13th December 2019 Skopje, North Macedonia
For better environment: Don’t Ignore! React!
“All of us should be persistent in our commitment to a cleaner and healthier environment, through self-criticism and timely and rapid response, towards addressing the effects of climate change. As President, I shall commit myself for policies for environmental protection and protection of the national biodiversity, and will support all civic initiatives that promote the public awareness on environment. It is up to us whether we shall live in a clean and healthy environment. That is why I call upon all of you all to join this joint mission and to leave a cleaner and safer country to the future generations in which they will live in.”
This was emphasized by the President of North Macedonia in Skopje, at the November Climate Action Conference: to Prevent and to Heal, organized within the public interest Campaign “Don’t Ignore! React! – For a Better Environment.” The campaign is part of the UK funded project implemented by the Institute of Communication Studies (ISC), and the President Stevo Pendarovski joined us and publicly supported us, which gave us additional boost to be louder in the demands towards the national institutions for greater transparency, information and accountability concerning urgent environmental issues regarding air, soil and water quality.
Gasping for air
According to the European Environment Agency’s latest reports on air pollution in Europe, North Macedonia ranks worst among all European countries, with the capital Skopje, along with Bitola and Tetovo among the 10 most polluted cities in Europe in 2017. Air pollution is a major environmental health problem in the country. It costs the nation about 300 million euros per year in health services (Source: World Bank), and in 1,300 deaths (Source: WHO).
The country faces illegal destruction of its forest resources. Little attention is paid to recycling and waste management – there is only one licensed landfill in the country. The concept of urban planning and sustainable development in favor of the citizen has been forgotten, and citizens don’t believe that institutions work in their interest and for the common good.
These facts were starting point for the “Don’t Ignore! React!” campaign. Citizens must be informed in order to make the right decisions, and to be able to pressure institutions to do their part.
“Don’t Ignore! React!” is a bold and courageous platform that unites the efforts of experts, opinion makers, NGOs, citizens` initiatives, institutions and media to expose the problems we are facing as a community, to direct the issues towards the responsible institutions and to provoke solutions for improving the quality of life and better environment.
Some facts about the campaign
Since its initiation in March 2019 to date, more than 4.000 citizens were directly engaged and participated in the campaign activities, and 96 organizations including faculties, secondary and primary schools, NGOs, civic initiatives, municipalities, experts, companies and the media are partners to the Campaign.
“Don’t Ignore! React!” is also supported by the Public Broadcaster MRTV and 17 commercial media (TVs, radio stations, newspapers and online media). Additionally, ICS produced its own media content – more than 180 news stories and educational materials are shared through its online portals and social media. Through these partnerships, the Project influenced the news agenda in the country and reintroduced the environmental issues as ones of highest importance.
The Campaign also triggered institutional response. It contributed to the Anticorruption commission filing criminal charges against a public official for their failure to act in accordance with law in a case of illegal construction. A municipality in the Center of the Capital declared moratorium of construction until controversies regarding the sale of properties were reviewed by the Anticorruption commission. The City of Skopje now uses digital content from the UK Project to help inform citizens of public services, and the National Public Broadcaster airs the Project’s Campaign media products to increase public awareness about environmental issues.
Universities that joined the Campaign have students and professors designing waste management solutions. Fact-based student visions for reducing water and soil pollution in the country, and student vision for the central area of Skopje. The Project organized outreach campaigns for cleaning illegal dumpsites and riverbeds, educated the public on the use of reusable bags. Mayors joined the campaigns to free the trees from the concrete in the urban areas. More than 1,400 primary school students learned how to plant plants and how to care for the urban greenery in the Botanical Garden at the Faculty of Natural Sciences and Mathematics. The more senior high school students learned about environmental journalism, how to think and act critically using media and social networks for realizing their vision for a clean environment as a better place to live.
These are only the first steps. We need now to advocate and request changes in legislation, in policy creation and governance, to ensure an improved response from the institutions. Most importantly – we need to do modify our way of thinking about our lives and living in the era of climate change.
We must continue to demand state protection of the national biodiversity, as the country is a hot spot for biodiversity in Europe with over 60 endemic butterfly species. Each year globally, around 2,000 species disappear from nature forever. In North Macedonia, the Third National Climate Change Plan identifies 18 vulnerable habitats, and 58 plant and 224 animal species that cannot adapt to higher temperatures, more frequent droughts and more extreme weather events.
We must also continue to demand an urgent increase in the percentage of protected areas. North Macedonia has the lowest percentage of protected areas in the region and Europe. Increasing the network of protected areas ensures the survival of many plant and animal species as well as of our rare ecosystems.
We live in an era of climate change. We demand integrated environmental education throughout the educational system, since by educating the youth we secure their future. Climate changes happen for a reason and that reason today is us, the people.
The worst choice we can make is to do nothing. The more passive and inactive we are as citizens, the more the situation will worsen. And, as long as we think our personal decisions and engagement will not make a difference, we continue to choose that each day will be worse than the previous.
There is a crucial difference whether we are active citizens informed about the environment of our country and about the climate change, and whether we are vocal in our demands for better quality of life and cleaner air. The adoption of the laws is in the hands of institutions, but policy making and participatory decision making processes in the interest of the citizens are our tools. We will use these tools to act continuously as watchdogs over the manner in which legislation, clean air strategies and mitigation policies are adopted, to reduce impact of climate change.
We must demand transformation. Transformation in policies, in government priorities, in our everyday lives, and pressure state institutions to do more. Each of us must change our individual habits and learn more about how to adapt to and mitigate climate changes. It’s the only way forward.
Director of the Institute of Communication Studies
Note: British Embassy Skopje offers its blog platform for guest posts to members of organisations who are partner implementers of UK’s programme assistance to North Macedonia. The views expressed in the guest posts are those of the authors.