I am not used to good news, and am suspicious of them. What could be the big picture here, my suspicious mind keeps asking? But let me go back – you do not know the news!
My readers are already familiar with Beljarica Backwaters, as described in half a dozen posts here at 10,000 Birds. It is a spacious floodplain between the River Danube and the levee, 2.1 km / 1.3 mi at its widest point and some 9 km2 / 3.5 mi2 of seasonally inundated riparian forests, industrial poplar plantations, river arms and ponds with 60 mammal (Wild Boar, Roe Deer, Wildcat, Golden Jackal, Eurasian Otter) and 180 bird species (White-tailed Eagle, Black Stork, Ferruginous Duck, Whiskered Tern, Black Woodpecker; Icterine, Eastern Olivaceous and Barred Warblers) recorded so far. Also, it is a part of the international ecological corridor and the “Confluence of the Sava and the Danube Rivers” Important Bird Area (IBA), already proposed for a nature reserve by the Government’s Institute for the Protection of Nature of Serbia.
White-tailed Eagles in Beljarica
It all started well three decades ago, when I intensively birded the Danube Backwaters by kayak. As a teenager in Yugoslavia, I used to buy National Geographic in second-hand bookshops. Fascinated with New York’s Jamaica Bay, I started dreaming about creating a similar wetland reserve on the Danube inside Belgrade, the very area I explored. Before I had a clue what I was doing, I encompassed the Danube backwaters into the reserve borders that I drew on transparent paper pressed against a street map of the city.
And a decade ago, the League for Ornithological Action (LOA), a local NGO, won a grant to study the Danube Backwaters in Belgrade and produce a protection proposal. The proposal was signed by Senka Lecic, Milica Dajovic, Jelena Nikolic Antonijevic and yours truly.
Young Roe Deer buck in Beljarica
The initiative to protect this area was launched in 2010 within the “Wings Across the Balkans” project coordinated by BirdLife International and supported by the European Commission. Belgrade City Environmental Secretariat accepted the initiative and the Institute for the Protection of Nature of Serbia produced the study and the official proposal for the protection of 18.6 km2 / 7.2 mi2 of the Danube Backwaters in 2014 (cover photo). In the summer of 2015, that proposal was scheduled for voting in the City Assembly, but was withdrawn before the vote took place.
In August 2016, the newly planned Chinese Belt and Road harbour development inside the most valuable 9 km2 / 3.5 mi2 of the proposed reserve was announced. Worried for the future of Beljarica, LOA launched the Save the “Belgrade Amazon” campaign, with a video clip (by Jovana Papan) that had more than 300,000 views and over 7,000 shares in two weeks, and a local online petition which reached more than 7,000 signatures in the first fortnight, lectures, public protests, media appearances, an award winning 40 minutes documentary (by VICE), etc.
Last March (2020), only a few days before the famous virus has reached Serbia, the Ministry of Construction and Traffic stated: “No, we gave up on the Beljarica locality, the harbour will be built somewhere farther upstream.” And in June 2021, the Mayor of Belgrade announced that Beljarica Backwaters will finally become officially protected in July.
Golden Jackals in Beljarica
Now, I have mixed feelings: cautious and by experience mistrustful, but happy. Is the Serbian Government turning green?
Serbia has a right-centre Government that for years avoided protecting any of the already proposed areas, heavily pushing the development at whatever cost and miserably failing the environment. But, in recent years, those costs are becoming visible in the poor quality of air (in winter days, outright poisonous) and polluted, dead rivers. Also, the Serbian Government has the opposition every government can dream about: weak, divided, unable to unite and confront.
Yet, the environmental problems are pulling people together, uniting the people with very different political views with the simplest of all agendas: “We want to breathe clean air, we want clean tap water.” And such movements are becoming stronger every day. Therefore, ahead of the elections expected in the spring of 2022, the Government is in the process of green-washing.
And my three decades old dream of a wetland reserve on the Danube inside Belgrade may just come true. Fingers crossed.