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Accepted Paper:

"Where's Our Water?": Local Communities, Heritage and Civic Activism in Contemporary Bulgaria  


Ivo Strahilov (Sofia University)

Paper short abstract:

The paper questions the entanglements between environmental and cultural dispossession in nowadays Bulgaria. Based on a recent case study of a water crisis, it explores local communities' reactions that use masquerade practices in their protest against public authorities and corporate companies.

Paper long abstract:

In 2019 a water regime in the town of Pernik and its surroundings (West Central Bulgaria) was introduced. People were informed that the dam is almost empty and can provide water just for few months. It became also clear that municipal, regional and governmental authorities have been aware of this hazardous situation but had hidden it and not addressed it because of upcoming elections. Tens of thousands of inhabitants were left with irregular and insufficient water supply. Lack of rain or snow, together with long-lasting air pollution raised local environmental concerns and activist movements. The tension escalated further when the annual masquerade festival was cancelled due to the water crisis. This international event is the biggest of its type on the Balkans and celebrates the local mumming tradition. In the region of Pernik, there are more than 50 masquerade groups which perform in their villages and also in the urban parade. The rite itself is extremely prestigious for the national imagery and is part of the UNESCO ICH Representative List. Thus, mutually reinforcing their resilience, discontent energies merged into several joint actions against public authorities and business companies.

Drawing upon ethnographic fieldwork, the paper suggests a look at the entanglements between environmental and cultural dispossession articulated through such activities. Going beyond the division between natural and cultural heritage, it highlights local communities' reactions that strategically mobilise ritual in civic activism. The paper explores both how traditional masquerade practices become a sign-vehicle of current concerns, and how protests incorporate ritual elements.

Panel P165
Environmental Hazards and the European Periphery