Interview with Luka Tomac from Friends of the Earth

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“My name is Luka Tomac. I come from Zagreb, the capital of Croatia. During the last ten years I’ve been involved in a mix of environmental, cultural and climate activism. I work on national and international campaigns against the fossil fuel industry as well as on positive campaigns that promote renewable resources, community driven energy models and energy cooperatives. Besides my work, I also engage in activism related to art. So far, I have published three books and at the moment I’m working on a fourth book called One Degree World, which contains 25 stories of resisting communities around the world. Basically, I try to mix my national with my international work.


“Even though [Friends of the Earth Croatia is] an environmental NGO, it is equally important for us to work on the issues of social justice, human rights and climate.”


I’m prudent when people ask me whether I work with NGOs. There is an interesting debate going on about NGO campaigns and the stigmatisation of them. For me it depends on what kind of NGO it is, on the political context, and on why an organisation is registered as an NGO. Thus, for example in the context of Croatia, Zelena akcija (Friends of the Earth Croatia) was founded in 1999, as soon as it could become legal. I dare to say that we are very close to the community movements and we try to stay honest to our membership and to the people who support us. For us, being an NGO is only a kind of political necessity. That is how our law works. But we function as a civil society organisation, as a very strong voice towards the government, we have numerous campaigns in Croatia where we are supporting communities on the frontline against corruption. Even though we are an environmental NGO, it is equally important for us to work on the issues of social justice, human rights and climate. Because
I don’t think you can separate those from each other.


Croatia has had some very rough decades in the 90s and in the early 2000s, after the war. The majority of civil society organisations was really in the frontline of the healing process of our traumatised country, but they were also tackling the very sensitive topics of that time. The biggest NGOs in the 90s were focused on human rights, which is something I call ‘stage one of advocacy’. But now I think we’re more focused on anti-corruption, environment, commons, de-growth, the ‘second stage of advocacy’ that tries to figure out where we are going as a country and how our contemporary issues will go into the future.


“We practically apply our philosophy of combining art and activism.”


We definitely work differently than the classic NGOs in Croatia and Europe because we use a lot of public advocacy actions, we mix a lot of art and activism, we do a lot of creative stuff. We are more often present on spots than the others. We practically apply our philosophy of combining art and activism. I think it’s about looking for a natural alliance with non-institutional elements or individuals that are actually bringing those two things together and get them acquainted with each other to get them working together. This is how we had this massive campaign seven years ago where we mobilised around 50.000 people here against the redevelopment of the Flower Square in Zagreb. At that time I was action coordinator for that big group so I was involved in all the creative processes linking different people. For me this was very formative kind of time as an activist and artist. I started to think about the purpose of art. There is this idea that all art should be influential on a society, because that is the role of art. On the other hand, some people think it should only be aesthetical. But I do believe that it should be influential, eye-opening and exposing. That it should have a pro-active role in securing a better future or showing different views on an issue. I think it should be both practical as theoretical.


“Classic environmentalism without a social justice perspective is out of date, because it’s impossible to separate those two issues.”


I also do a lot of photography. My idea behind visual storytelling is not in the line of abusing anybody’s image for the sake of your cause no matter what your cause is. I like to tell the stories that are not verbalised that often, for example in the new book that I am putting together. I tell the original kind of stories, I make interviews, at least 25 stories from around the world. And some of them are quite complicated. It’s about communities struggling in the Niger Delta, because of the impact of oil companies such as Shell, it’s about communities around coal mines in Colombia being beaten every day because the mine wants to expand and communities resist. It’s about a Roma community in Kosovo, living next door to a power plant and under electricity poles while they themselves don’t have any electricity. It’s the story about energy poverty, environmental racism and how these two interlink in a way that some environmental groups don’t dare to link. Classic environmentalism without a social justice perspective is out of date, because it’s impossible to separate those two issues. There are some players that have a bigger and some a smaller role in contributing to the problem and some countries definitely have bigger obligations to solve the problem.


As an activist, photographer and artist I think it’s crucial to have this very sensitive approach when you enter some community to decide what you take with you and what you leave out. There are several things that you should really be honest about with your subjects, like how and why do you want to tell their story. Not trying to kind of put yourself or your story on the first row, but really tell the community’s story and give space to the community to tell their story. And this is what I try to do, through my work, my books and campaigning.


One big community project was Keepers. It’s very soft and gives both positive examples of people fighting for their communities, negative stories and success stories about how communities won a big fight. In the new book that I’m working on, I’ve focused on more difficult examples and issues. It was not that hard to visit a community, because they saw you as their voice to the world. For example, for the cover story I chose a fjord in Norway. I went over there and I try to go back there at least once a year even though the book is finished, because I have a very deep connection with these people and with that fjord. The fight is still on there, so I try to support them as well. These cases are always hard in the beginning, so you need to be extra sensitive, earn their trust and tell them honestly why you are there. I mean, I always go with somebody else that is involved. It’s always a lot of preparation and communication beforehand. And also, if they are not up for that, even if you return without any visual material, sometimes just talking to them is enough. You need to be patient.


I will finish my next book in the upcoming months. And then offer it in return for crowdfunding. It will only be available to people through purchasing. So I want the book to be finished and then just print just enough for the people who bought it. I think all of the stories in this book are important. I carefully selected these stories the last six years, they carry many different kind of layers. One of these stories makes me particularly sad: it was the 2012 and I visited a forest community in Borneo. Those are pagan people, the last two families of the area still living in a nomadic way. But their existence is being threatened because of the palm oil industry, which mines big chunks of the forest and by doing so, they push the families into increasingly smaller pockets of land. Borneo is completely devastated. Borneo’s forests are non-existent anymore. I was impressed by the way these nomads managed to adapt to the forest. They use their resources very carefully. They stay three months in the same place, then move on, so resources can get the space and time to renew. They don’t push nature to grow 100 types of plants to use later as part of the medicine industry. They really give the forest space. And forest gives them space. So I spent a wonderful week with them just after they finished blocking new trucks of getting into their part of the forest.


“The space between art and journalism has a very unidentifiable and ethnographic journalistic value.”


I want to inspire people and I want to show the connections between all the individual stories. There is a narrative under all the separate things I tell. There is a very clear link between the communities in Norway, Nigeria… One of the stories will be about oil in the Adriatic. Italian companies are drilling in Montenegro and Croatia, but they also do mess at home, so I circulate those things into one. At first I had trouble to set a boundary between my art and activism. But the space between art and journalism has a very unidentifiable and ethnographic journalistic value.


“I want to communicate solutions, not with a focus on technology, but with a focus on various organising communities.”


One Degree World is the title of my new book, the subtitle is Visual Diary. I still haven’t finished it yet, so I might change the subtitle. It could be ‘Visual Diary of Climate Impact’ or maybe something else. I tell several stories of climate change and their causes. What are the systematic causes? I tell stories on the impact, about resistance and mobilisation and about solutions. I want to communicate solutions, not with a focus on technology, but with a focus on various organising communities. Community energy is a strong concept, because it talks about ownership of your own energy source. And then I want to figure out the connections between them, actually it also shows that each of the communities thinks that they are alone in their fight while it’s all one fight and one struggle for a just climate. I hope I succeed in that. Visually I would say it’s a strong book. It will be a lot of text, I write the interviews with communities myself. Each of the stories, I co-write the story about a topic that’s relevant for the community. I don’t want to write it on my own, it will be co-written by somebody who is working with communities. They have to tell it themselves. My role will be that of unifying.


I see a lot of change: in the last ten years it’s amazing what’s going on. I’m not someone that’s technology-fixed. I don’t believe that technology will save us. I see a lot of mobilisation, resistance and hope. Especially people get demotivated when they talk about the States and Trump, but what is going on under the surface is amazing. They organise successful campaigns and are able to mobilise people. I think that there’s a lot of interesting stuff coming out. It’s a matter of urgency.


“We completely changed the public opinion on [drilling in the Adriatic Sea].”


The mobilisation projects are covered in the Croatian mainstream media. You have to gain power and be relevant. I coordinated the campaign on drilling in the Adriatic Sea and we had media coverage for a year. We completely changed the public opinion on the project, in the beginning 60% was pro drilling but we changed it to 70% against in two years. I mean the Adriatic is such a symbolic fight for Croatia, we dare to say that Adriatic will defend itself. The sea has such a strong sentiment for everybody that it was a matter of time. It also offended our national pride, since the oil companies were Austrian and American. We took the campaign to Vienna as well, which was very smart, and talked to employees of a big oil company. They then retreated and the project collapsed. A Greek and Italian company recently moved to Montenegro and got a license to drill there. So now we’re all going to help Montenegro. I mean, those blocks are neighbouring Dubrovnik. If you look at the Adriatic current, that’s very relevant for Croatia.


We are financed through EU commission grants and national funds. We have a small part from membership that we want to increase, becoming less dependent. But the culture of giving in Croatia is still in the beginning. This is where we are going, we need to work on that field. We have some projects that we are working on, important campaigns. We always leave some space for reactive campaigns. We work a lot on different models of natural resources management and do a lot of studies on water distribution, concessions and public goods. We organise conferences about the commons as well: what are the different models of managing? We also give information and do a lot of advocacy. We are the biggest organisation so we work a lot with local initiatives. We see a roll in educating and moving others in terms of narratives. There is a climate program, one on energy, on waste, on recesses and on environmental law, linked with citizens. Anybody can call in anytime of the day. Currently we are with fifteen people and a big group of volunteers.


I studied agricultural ecology, but I quit. It was not what I was looking for. I went through a lot of informal education and I now go to a university to teach. It was all self-education, learning from experiences. I gave a lecture last night, on different topics. It’s completely open. Afterwards the participants go to a workshop about how to lead a campaign, paint a banner, etcetera. By the way: I was with a group of artists on the islands of Croatia, and I work together with Kaaitheater from Brussels, Belgium.


I don’t think we should choose between photography and activism, it’s complementary. Photography is storytelling, communication about strikes and demonstrations. I did a lot of demonstration photography. There is a specific way to show a demonstration and communicate it. There is a whole logic behind. Our activists also learn how to communicate the message on a right way, how to translate emotions from that action in a photo. Because if it’s a kind of support action or demonstration on a sensitive topic then you can’t have people smiling on that picture.”

Interview and Photos by Sonderland