We used a new approach for Balkan Rivers Tour 4

Instead of using the usual BRT formula, one big, month-long event, we changed the concept to split the river conservation action into 3 separate weeks. A way to mix things up, to get to some seldom seen and under represented valleys, to explore some new rivers and above all to stay at the same place with the same people for a longer time, to make our efforts more focused and helpful. It turned out to be quite an effective and quite a wild year!

We set a basecamp for each week and used it as a place where we eat, sleep and develope a river defence plan. Each morning we explored a local river to kayak or fly fish and then returned to basecamp for workshops with local activists and tour participants. The last day of each week was reserved for flotilla followed by a film screening and a solid party.

Balkan Rivers Tour’s purpose has always been to expose amazing places and to directly help passionate locals fighting for their rivers. And BRT4 turned out to be an very productive way to do this! 

Week 1 | Romania: April 15-20th, 2019 

A promise made…
When you explore remote valley’s you meet locals who have a connection with their rivers. And some who are very brave and a bit crazy and are willing to take huge risks to protect these rivers. We found that Romania has some passionate river defenders, one of which is Catalin Campeanu, who was contacting us via emails and messages since our first tour in 2016. He joined us for BRT3 to share the plight of the stunning Romanian rivers and the dangers they face. Seeing determination and a spark in his eyes at the raging party at Tara Fest, deep in the canyon of that incredible turquoise Montenegrin river, we gave him a promise: “Catalin, we are coming to your neck of woods next year to do all we can to help you defend your river!”

The action-packed week between April 15th and 20th was one for the books. BRT gathered a diverse group of activists and 23 kayakers from 11 countries (Romania, Slovenia, Czech Republic, Austria, Germany, Netherlands, Great Britain, Ireland, Canada, Australia and Mexico). We paddled 5 incredible rivers and spent countless hours discussing alternatives, solutions and creative ways to keep these rivers wild. The Bâsca Mica, Bâsca Mare, Bâsca Rozilei, Buzau and Jiu are all rivers that you have to experience in a kayak. We organized meetings with 2 mayors, something that Catalin and the local river defenders have been trying to get for years, and organized action days with local school groups, doing a river clean up and some kayaking games. 

Open Letter to the EU Commission
We visited the illegal hydro construction site on the Bâsca Mare and sent an open letter to: the European Commission, DG Environment, the Secretariat of the Bern Convention, the IUCN European Regional Office, the President of Romania, the Government of Romania, the Secretariat of the ICPDR, the Convention on Biological Diversity Secretariat and the Ramsar Convention Secretariat.

Our open letter can be read here. It outlined the laws being broken in Romania and ignored by the EU, the endangered species affected by this specific hydro dam, it highlighted sustainable tourism as a solution and outlined the state of the courts. It describes the Bâsca Mare River as a top asset of Romania’s natural heritage and one of the very few large rivers in the Romanian Carpathians not yet sacrificed for hydropower developments. (Of course there was also some kayaking, live music, a film screening and friendships developed and networks connected!)

*** UPDATE: On December 17th 2019, Romanian river defenders Catalin Campeanu and Calin Dejeu started a GoFundMe crowdfunding campaign, fundraising to hire a lawyer and start a lawsuit against the illegal dam construction site on Basca Mare. They surpassed their goal of 10.000 RON (roughly 2.000 EUR) and have set in motion the lawsuit.

Full recap here: Wild Romanian Rivers

Week 2 | Slovenia: July 7-13th, 2019

The Soča River. It is where many of the Balkan River Defence (BRD) team learned to kayak. And many of us call this river home. The Soča is a main part of what motivated us to take-action and stand up for all the rivers of this region. So, for week 2 of BRT4, we welcomed river defenders, students, kayakers, professors and conservationists to our home!

Inaugural Students for Rivers Camp
There was a special energy to week 2 of BRT4…one focused on solutions. As the official kick off for BRD’s River Intellectuals initiative, the Student for Rivers Camp (SRC) brought university students from all over Europe, to Kamp Koren’s beautiful conference room, to put their heads together and dive into the existing research related to free-flowing and dammed rivers, as well develop solutions to the problem. It was a creative concept that brought 28 students, 20+ speakers (professors and experts) from 20 different countries to the classroom and to the river together! This created a solid base for River Intellectuals and they will be announcing info about the second SRC in Montenegro soon! 

Local River Heros
Day 3 of BRT4 was the highlight for many, with a special presentation from the original Soča River defenders – Žarko Mlekuž, Zoran Rutar, Miran Mihelič and Zdravko Likar –  a group of university students who stopped the construction of two dams (HPP Trnovo and HPP Kobarid) on the Soča in the 70’s. They used their brains, creativity and common sense to make sure this river is still running today for all of us to enjoy. Their presentation was full of information, old newspaper articles, laughs and an image of what the town of Bovec would look like if the dams had been constructed, where a massive reservoir would have filled the entire valley… stretches of river we kayaked and studied during BRT4 Soča, would be dry and dead. 

Free Soča Flotilla
Direct action is what we do. Sure, we have fun kayaking beautiful whitewater, we drink beer and hanging out. But turning this good energy into a collective voice is what makes our form or nature conservation different, effective and exciting. So, we took to the water again – 150 active river defenders/kayakers from 23 countries, from Peru and Nepal and everywhere in between! With a loud message of celebration, recognizing all that the free-flowing Soča gives – to local economy, to the tourism industry, and to the fishes. And with this, we also put forth another message…the idea of removing a barrier on the Soča. Of setting a new standard for the Balkans…that parts of Europe and America are re-wilding rivers and removing dams, which not only goes against the idea of building more, but introduces the possibility of freeing up 20 more km of the Soča for enjoyment, recreation, fishing and tourism.

Full recap here: Celebrating Slovenia’s Soča River

Week 3 | Bulgaria: September 24-29th, 2019

Bulgaria. A Balkan region BRT had never journeyed too. In September we hit the road with a small but mighty crew and were thrilled to meet an equally strong and crazy group of river and biodiversity defenders in this southeastern Balkan nation.

Bulgarian River Defence
Members from the fishing-club-turned-river-conservation NGO Balkanka, met us on day one and shared their river conservation stories and showed us their online database with photos, stats, flow measurements and info on almost every small hpp in the country (check it out here!). They were the recipient of Free Rivers Fund funding in 2019, and purchase flow monitoring equipment and now monitor flows downstream of dams, notifying the EU Commission for the Environment when dams are not meeting their minimum biological flow requirements. How’s that for organized, motivated and rebellious fishermen! We were super impressed by their stories and work. Their presentation was packed with images and stories about how Balkanka has become the most successful group protecting Bulgarian rivers from small hydropower dams. These guys are the coolest, bravest and most effective group of fishermen out there and they have our full respect and support! They went from stocking rivers to protecting them and have stopped the construction of many small hpps on Bulgarian Rivers. Thank you for all you do fishermen of Balkanka! If every fishing club in the world was like Balkanka, rivers would be very well defended!

Conservation organizations fighting for the Struma include Balkanka, Za Zemyata/Friends of the Earth Bulgaria, Nature School Vlahi and Balkani Wildlife Society and together they form a crazy group of fisherman, conservationists, scientists, and nature lovers who have created a web of river defence in Bulgaria. It quickly became our goal for the week to do whatever we could to support the efforts of these groups and get their messages heard nationally and internationally. And to experience their river, of course!

On-water protest 
The final day of BRT4 Bulgaria saw over 50 people take to the water in celebration of the Struma! In true BRT style, the news cameras followed and Ivan, president of Balkanka, spoke to two national TV stations about three main threats that the river faces; small hpp on tributaries, industrial pollution and the highway project. Then, we gathered at the put in with whistles and banners, and paddled and played our way down the Struma River. Local kayakers, fisherman, rafting companies and even the Bulgarian National Rafting team all made their voices heard, shouting loud and proud that the Struma River is an important Bulgarian waterway that should be respected and protected! The flotilla was followed by more interviews and beer and food at Reflip Rafting base, who provided free rafts and gears for flotilla participants.

Full recap here: Battling for Bulgarian Rivers

Are you ready for BRT5…

It feels like BRT4 just ended, and yet we are already into full-blown BRT5 planning and prep! But that’s how it goes when there are thousands of dams planned and so many rivers threatened by greedy and short-sighted energy development. So… get ready for Balkan Rivers Tour 5, which will be provoking the norms of nature conservation between April 24th and June 1st 2020.