Transparency in Serbia
24 June 2013, The Guardian
In 1999, bombs rained down on Belgrade as Nato forces attempted to topple Slobodan Milosevic’s regime. Amid the chaos of war, Natasa Djereg, a student at the University of Belgrade’s faculty of forestry, founded the Centre for Ecology and Sustainable Development (Cekor) with her professors. “Those were terrible years,” says Djereg, who is now the director of the NGO. “We wanted to start a project that looked to the future.”
Since then Cekor has grown in size and scope. Today, the team consists of nine multi-disciplinary professionals working on national and cross-border environmental projects.
“Campaigning around transparency was a natural progression,” she says. “In Serbia sustainable development is not high on political agendas, people are not aware of their rights. The system is open to abuse. We have to speak with courage … ensure government and large companies meet environmental standards … this is our everyday work”.
Last year, Cekor began investigating Electric Power Industry Serbia (EPS), a state-owned company and monopoly electricity provider, and one of their funders, the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD). What began as a project lobbying against the expansion of lignite mining in the Kolubara basin quickly took a sinister turn.
“We found people living very close to the mines, less than 200 metres,” says Nikola Perusic, Cekor’s project manager. “Many are not being offered adequate compensation for their homes; some no compensation at all.”
Serbia’s transition towards democracy since the conflict ended has been faltering. Despite anti-corruption crackdowns, unscrupulous practices in politics and business remain rife.
“[EBRD] have completely failed to monitor EPS,” says Perusic. “This is not uncommon; wherever we see EBRD or other banks involved in large infrastructure projects, in energy or transport, there are often problems. Cekor have worked on similar projects before.”
On paper, Serbia’s access to information legislation is liberal, but in practice requests are often subject to lengthy delays and rules are hard to enforce.
“We are trying to follow a paper trail,” explains Perusic. “But in this instance, the [most important] piece of information I’m seeking, an action plan for the resettlement of these houses, is the one lacking. It just doesn’t exist … We have to piece together information like a puzzle.”
When the paper trail disappears, the team search for physical evidence instead. Visiting villages on the edge of the mines, they see the suffering caused. “It is like Armageddon, houses are collapsing and being bulldozed,” says Perusic. “Many villagers do not know their rights … Civil society is weak. People are poor and have little education. They don’t know who is responsible or how to make complaints.”
Cekor is now a regional leader in environmentalism. Since 2004 it has represented the international NGO Bankwatch in Serbia. “Collaborating with international organisations and the growing influence of [the] EU has helped our work,” says Djereg. “With this pressure, the government has to pay attention. Since we started out important legislation has been passed – now we need to see it enforced.”
What does transparency mean to you?
Transparency is a crucial issue and a condition for democratic global and local environmental governance, and necessary for the expression of the right to an environment adequate for human health and wellbeing.
Why is access to information important in development?
Access to information is an indispensable prerequisite for the right to public participation in environmental decision-making. Improved access to information aims to facilitate public participation, enhance public awareness and understanding, and, ultimately, the greater public accountability of public authorities
What is the one piece of information you most want released?
In our practice we most often want released an environmental assessment of the various plans/programmes: the environmental objectives of the programme, the current state of the environment, the alternatives considered, feasibility studies, and – particularly – data from emissions from industry into the air, water and soil.
Theme: Energy & climate