More than a decade
into a campaign to save a vast, unspoilt natural area behind Dubrovnik from a
hugely unpopular – and illegal – golf resort, the developers have pressed the
red button and taken Zelena
akcija/Friends of the Earth Croatia to court.
As well as suing
the Croatian government for €500 million, the Netherlands-based Elitech and
their Croatian daughter company Razvoj golf d.o.o. are seeking around 200,000
Kuna (around €30,000) in damages from Zelena akcija/Friends of the Earth
Croatia – an amount that could force the organisation to close down.
How did it come to
this? Local activists have been fighting for the preservation of Srđ hill
- and an area behind it 20 times the size of the old city in Dubrovnik - since
2006. In 2010, Zelena akcija / Friends of the Earth Croatia and the national
'Right to the City' movement joined them, and the initiative Srđ je
naš (Srđ is ours) was created.
In a nutshell, the
project would be an enormous, gated community that would dwarf the
UNESCO-protected medieval city of Dubrovnik. It would require huge amounts of
water to maintain, and dramatically increase pesticide use.
While it has
enjoyed undivided support from all major political parties from the start, it
is hugely unpopular with the public. In a 2013 referendum organised by Srđ
je naš, 84% of local residents who voted came out against it. While the
turnout was lower than would have been needed for the referendum to be binding,
it was a clear demonstration of public discontent. Nevertheless, the project
continues to enjoy political backing – in spite of its planning permits
consistently being annuled by the Croatian courts after legal complaints from
Srđ je naš.
First, in 2014 it
secured the annulment of a 2006 decision to triple the size of the project -
from 100 to 310 hectares. However, when the decision was finally made, it was
simply ignored by the official responsible, the Dubrovnik-Neretva county chief.
naš won its second legal case in September 2016, when an environmental
permit granted to the project in 2013 was overturned. This was followed a few
months later, in February 2017, by the annullment of a location permit.
In September 2017,
the investor filed a €500 million ISDS claim against the Republic of Croatia at
an arbitration tribunal because the "state [had taken] away their
development licences". The claim was made through the Croatia-Netherlands
bilateral trade deal, which allows investors to sue states for ruling in the
public interest, if they feel their profits may be harmed. A crucial detail:
these licences were not taken away, but annulled in a judicial procedure, in
which they took part.
their tactics seem to be working. Just five weeks after the arbitration claim
was filed, the state issued a new environmental permit, followed soon after by
a new location permit. In doing this, the state ignored the ruling of the its
own court, which gave specific instructions on how to properly assess whether a
project is environmentally acceptable or not. The new decision was based
entirely on the old documents, meaning the 'new' Environmental permit was
simply a copy of the original which had been overturned by the court.
The activists now
not only have to prove once again what that these permits are illegal, but must
now also defend themselves against at least two additional court cases brought
against them by the investor. If it wins its so-called "SLAPP (Strategic
Litigation Against Public Participation) lawsuits, it would force Zelena
akciija/Friends of the Earth Croatia to pay around €30,000, as well as legal
fees, court fees and interest, an amount capable of shutting the organisation
down. The investor is also seeking a court order to prevent Zelena
Ackija/Friends of the Earth Croatia from speaking publicly about the project.
Akcija/Friends of the Earth Croatia and other activists fighting the project
are not backing down. They have already started new legal cases against the
project, and hope for wider support in their struggle.
The struggle to
save the area behind Dubrovnik was featured in Friends of the Earth Europe's
'Nature's Keepers' photo project, bringing together examples of people from across Europe
fighting to save wild places.