of the Tara river, this area is one of the most beautiful in Montenegro. But it hasn’t been looked at this way because of its reputation as an environmental hot spot.

A legacy of mining

In 1976, the Government opened a lead and zinc mine in Mojkovac, promising prosperity for local citizens. But prosperity never came. In 1991, after the collapse of Yugoslavia, hardly anyone noticed that the Brskovo mine had collapsed too, leaving at least one person per household without income.

Poverty held a tight grip on Mojkovac, while waste from the abandoned mine started to take its toll. The number of people with pulmonary diseases or cancer increased. The waste dump and high unemployment rate discouraged investment in Mojkovac, and people left.

After the conflict in the Western Balkans had come to an end, there was an opportunity to get rid of the “silent killer.”

In 2005 the Government of Montenegro in cooperation with the Czech Government and the Government of Netherlands through UNDP, rolled out a 10 million euro programme to clean up the site. UNDP in Montenegro was responsible for implementing some 2 million euros.

The job of turning an environmental hot spot into a place for adventure-tourism had begun.

Could we take the 10 million euro clean up, and turn it into a development opportunity? What could we do to change the negative image of Mojkovac?

Initially, work focused on cleaning up the waste water that had been accumulating in the dump over the last two decades. A waste water treatment plant was built (connecting the waste water system of Mojkovac to a modern treatment plant that could cover the needs of the Municipality for the next 20 to 25 years). The waste water from the site was solidified and capped, and a drainage system ensures that water is kept from the area.

At the same time, our goal became not only to have a healthier community but also to lift the toxic shadow from the closed lead and zinc mine and to promote a greener future for the pristine natural surroundings of Mojkovac.

All activities had to provide learning opportunities for community members with a developed set of results at the end of the process. At the same time, those activities were intended to provide information about the natural potential of the Mojkovac region and to contribute to creating an image of Mojkovac as a clean, friendly destination.

Crazy idea #1 – adventure tourism!

We wanted to turn Mojkovac into the adventure-tourism centre of the North – everyone thought we were crazy! So what did we do?

  • Taught high school students to kayak in the Tara River

Result: The Mojkovac kayak club is the country’s strongest team, and has hosted hundreds of world class competitors and tourists who come to kayak in Montenegro.

Crazy idea, again? But, today high school students and mountaineers from Mojkovac provide trainings to hundreds of tourist guides across Montenegro. They take a group of people through nature while leaving the least impact on the natural environment. (In Costa Rica, “Leave No Trace” certified rafting guides charge on average $50 more for a tour than those who don’t – attesting to the value of ethical behavior in nature.)

Four years later this event received international awards and the most prestigious national award from the National Tourism Organization. It continues to bring together adventure-lovers from across the world to compete in kayaking, mountain biking and mountaineering.

People living in the area began to see the value of eco-tourism. After the first tourists came to this area, a number of articles were published in national and international media, and awards were given to the region.

Crazy idea #2: Organic food!

We wanted to set up organic food production in Mojkovac. (If I had get a dime for everytime someone from Montenegro, even my own family, told me it was crazy to develop organic food production in what had been known as an industrial wasteland, I would be a wealthy person now.)

And now, the Association of Organic Food Producers in Mojkovac supplies a variety of hotels and restaurants all over the region!

From a Silent Killer and 19 hectares of wasteland, we have created 19 hectares of successful green development. More and more Montenegrins now visit Mojkovac. Will you?

Borko Vulikić

Project Manager at the Economy and Environment Cluster

UNDP Montenegro