Combining their academic background and activism experience, Professor Violeta Orlovic and research associate Milica Marušić studied how environmental protests in Serbia became learning opportunities for activists and citizens. One of the benefits was the possibility to build citizenship identity.
Fighting for nature, for the right to safe drinking water, for clean rivers and protected forests might seem basic rights to some people. But some Serbian activists risk sacrificing their jobs, houses or families if they fight too hard for the land they call home.
“Ecological protests were definitely not well-accepted by the Serbian government and some local authorities and even the media did not support them. That increased my motivation to conduct my research,” says Violeta Orlovic.
She is professor at the Faculty of Philosophy at the University of Belgrade, and she collaborates with Milica Marušić, senior research associate at the Institute for Educational Research in Belgrade, to discover how these environmental protests and movements could be a learning opportunity for adults.
Why people are protesting in Serbia
In the past five years, Serbia has been swept through numerous waves of ecological protests: from the protection of local rivers to the safeguarding of biodiversity and forests, to the fight against the exploitation of lithium reserves in the Jadar region, and the protest against air pollution.
In recent years, these demonstrations have intensified and turned into proper movements, also because “most of the community have positively welcomed activists, since the problems they are highlighting are so evident and visible in Serbia,” says Marušić.
A 2022 report by the Health Effects Institute revealed that air pollution killed over 12,000 people in the country in 2019.
“People were feeling these issues on their skin, but the government strongly opposed these movements,” says Orlovic explaining why it became so important for her to work on this research. “One of the most interesting findings of our work was that protesters were under a lot of pressure from politicians. Some had to leave their homes, others risked getting fired. They really had to sacrifice a lot to take part in these demonstrations.”
Only recently was one of the protesters cleared of all the charges filed against her by powerful investors.
We have a responsibility to defend those who are more exposed.
Marušić, who has a background as a political and environmental activist, says she is lucky to be able to freely express her opinion in a progressive environment like the University of Belgrade, Serbia’s capital city. However, in smaller towns activists are less protected, “so we have a responsibility to defend those who are more exposed.”
Lack of involvement of the scientific community
A strong sense of responsibility was undoubtedly one of the dominant feelings of the two researchers during their interviews with seven Serbian environmental activists who were organising and joining these protests.
“However, I also felt a form of guilt in a way, because I wished I could do more and I felt my colleagues could have been more active too,” explains Orlovic.
The lack of involvement and support from the scientific academic community was one of the main findings of this experiment.
“Academics who have knowledge and resources in the scientific community should be the experts leading these groups,” says Marušić.
Activists often need to oppose political decisions very quickly, for example before a city council approves them, and they could really benefit from experts supporting them in the analysis of long documents or in the drafting of an opposition line.
“The problem is that the scientific community is weak and rarely engages with activists, thus making their work sterile. I think the scientific community needs to get out of its bubble,” continues Marušić.
Many academics do not have citizenship identities or are not aware of them.
She explains that one of the possible reasons behind this detachment is the divide between the academics’ professional identities and their citizenship identities.
“These two often tend to be separate, not connected, partly because many do not have citizenship identities or are not aware of them,” adds Marušić.
Ironically, the two researchers have found that one of the greatest educational benefit of the participation in these protests is the possibility for people to build their citizenship identity, to feel part of the community, reinforce their decision-making skills and to develop an emotional attachment to certain ecological issues that allows the participants – or students – to better learn, because they deeply care about the topic.
Ecological protests as a learning lab
“We have realised that, once people are motivated by issues that they feel close to, they learn much more,” explains Orlovic who was personally and academically inspired by this experiment.
“The interviews we conducted motivated me to take my students out of the classrooms too, because they learn much more that way. It convinced me to use methods and approaches that make people emotionally aware of the environment and of the importance of critical learning.”
It therefore became clear that these protests could be a real learning laboratory that could represent added value for the educational experience of adults.
For example, Orlovic’s colleagues at the Department of Architecture decided to take their students to a mountain community to help locals design and refurbish some community facilities. “The students were able to provide their knowledge and resources, but at the same time learn from the local community.”
Another element of added educational value that activists could gain from their experiences was their ability to develop numerous skills that went beyond theoretical knowledge. “Knowledge is necessary, but it’s not enough,”say both researchers.
What their interviews found was that protesters needed critical thinking, practical skills in designing posters, placing charges, studying administrative documents, building networks of contacts and public relation competencies to organise and take part in these protests.
“For example, the interpersonal skills they had to develop to avoid internal and external conflicts were among the most valuable skills they gained,” continues Orlovic.
The students provided their knowledge, but they also learned from the local community.
It could be argued that the learning outcome of these protests is a successful synthesis between traditional and non-formal knowledge. On the one hand, environmentalists learned useful and practical skills that they would have hardly gained in the classroom but, on the other, traditional knowledge played a fundamental role.
“What we refer to as traditional learning is often the cultural heritage of the rural areas where these protests took place. Activists learned about their traditional values, their sense of belonging, the connection to their native culture, but they could also draw from their experiences from childhood, insights into risks and critical attitudes,” explained the two researchers in a presentation they gave at a conference for the European Society of Research for the Education of Adults (ESREA), where they also revealed their next steps.
An inspiration for the next generation
“It became clear to us that Serbia is a lab for learning in action, so we want to continue this process, conduct more interviews and write an article about it,” says Marušić who wants to further her research into environmental identities, especially after seeing the impact of these protests.
Serbia’s ecological movements have inspired the next generation and provided motivation for other groups fighting for their rights in different areas. “Right now, there is an important movement in the country protesting mass attacks at schools and widespread violence, especially towards young people,” explains Orlovic.
Serbia’s ecological protests have undoubtedly influenced the development of other forms of activism. A recent article by the Green European Journal shows how activism has led to the emergence of new green political forces.
“This movement has huge potential because it is a learning dynamic environment,” says Orlovic. “And our duty,” she concludes, “is to provide people with the knowledge they need. Because knowledge is power to fight the system”.
Milica Marušić Jablanović
• Dr. Milica Marušić Jablanović is a senior research associate at the Institute for Educational Research in Belgrade.
• She is psychologist, doctor of andragogy and teacher of methodology of research of adult education at the Faculty of Philosophy at the University of Belgrade.
• Marušić has also been an environmental activist in the core team of the most prominent environmental movement in Serbia “Odbranimo reke Stare planine”.
Violeta Orlovic Lovren
• Violeta Orlovic Lovren is full professor in the Department of Pedagogy and Andragogy, at the Faculty of Philosophy, at University of Belgrade.
• She teaches Adult learning theories, Strategies and methods of adult learning and teaching, Environmental adult education and Education for sustainable development.
• Her research focuses on sustainability of higher education, community resilience and teaching strategies in adult education.