From being an Important Bird and Biodiversity Area (IBA), to almost being turned into a hotel and golf courses, to now possibly becoming an eco resort, the battle for the Montenegrin salt pans of Ulcinj Salina among the government, conservationists and a private company has been a roller coaster ride, to say the least.
But the fate of one of the most important nesting, wintering and roosting sites for migrating Mediterranean waterbirds is not yet sealed, and it could yet be saved by the very birds it is meant to protect.
Of spatial plans and court cases: the Salina timeline
Salina has ensured the successful coexistence of economic development and natural habitat for decades. It was bought by a private company in 2003. Five years later, the government in its national spatial plan (which determines what land can be used for what purpose) decided to give the new owner permission to turn it into a tourist attraction, with a hotel and golf courses.
Four years of protests by NGOs, including CZIP (BirdLife in Montenegro) led to the withdrawal of that permission by the government in 2012 and an amendment to the spatial plan that stated Ulcinj Salina would remain a protected area.
But the story doesn’t end there. The company went bankrupt in 2013, leading to the closure of the salt pans. They no longer pumped our fresh water and pumped in salt water – which is vital to preserve it as a bird habitat. In 2014, the private company took the government to court, aiming to get full rights to the IBA, rather than just the salt factory buildings. It also wanted the government delete the amendments to its spatial plan. This demand was approved by the Constitutional Court, which decided to abolish the amendments because the government had used incorrect procedure to insert them.
Ulcinj Salina, home to around 252 bird species such as flamingos, Dalmatian Pelicans and Spotted Redshanks, has its international supporters as well. In 2014, the ambassadors of France, Germany and Poland urged the Montenegrin government to protect the site.
Eventually, however, the plea fell on deaf ears. As of February this year, Ulcinj Salina is no longer mentioned in the spatial plan. Instead, it is now included in a separate draft special spatial plan for the coast of Montenegro, with a vision to turn it into an ‘eco resort’ spread over 70 ha in two important pools recognized as a bird buffer area. And this is just the tip of the iceberg. The company drafting the special spatial plan is owned by Prime Minister’s brother, whose bank has mortgages on 70% of Ulcinj Salina.
This, despite an environmental report commissioned by the local authorities says it should remain a protected area. In fact, the site has even qualified to be protected under the Ramsar Convention to protect wetlands. The government has not announced its final decision of the site’s fate.
The solution? This one is for the birds
The international attention the site has received has helped CZIP put the issue in front of the European Commission. The birds of Salina are now part of the Montenegro Progress Report 2015 (Chapter 27),which will be used by the EU to determine whether Montenegro can accede to the Union. The report states: “In the coming year , Montenegro should in particular… make resolute efforts to protect and manage the Ulcinj Salina nature and bird reservation site, in line with the requirements of nature conservation”. An EU delegation is going to measure the successfulness of the government in protecting nature based on the status of Ulcinj Salina. So the birds are contributing to actions to protect them.
CZIP is also organising the second international conference on the protection of Ulcinj Salina this month to promote the need and actions required to protect the site on a national and international level. The main purpose of this second conference is to push the pending fulfilment of most of the conclusions – including restarting the site’s drainage system, designating Ulcinj Salina a Ramsar site and the prevention of illegal killing of birds at the site – on which all the participants of the 1st conference agreed in April 2015.
Since the first conference, some progress has been achieved in terms of nominating a temporary management of the area (the National Parks of Montenegro, until August 2016), and in terms of the re-functioning of the Ulcinj Salina ecosystem, but national and international protection has still not been achieved.
Meanwhile, Montenegrins are slowly waking up to the threats faced by Ulcinj Salina. On 30 January 2016, CZIP organised a visit to the site for more than 200 people. The hiking association of Podgorica organized a trip on 28 February for 120 people and another on 12 March to see the flamingos in the salt marshes. Another tour is scheduled for May.
Locals are also getting more actively involved in the protection of the site. During the public hearing for the special spatial plan, more than 100 citizens from the Ulcinj Salina area attended. All of them agreed on one thing: Salina should be saved from infrastructure development.
But the future of the birds and Ulcinj Salina ultimately rests with the government of Montenegro, and how important it deems the protection of the country’s national environment.