Environmental Activism in the Western Balkans

The research analyses environmental activism in the Western Balkans (WB)[1], identifying what has worked and what has proven challenging, and exploring the role played by exchange of knowledge and experience at the regional level. From this it outlines lessons that could help future environmental protection and coalition building initiatives to maximize their impacts from local up to national, regional, and international levels.

Across the region, air, water and soil pollution levels are disturbingly high. Public health is continuously jeopardized by air pollution, while industrial waste and construction initiatives pose serious challenges to public well-being and the protection of the region’s natural environment and resources. Despite this, the region’s environmental activists and NGOs have shown not only that there is room for improvement, but also that collaboration as well as proper awareness raising is key and can lead to positive change. Most of the movements, projects or initiatives shared by research participants involved environmental protection or conservation activism. Key concerns were: clean air, HPP construction, protecting rivers against pollution, conservation of the natural environment through the creation or implementation of relevant laws, opposing environmentally damaging construction initiatives, and opposing harmful or irresponsible waste disposal practices.

Many had succeeded in their immediate aims. According to participants, successful strategies to continue to replicate and adapt may involve: the use of scientific research evidence, translating locally-felt environmental problems into wider support for change, clarity on positive action the public and policy-makers can take, involvement of young people, working in coalition with partners at multiple levels (local-national-regional-international), raising the profile of environmental issues in electoral debates and stepping up peaceful protests.

Despite the strong adverse effects of different forms of pollution on citizens of the WB6, and intensification of public awareness, environmental activism, and civil society year by year, WB6 governments are not keeping up. The current state of play in combating environmental challenges in the region remains, despite many years of investment and encouragement as part of EU accession efforts and the emergence of a WB Green Agenda, far from promising.

In the face of limited resources and a challenging political environment, civil society and activists in the WB have shown their vital potential to generate public awareness and demand, translate this into behaviour change, engage communities in problem-solving initiatives and conservation efforts, and push for sound environmental policies.

Civil society will continue to have a vital role in maintaining pressure for green policies to be implemented, drive accountability, and support learning and adaptation – while acting as a watchdog for new initiatives that have the potential to harm the environment. To enable and support civil society and activists to play this role to the full, governments and donors should:

  • Provide long term resources to civil society actors engaged on these issues to raise public awareness, share information on how the public can call for and take effective environmental action, press for policy and practice change, as well as learn from, exchange and collaborate with each other
  • Ensure civil society and activists can play a full and active role within environmental policy processes
  • Support further research in support of environmental change processes at national and regional levels

For their part, drawing on the experiences and suggestions shared by research participants, civil society activists and NGOs should:

  • Continue to exchange and learn from one another about effective strategies, approaches and messages for achieving change – and foster deeper collaboration between socio-economic rights and environmental movements
  • Intensify public awareness raising, while further exploring incentives for participation in civic initiatives and effective ways to overcome barriers to government-CSO cooperation.

‘The environment is where we all meet; where we all have a mutual interest; it is the one thing all of us share’ Lady Bird Johnson


[1] Western Balkans/Western Balkan region/six WB countries (WB6) in this report refers to Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo, Montenegro, North Macedonia, Serbia.

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