Southeastern Europe (SEE), or the Balkans, is a gem of a region often overlooked. Full of spectacular nature, hyper-educated people, great food, and fine artisan products, SE Europe is ripe with opportunities for those interested in social entrepreneurship, micro-industries, and sustainability. To many, Serbia may not appear to be at the forefront of green business, but the country has a developing wind energy sector, organic is mainstream (even if its farms lack certification), and its capital, Belgrade, has plenty of enthusiastic professionals ready to make a difference.
Triple Pundit correspondent Leon Kaye spent a month in the Balkans, and during his time in Serbia, met Jelena Lucic of Ecoist, a civil society organization that focuses on sustainability issues. Leon met Jelena on a rainy Sunday in Belgrade, where they discussed sustainability trends in Serbia.
Triple Pundit: What are Serbia’s greatest challenges related to sustainability over the next 5 years? Where do you see the greatest opportunities and hope?
Jelena Lucic: Serbia is a country with superb natural resources – we have 5 national parks, approximately 130 mountains, and around 70 rivers, including the Danube, the second longest river in Europe. There is a great potential for development of eco-tourism, which involves building and promoting more eco-villages, organized production of organic food, more wide spread outdoor sports like hiking, rafting, cycling, paragliding, etc. The real challenge for the people and for the government is primarily to use all these natural resources in a sustainable way and not to deplete them. Secondly, we need to market more what we have, bring it on international scale and monetize our natural capital – as I’m sure GreenGoPost agrees with me on this – some tourists around the world are quite fed up with all inclusive, generic hotels offering the same thing, without any new experiences to take back home.
As far as Belgrade is concerned, the next big thing is development of green buildings and energy efficiency. At end of this year, Green Building Council Serbia was founded and interestingly, they chose to apply American LEED green building standard and not German DGNB or British BREEAM. I believe we can learn a lot from the US about creation of new markets which spin stagnant economies, mechanisms of finance for new markets and the use of social networks as a marketing tool. What we shouldn’t mimic is turning a blind eye to GHG emissions and very high energy use that the US has. Although Serbia is producing 13.4% more electricity from renewable energies then EU has set a target for, we are still using electricity very inefficiently – 3 times more in comparison to an average European household. Governmental support for this is vital – as The Ministry of Environmental Protection and Energy Efficiency Agency announced for next year, all buildings in Serbia will need to have energy passports which will include measurements on how much energy is saved or wasted in order to rent, sell or purchase a real estate. It is estimated that only 10% of buildings will be able to get energy passports, but subsidies for improvement of thermal insulation will be offered by the government. Ecoist is promoting the use of green roofs as a great alternative to improve energy efficiency of the buildings, as well as to redeem our lost nature. The challenge in this case is explaining to investors that by investing in green systems a little bit more today, they will have much higher rewards later.
3p: How are the following involved: government, businesses, civil organizations?
JL: I believe there is a lack of interconnection between the government, businesses, and CSOs, but also citizens and their participation in the matters that concern them, not only in Serbia, but in Southeastern Europe in general. Ecoist is researching and promoting The Aarhus Convention on primarily access to information; secondly, public participation in decision-making; and finally, access to justice in environmental matters. We believe that opening channels of communication will create synergy that will vastly improve the situation and we believe social networks again are a great way to reach out to people.
3p: How do local people react when you tell them about your organization?
JL: We are very happy with the feed back we receive from surveys we are doing – people do not want only to give their answers and leave, but also are very keen to discuss environmental subjects with us. We believe that people in Serbia are much more passionate about sustainability then they are given a chance to prove – without proper infrastructure, systems and mechanisms like recycling for example, we can easily be mistaken of our ‘poor’ eco-consciousness. With the help of social networks like Facebook, Twitter and Friendfeed, in a very short time we accomplished a number of readers we are very happy with–and we regularly get questions, words of thanks and praise for our site. Our readers find that it has good, quality content linking back to reliable sources if its not our own research, and our site also has a cool and pleasant design which attracts not only a younger, but also an older population.
3p: What kind of education programs related to sustainability are in the schools? How are young people involved?
Actually, there are many CSOs in Serbia involved in educational programs with primary and secondary school kids. You can see a lot of recycling bins in schools, clean up actions and in some municipalities in Belgrade kids take their eco-pledge on the first day of school. Ecoist is also doing school workshops with hands-on approach, and kids are absolutely a wonderful crowd to work with – they soak in environmental subjects naturally, almost effortlessly.
We also screen the Age of Stupid movie for secondary school children as a Serbian representative of 10:10 global action for reduction of greenhouse gases by 10% starting 2010. Unfortunately, some young people don’t see that every problem is as interesting as a challenge or a puzzle to solve – they lack motivation, creativity and drive for change. Perhaps these generations are effected by regional crisis much more then we want to admit. Hopefully, primary school kids will turn out to be genuine green generation of the future.