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Serbia Rises to Save 600-Year-Old Oak Tree

As a plan to remove Istanbul's Gezi park sparked a mass uprising in Turkey in recent weeks, the people of Serbia were faced with a similar fight. A planned highway was set to destroy a 600-year-old oak tree in central Serbia, but after days of protests, the government seems to have bowed to pressure and modified the construction project to save the oak.

In late June 2013 [sr], news broke that the government had secured 340 million euros [about 435 million US dollars] in loans and another 700 million euros [about 895 million US dollars] are expected for the construction of Corridor 11, a long awaited and strategically important portion of highway to run through central Serbia.

But Serbians soon learned that the highway would run straight through the location of a 600-year-old oak tree in the village of Savinac near Gornji Milanovac. Reaction against the plan was immediate, with people revolting on social networks and soon organizing protests in Savinac and online.

Aside from being a marvelous natural treasure and historically significant, there is also a superstition among Serbs that cutting down an oak tree will bring tragedy, even death. The elderly in rural Serbia will say that oak trees, considered a greatly respected natural phenomena in these parts, are simply not to be toyed with. Had government representatives and those in charge of the highway construction known that this particular oak tree was in the way of Corridor 11, they may have found a solution for it, but according to Minister of Urbanism and Construction Velimir Ilić, their “attention was not drawn” to the matter previously.

Social networks in Serbia were soon ablaze with hundreds of protest messages from citizens under the hashtag #hrast (#oak) on both Twitter and Facebook.

"In hrast [oak] we trust" became a popular banner held by many at the protest in Savinac and shared on social networks; photo courtesy of Institute for Sustainable Communities - Serbia Facebook fan page.

“In hrast [oak] we trust” became a popular banner held by many at the protest in Savinac and shared on social networks. Photo courtesy of the Institute for Sustainable Communities – Serbia Facebook page.

Minister Ilić was quick to react to the outcry against the cutting down of the oak tree that began on social networks and soon spilled into Serbia's mainstream media. He stated that he would find a solution [sr] to have the 600-year-old, 40-meter-high, 7.5-meter-wide, massive tree moved to a different location. Online tabloid Telegraf was among those who questioned this solution and spoke to experts about it:

Da bi se taj hrast, te veličine bezbedno iskopao, to zahteva veliki posao, veliki broj radnika i veliki prostor, odgovarajuću mehanizaciju. Teorijski je moguće, ali niko nema to iskustvo, te verujem da bi iskopavanje hrasta bio i njegov kraj. To je sve besmisleno. U zemljama koje drže do sebe takvo drvo bi se “uklopilo” u ambijent – kaže botaničarka Vasić.

This oak tree of this size, to be removed safely requires great work, a large number of workers and a large amount of space, with adequate equipment. Theoretically, it is possible, but no one has that experience, thus I believe that the removal of the oak would be its end. It's all nonsense. In countries that stand by their own, a tree like that would be “included” in the setting – says botanist [Olja] Vasić.

While the minister and other government officials sought different solutions to the problem, citizens organized protests around the tree in Savinac. In the last days of June, citizens began gathering around the tree to save it, joined and led by the likes of Serbian poet Dobrica Erić, who originally is from the area, and non-government organizations such as the “Green of Serbia”, in a protest dubbed “The Oak Must Not Fall”.

"Green of Serbia" activists gather around the 600-year-old oak tree in Savinac; photo courtesy of Insitute for Sustainable Communities - Serbia Facebook fan page.

“Green of Serbia” activists gather around the 600-year-old oak tree in Savinac. Photo courtesy of Institute for Sustainable Communities – Serbia Facebook page.

The protests lasted until the first weekend of July 2013. Meetings were held at the Ministry of Urbanism and Construction as well as at Prime Minister Ivica Dačić's cabinet to discuss the matter, after which Minister Ilić made a public statement on July 9 that the oak tree would be preserved. As daily tabloid Kurir reported [sr]:

“Asfalt će biti potpuno odvojen jednim betonskim armiranim nosačem, tako da asfalt ne ošteti žile, a ni žile asfalt. Na taj način će se izbeći moguća oštecenja auto-puta”, rekao je Ilić.

“The asphalt will be entirely separated by a reinforced concrete beam, so that the asphalt doesn't damage the roots, nor the roots the asphalt. This way, possible damage to the highway will be avoided,” Ilić stated.

Both the highway and the oak tree, centuries older than many nations, are of great importance to Serbia. While the highway promises a much needed logistical solution to a region of Serbia that is plentiful in agricultural and manufacturing businesses, the citizens of Serbia have shown that they are not willing to make a sacrifice of this size.

Blogger Zoran Sokić, in reference to the oak tree that shook Serbia, recounts his childhood in the mountainous woodlands of central Serbia, pointing out the importance of three trees that made a difference in his childhood and coming of age and concludes:

Mogu samo da kažem da će se u mom kraju slaviti čovek koji tu dovede auto – put i pominjaće ga na slavama i okupljanjima u lokalnim kafanama, nakon branja malina, bar deset narednih vekova. Stara je lokalna priča, verovatno koliko i taj hrast u Savincima, da smo pravo slepo crevo, da komunisti nisu dali da tuda prodje pruga jer je četnički kraj, da će se sva omladina odseliti ako ne dodje put … Slažem se. Ali sa druge strane, ne bih dao ni jedno od ova svoja tri drveta ni za tri auto puta ili tri pruge.

I can only say that, in my hometown, the man who brings the highway will be celebrated and mentioned at slavas [celebration of the family saint among Serbian Orthodox Christians] and gatherings at local cafes after picking raspberries, for at least the next ten centuries. Old are the local tales, probably as old as that oak in Savinac, that we are a dead end street, that the communists didn't allow the railway to pass here because it is was a Chetnik area, that all of our youth will move away if the highway doesn't come – I agree. But, on the other hand, I wouldn't give any of these three trees of mine, not even for three highways or three railways.

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