Legal Action to Silence Green Action
CROATIA. Embattled investors press heavy charges against government and environmental groups for attempting to halt the development of a golf resort project on the top of Dubrovnik’s Srđ hill. If successful, the move could force Croatian association Zelena akcija (Green Action) to close down after decades of work to protect nature.
The Dutch company “Elitech” and Croatian “Razvoj golf” sued activists for damages to the project, seeking 200,000 Croatian kuna (around 27,000 euros). “The threat of the amount (of money) that could lead us to bankruptcy, the time we have to invest to defend ourselves from these attacks and the defence costs make our work much more difficult”, says Enes Ćerimagić of Zelena akcija. “This is, I think, the main intention of investors.”
For a history teacher from Dubrovnik, Đuro Capor, recent developments have cast a shadow on his expectations, but he still has not lost his optimism.
“I believe that, in the end, Srđ will be defended and that the citizens will use it for recreation and for a stay in nature, as it was planned in spatial plans”, says Capor who volunteers for “Srđ je naš” (Srđ is Ours)—a civic group fighting to protect Srđ from the construction of a luxurious golf park on top of it.
Despite attempts to silence them, activists’ criticism of the project has always been reasonable, which was proved through earlier court verdicts and abolished permits for the golf course project, adds Ćerimagić of Zelena akcija. But in his opinion, the government had often played by investors’ rules and against the will of the citizens.
The grandiose project worth over one billion euros was first announced in 2006. The plans envisioned the transformation of the plateau of Srđ into a golf resort complex, which would diversify the existing tourist offerings of Dubrovnik with a variety of sporting and recreational facilities, hotels and restaurants. That, according to investors, would boost employment and the economy and help utilise the unused area of Srđ and its revitalisation.
Zelena akcija and “Srđ je naš” disagreed, claiming that the planned construction would harm the landscape and endanger the old city of Dubrovnik, which is a World Heritage site.
UNESCO suggested that the project will not harm the protected historical heritage of Dubrovnik in its official note from 2016, but in the meantime, the activists have won legal cases which brought the environmental permit down and annulled a location permit. The court also annulled an earlier decision to triple the size of the Golf course project from 100 to 310 acres of land.
In September of last year, however, investors submitted a compensation claim worth 500 million euros against the Republic of Croatia at the International Center for Settlement of Investment Disputes (ICSID). The abolished permits were then reissued.
“We think that the claim for damages against Croatia is groundless and, above all else, directed at creating pressure to reissue the permission that the court has abolished as illegal”, says Ćerimagić. “It obviously worked because shortly after the arbitration was filed, licenses identical to the ones that the court dropped were granted.”
The government had often played by investors’ rules and against the will of the citizens.
Having to start from scratch again, Zelena akcija and Srđ je naš filed new lawsuits against the recently re-released permissions. The investors, on the other hand, have put pressure not only on Croatia but also on activists, seeking compensation for the damages from them as well. Zelena akcija says the claim involves not only the huge amount of money for damage to the project but also the prohibition of public appearances of representatives of Zelena akcija related to the golf park project.
“The pressure on civil society is increasing through usage of many tools like media, political pressure, ostracising the civil activists and NGOs labelling them as agents of foreign interests”, says Plamen Peev- an environmental policy and law expert for Central and Eastern Europe, based in Tallinn, Estonia.
In Peev’s opinion, the golf course case is an example of a “strategic lawsuit against public participation” (SLAPP), which is intended to censor and intimidate the critics through expensive and time-wasting litigation cases.
At the same time as the pressure against Croatian activists grows stronger, global online campaign group Avaaz has announced it received a court subpoena in which biotechnology giant corporation Monsanto demands that Avaaz hand over their campaign data, such as names of petitioners. The campaign group says this could have tremendous negative consequences on online activism and protection of private data.
“Definitely, it is a very worrying and increasing trend attacking the civil society at many fronts, and in many cases supported by the state and municipal authorities, which are ready to defend investments without considering long term consequences, especially environmental damages”, adds Peev.
In another recent environmental “SLAPP” case, Canadian logging company Resolute Forest Products Inc. filed a multimillion dollar lawsuit against Greenpeace as a response to the organisation’s advocacy work against deforestation that resulted from logging. The lawsuit was dismissed in court.
Ćerimagić of Zelena akcija thinks similar patterns of intimidation of civil society activists could replicate in other parts of the Western Balkan region as a fast-growing trend.
“That would not be surprising given the fact that in our case we have had the opportunity to see that the government, instead of condemning such pressures, joins and supports the pressures”, says Ćerimagić.
Peev believes that what activists call an attempt of a deterrence will not silence them but will, in fact, only make them louder: “There is a strong civil society momentum for the fight against the project, and people and NGOs get even more mobilised and determined when pressure is applied on them.”
Indeed, despite the exhausting legal fight in Croatia, they don’t intent to give up. “I have the energy to keep up the fight”, adds Capor. I keep it up he and others will, even if the results of the fight—and for how much longer it will last—are still uncertain.