Drava National Park, June 2012

Batina, Baranja county, North-Eastern Croatia

The Danube, it seems, has always been in the wars. The war monument on the hill here overlooking the river commemorates the death of 2,000 mostly Ukrainian soldiers and Yugoslav partisans, trying to cross the Danube in small boats under the German guns in November 1944. Eventually they managed to occupy the little wine cellars in the clay cliffs below, and establish the bridgehead. The friezes along the base of the monument show grim faced soldiers in the Socialist-realist style, standing in boats, riding the waves. The grey, wintry Danube ran red with their blood, local people say – those who survived the onslaught. Red as the glass in the red star which the massive bronze figure, erected in 1946, holds in the left hand, a sword in the right.

I am here on a trip organized by the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) to hear about a rather different battle, to save a 53 km stretch of the Danube downstream of Batina, and a similar length of the Drava (Dráva in Hungarian), leading to its confluence with the Danube. The rivers form two sides of the triangle of the Kopacki Rit (Kopácsi Rét in Hungarian), a rare floodplain, preserved in almost pristine condition – the “Amazon of Europe”, as the environmentalists call it. The Inland Water Management authorities of Croatia and Serbia plan to re-inforce the banks of the river with rocks, build T-shaped groynes out into the river to concentrate the flow. An Environmental Impact Assessment, issued in February by the same company which wants the project built, found that the project would have no adverse effect on nature. The WWF and local Green NGOs strongly disagree. They say that it would cause a further dramatic deepening in the main riverbed, causing a fall in the height of the water, and thereby starving the sidearms which take the waters of the Danube into the floodplain.

Also that the habitats along the main river, so valuable for fish and birds, would be destroyed. 500 square kilometres of wetlands stretch between the Danube and the Drava, rich in rare wildlife and fauna. After the Danube delta, this is the most valuable remaining fish spawning area on the whole 2,870 km length of the river. The white-tailed eagle, great white egrets, grey herons, black storks and kingfishers are just some of the birds that live here. The Danube floods each year in at least two waves, from February to August, swollen with spring rains and melting snows. The wetlands they say, would become drylands, if the project goes ahead.

From our hilltop perch in Batina, the town below shimmers in the June sun, the white tower of the church, the red roofs of the houses. A lone barge, the “Panther” from Hamburg, heads downstream, flies the German flag proudly again, 67 years after the war. A huge passenger ship, the A-Rosa Riva, passes her upstream, loaded with passengers, Budapest or Vienna bound, under the modern red bridge which links Croatia to Serbia.

Zlatna Greda (Bokroshát)

Our Hungarian bus strains and groans its way along the dyke, then down the rough track into the forest, right down to the Danube bank. There, an assortment of canoes is waiting under the willows beside the lazy river. Paddling proves easier than expected. Our flotilla of craft edges cautiously downstream, staying within fifty metres of the Croatian bank, out of danger from occasional barges and river passenger ships, or the wrath of the border police. The Danube marks the border with Serbia on the far side. In the stern of my canoe is Arno Mohl, conservation expert at the WWF in Vienna, and the leader of the expedition.

Willow trees, Arno explains, can last 300 days in a flooded forest, oaks barely 60. The banks are thick with willows, with the water rising well up their trunks. There are also a mix of other, non-indigenous species – Canadian poplars and maples. Our plan to stop to rest on a sandy island in mid-stream is thwarted by the disappearance of the island under the high waters. Only the tops of trees and bushes protrude from the swirling green tide. On the far side a barge, the Sveti Petar, registered at Lom in Bulgaria, passes downstream, its engine rumbling and rattling into the distance, briefly drowning out the roar of birdsong.

Surely the Croats and Serbs might argue, I suggest to Arno, that Austria after the Second World War, and especially in the 1960s and 70s, owed much of its economic prosperity to its damming of the rivers, especially for hydropower? Are you not now trying to deny them the prosperity you in Austria enjoy?

“We deeply question the economic benefits of these massive interventions. In the first place, this is a unique area, and the region benefits from this area in its natural state. The huge floodplain forest is suitable for sustainable forestry, beneath is a huge ground water resource of valuable drinking water. There is a wealth of fish species, so important for those living from fish, and this is also an important area for eco-tourism. People come here from all over the world to see an area which escaped the destruction of floodplain areas which happened in so many areas in Europe. The unique selling point is now at stake. The question is: will this unique area beturned into a man-made landscape, or will it be preserved as a jewel which will be used in an economic, sustainable way?”

After about 12 km on the main Danube, we paddle right, down a major sidearm which feeds the Danube into the Kopacki Rit. On the map of the Danube–Drava national park, this looks like the ribs or lungs of a huge river woman. From close up, willow branches overhang the river, and rare kingfishers flit, flashes of red and green along the bank. Another 3 km to the endpoint near Tikves (Tökös), and cold beer and sandwiches in the shade – as the first mosquitoes of the trip close in.

Parallel to the plans to regulate this stretch of the Danube, the Croatian state has also been working to gain international recognition for the huge natural wealth of the area. In March 2011, at a ceremony at Gödöllô near Budapest, Environment Ministers from 5 countries, Hungary, Croatia, Italy, Austria and Slovenia signed a joint declaration to set up the Mura–Drava–Danube Transboundary Biosphere Reserve. On the Danube, the Delta region in Romania, Ukraine and Moldova already have that status. UNESCO is expected to approve the plan in July 2012 – as this edition of Hungarian Review goes to press.

Hungary had similar plans to further regulate the Danube near Mohács, but those were abandoned by the Fidesz government.

Now the Green NGOs want Croatia to follow the Hungarian example. To do otherwise would be schizophrenic, they suggest – to protect nature through the UNESCO Biosphere Reserve, then to destroy the core areas of the Reserve with new interventions.

“This is quite a deprived region, and people are looking for quick, easy money”, says Dinko Pesic of the Osijek (Eszék) Greens. “But the Biosphere Reserve will bring big opportunities of work for local people, they just haven’t realized that yet.”

Something is however stirring in the villages. Small bed and breakfast places opening up, restaurants with traditional dishes, local museums, and better marketing for the excellent white and red wines of Baranja. One series has the heads of birds from the nature reserve on the labels.

One problem which looms large is the ownership, and perceived ownership of the land and forests.

“This was one of the most elite hunting grounds in Europe – Prince Eugene of Savoy, the Habsburgs, and then Marshal Tito and the Communist leadership. The Croatian forestry and hunters associations see the area as a closed space which they can control – but it’s not like that any more – now it is open to everyone”, says Dinko Pesic. “People come to gather plants, to pick mushrooms, and to watch the birds.”

The Kopacki Rit is state land. Environmental NGOs vie with the old forestry and hunting lobbies for the right to manage the lakes and floodplains. The environmentalists feel they represent the future, and have the European Union on their side, which Croatia will join in July 2013. Under pressure from the Greens, the European Commission has conducted its own investigation of the river regulation plans, and is due to issue its verdict soon. July looks set to be a crucial month, in the fate of the region.

Relations between Croatia and Serbia took a long time to heal after the 1991–95 war, but in 2005, Green Vojvodina in Sombor (Zombor) and  Green Osijek established the first cross-border bicycle route – the Pannonia Peace Trail. Since then there have been many more common projects. There are also pre-accession funds available from the EU to foster those links, though Serbia is not expected to join the EU until 2020.

Kopacevo (Kopács)

Five-thirty in the morning on the dyke near Kopacevo (Kopács). We have come to see the birds in the lowest point of the Kopacki Rit reserve. Visitors can only enter these core areas with guides. Tibor Mikuska, of the Croatian Society for the Protection of Birds and Nature is our man.

Willows dot the wide, flooded plain. Two white-tailed eagles watch from the top branches, the larger, female bird higher than the male. Trees here often miss their top foliage, because of the effects of the cormorants, which nest here in large numbers. In the early morning light, the eagles are undoubtedly the kings of the landscape. WWF and other projects to protect the last few birds, and bring the species back from the threat of extinction have been successful up and down the river, in Hungary, Slovakia and Austria, as well.

Two families of wild boar swim through the marshes, followed by a lone, nervous red deer. Yellow flowers grow out of the marshland, brilliant against the dark trunks of the willows. Reeds form a green carpet, swaying lightly in the breeze. Clumps of yellow-green mistletoe stand out against the darker green foliage. In the distance, through the binoculars, we watch a black stork – much rarer and shyer than the white storks which make their nests on poles and chimneys in the villages. This, Southern part of Kopacki Rit has been a protected area since 1967. “The wettest period here is usually May, and the driest is September and October, before the autumn rains”, says Tibor, who grew up in the nearby village of Kopacevo. “About 70 per cent of the floodplain area here was lost over the years, to agriculture or construction, but there has been no major forestry here since 1967, and no hunting since 1991.”

How can they find a balance between the eco-tourism they want, and protecting the wilderness? “The lucky thing is that humans are spoilt! It is either too humid here, too hot or too cold. Or there are too many mosquitoes! We bring visitors to experience the wilderness, but after an hour they usually want to return to civilization!”

There are discreet wooden platforms and visitor areas, and guided boat trips out onto the lakes. We turn off the dyke to visit a colony of grey herons, high in the poplars. The air is full of the impatient clacking of the chicks in the nests, and the loud squawks of their parents, gliding gracefully over the trees, bringing them food. You often see the shadow of the birds, passing over the leaves, before you see the great birds themselves. A single white feather floats slowly down from a nest, twisting in the early sunlight.

This is the largest grey heron colony in Croatia – 770 pairs. “I know because I just counted them!” says Tibor. The female birds lay four to six eggs, of which two to three fledglings usually hatch. In a bad year, when it rains during hatching time, only one chick survives, because the eggs get chill, or the chicks catch cold. The grey heron population is growing all over Europe, Tibor explains, and the birds are getting bolder. Traditionally they ate mostly fish, but now they eat rodents as well, and like sea-gulls, feed more and more on rubbish dumps as well.

“It is the fate of all wetlands to dry out, as part of the natural silting up process. In two to three thousand years, we could expect this to become a vast, floodplain forest. What the regulation work would do, however, is to speed that process up into just a few decades.”

Golden orioles call sweetly from the undergrowth, reed warblers and green finches. As the sun rises higher in the yardarms of the trees, the roar of the frogs becomes a solid backdrop. And we flee the wilderness, in search of breakfast.

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