Part of the ad-hoc assembly “Civil resistance: cohesion, growth, representation“. Author: Arianit Xhaferi
The winter season is usually the time when people lock up in the comfort of their homes and ‘hibernate’ for some time, while foregoing many outdoor activities. It is also the time when the air is polluted the most due to many different factors and contributors. It was on December 2013 when a group of concerned citizens of different professional backgrounds (now known as Eco Guerilla) decided to do something about the polluted air while calling on a protest which was meant to wake up the ‘hibernating’ citizens of Tetovo and the Pollog region.
The local and national media were informing the viewers on the very high concentration of carcinogenic particles in the air of Skopje and Bitola, but nothing was being said about Tetovo, which indeed was even more polluted compared to the other cities of Macedonia, according to data publicly provided by the Ministry of Environment and Physical Planning. Eco Guerilla (then called ‘the Council’) decided it was time to do something in this regard. We met and discussed the forms of pollution and the potential contributors to each form, identified the biggest regional polluters, checked the Constitution and the regulations, and realised that there was a major violation of the national Constitution and many other laws and international agreements our country had signed, and which were related to environmental protection. Once we had enough information, we created a list of demands directed to the responsible authorities (both central and local) where we asked them to do something about the problem. In order to raise people’s awareness, we called a protest in December 2013. (For the exact dates and more details about all the protests, see www.ecoguerilla.mk). It was the very first time that some 200 people turned up at a protest which had nothing to do with national or political agenda. Although we considered this a fiasco, it helped get the attention of the local and at least one national media, thus more people got informed. As we also failed to bring more people to the second protest in a row (January 2014), we decided it was time that we built a new strategy which would raise awareness faster and wider, and which proved to be successful.
At first, it was difficult to get all the people to work together and voluntarily in this series of activities, but eventually we managed to ‘recruit’ many doctors, lawyers, journalists, and hundreds of field activists, to whom we were very honest as we spent lots of energy and time sharing all the information with each one of them. Journalists wrote about the problem as they were informed by doctors on all the health issues that air pollution brings, lawyers prepared different documents and acts as per our Constitution, activists made sure the information was disseminated as much as possible.
Neither ruling nor opposition political parties showed interest in our demands or activities, until we ‘took the war’ to their skin. It was only then that some opposition MPs spoke up and said a few words to the media. In general, Eco Guerilla has found more support and understanding with the opposition political parties that have no representatives in the National Assembly yet.
As mentioned above, Eco Guerilla’s strategy was to align doctors, journalists, lawyers and activists all together, in order to have the word spread the most. People only react out of personal interest or fear. The air is a very abstract concept for many to understand or tell the pollution, thus we focused on telling the citizens what damage the pollution causes to their health. Of course, we used official data when informing them about the 80% jump of carcinogenic diseases in three years, the raise of asthmatic and other respiratory related illnesses, the increasing number of miscarriages and the infertility rate of our fellow citizens, and many other health issues. The reaction was immediate. The protests organised later in 2014 had a much bigger attendance then any protests before, and the numbers rose even more with every other event.
Eco Guerilla has yet to succeed in making the government force the polluters to apply ecological standards and stop contaminating our air, water and soil. Yet, we must be proud and happy to say that we have managed to create a critical mass. The citizens of Tetovo are now much aware of the quality of air they breathe, and they are not happy with it. However, the political turmoil and the security related issues that have recently occurred in our country have thrown the whole ecological war in a secondary position, and the government has totally lost track of environmental issues.