Peter Tranter from the Paddler Mag caught up with Carmen & Rok from the Balkan River Defence to talk river conservation in the latest edition of the Paddler Mag.
River conservation is a huge subject, not just for those involved in paddlesport but for whole communities who depend on free flowing rivers. We had a chat with Carmen Kuntz and Rok Rozman of Balkan River Defence to find out how they manage to draw communities and NGOs together to fight for the protection of the Balkan's beautiful river systems.
Before we start let the readers know a little about yourselves, your background, etc.
Carmen: I grew up on the lakes and rivers of Ontario, Canada. My introduction to paddling was at a young age through canoe tripping with my family, and I started whitewater kayaking while working as a raft guide on the Ottawa River. I’m a freelance writer and whitewater kayaker living in Slovenia, and I co-manage the Slovenian river conservation NGO with my boyfriend, Rok.
Rok: I learnt to kayak on Slovenian rivers in high school and eventually started to explore the many rivers to the north (Austria) and south (the Balkans) and around the world. After retiring from professional rowing, I started the river conservation NGO Balkan River Defence as a response to the discovery that there were almost 3,000 proposed dams to be built on the rivers of the Balkans.
Why and when did you first become concerned about the threats to Balkan rivers?
Rok: My father is a fisherman, so I spent much of my childhood by the Sava River in Slovenia. I quickly fell in love with fishing and then later kayaking. I was in the water, underwater, on the water every day. The more rivers I paddled in the Balkans, the more horrors I saw – whole rivers reduced to a trickle or disappearing into a pipe – villagers without water to drink and the resources to fight the corruption building these dams.
Eventually, I had enough of listening to complaints about funding, organization and bureaucracy, and I decided to act. In 2016 I organized the first Balkan Rivers Tour, where we connected and kayaked in six countries – Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro, Macedonia, and Albania. We had more than 2,000 people from 18 countries participate, 502 of them on the water, and we spent 36 days on rivers threatened by dams. We ended the tour with a protest in front of the Albanian Prime Minister’s residence in Tirana, which was crucial in raising awareness and later stopping the construction of the destructive dam Poem on the Vjosa River.
Balkan Rivers Tour then evolved past just a ‘tour’ and has turned into a movement; Balkan River Defence.
What new life skills have you learned to conduct the successful defence of the rivers?
Carmen: I have learned that there is no limit to human greed and stupidity and that to help rivers, you sometimes first need to help city people see the river differently. I guess I have learned the skill of how to reframe something people take for granted - their local river - and present it from a different perspective. Sometimes that is showing them the beauty of their home river; sometimes, it’s showing (them through kayaking) that a river isn’t a terrifying element that needs to be tamed or avoided. And then let people make up their minds and take action themselves. We have tried to fight battles for people, but in the end, it needs to come from the locals. And if we have found that we can have some fun and use kayaks and media (film and photography) to do that.
Will the current energy crisis in Europe have a detrimental effect on your campaigns against dams?
Rok: It will because they are pushing hydro as the best ‘green’ energy source since it’s something they have been using for the longest time. Building new dams is the type of business where they can harvest the most money (through money laundering during construction and electricity production). But it sure doesn’t provide a solution to the problem. Instead of building new dams in Europe and around the world, we should be retrofitting old dams with new turbines that are way more efficient and produce more energy.
In many cases, the energy problems come from big industries that consume tremendous amounts of electricity and have outdated technology, like metal production. For example, in Slovenia, we have an aluminium production company that consumes roughly half of all electrical energy in Slovenia. Just two companies consume more electricity than all Slovenian households. And we are told the average household or person is the problem, which is not the case.
You motivate many paddlers to get involved in river conservation, but who motivates you?
Carmen: The individuals and villages working so hard, out of the spotlight and for the love of their river – inspire me. They are not using river conservation to get more likes on social media; they are fighting for their drinking water, lifestyle, culture, and kids. These are the kind of people who use their brains to think two steps ahead, who aren’t easily intimidated by threats. They are patient and relentless and play the long game like our friends in Romania, who we visited during Balkan Rivers Tour 4.
They didn’t sit around and complain that their river was being illegally dammed… they fundraised, got a lawyer, and fought since 2018 and just a few weeks ago Balkan River Defence announced that they won the court case and their stunning Basca Mare River is safe! This is how it’s done, and this is what inspires me.
Pete Tranter continues his chat with Carmen and Rok in the latest edition of the Paddler Mag where you can read more. The Summer edition is also overflowing withinteresing travel, coaching and interviews.
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