Balkan activists continue to fight for Europe’s last wild rivers

SARAJEVO, Bosnia and Herzegovina — It’s taken a decade of court battles and street protests, but Balkan activists fighting to protect some of Europe’s last wild rivers have won a major conservation victory in Bosnia.

A new electricity law, adopted on Thursday, prohibits the further construction of small hydropower plants in the larger of Bosnia’s two semi-independent entities. Yet the new law only underlines the long way to go to protect these rivers across the whole of the Balkans from degradation, diversion and commercialization by people with ties to the political elite of the region prone to Corruption.

“It’s extraordinary. It will become a model for other European countries, I’m sure,” said Ulrich Eichelmann of the Vienna-based conservation group River Watch and coordinator of the Save the Blue Heart of Europe campaign to protect the entire network of wild Balkan rivers.

Since its launch in 2013, the campaign has brought together environmental activists, conservation groups and local people to fight together for the protection of what it calls “one of the most important sites for European biodiversity”. It says the Balkans has more than 28,000 kilometers (17,400 miles) of waterways in pristine or near-natural condition, with “vast gravel bars, untouched alluvial forests, deep gorges, spectacular waterfalls and even karstic underground rivers”.

Overall, more than 2,700 large and small hydropower plants are expected to be built on these Balkan rivers, some of them inside national parks.

Bosnia alone has 244 rivers and planned to build more than 350 hydropower plants with an installed capacity of up to 10 mW, or more than one on each waterway.

“This whole business of small hydroelectric plants started about 15 years ago when investors started visiting villages and promising prosperity to local people,” said Lejla Kusturica, a prominent Bosnian conservation activist. rivers.

In their story, she added, “the rivers were supposed to be beautified, we were supposed to generate significant amounts of clean electricity and the local communities were promised that it would greatly benefit them.”

Instead, Kusturica said, investors began trapping rivers and diverting them through pipelines, taking away water used daily by residents and wildlife, eroding and degrading nearby forests.

Undeterred, authorities offered investors state subsidies and set above-market prices for long-term contracts, arguing that this would help Bosnia reduce its dependence on coal and accelerate its transition to renewable energy.

But following a construction boom that saw the construction of 110 small hydropower plants in Bosnia, people across the ethnically divided country began to argue that these projects were in fact harmful to both the environment and their livelihoods.

Residents of Bosnia’s riverside villages and towns spontaneously began mobilizing against small hydropower plants, documenting their destruction of nature, analyzing official statistics on their alleged economic contributions, and launching legal challenges against the permits authorities continued. to deliver for new projects.

Resistance included peaceful, sometimes months-long protests on roads and bridges to prevent investors and their heavy machinery from accessing the rivers. At times, local authorities have resorted to violence to disperse activists.

Yet a grassroots movement to protect the rivers has gradually garnered broad popular support in Bosnia and abroad, particularly after it was revealed that many commercial river exploitation contracts had been awarded to politically connected people.

“People stood up against investors on their rivers. They weren’t knowledgeable people, they weren’t ecologists or scientists, they were ordinary people who live next to a river. “, said Eichelmann.

According to official data in Bosnia, painstakingly collected by activists, owners of Bosnian small hydropower plants over the past decade have raked in millions of euros in subsidies while paying tiny concession fees, typically between 1% and 3%. % of their income.

Meanwhile, the promised transition to renewable energy has never really materialized. In 2021, small hydropower plants in Bosnia accounted for just over 2.5% of the country’s electricity.

The battle was particularly fierce along the Neretva River, a cool, emerald-green 255-kilometre (158-mile) waterway that’s a popular destination for rafters, anglers and hikers. Before flowing into the Adriatic Sea in Croatia, the river and its tributaries flow through both parts of Bosnia.

At first, stopping the commercial exploitation of the Neretva and its tributaries, where 67 new small power plants were initially planned, seemed impossible, as it required a thorough knowledge of the different and sometimes contradictory laws of the two administrative parts of Bosnia. .

But unlike any other issue in Bosnia since the end of its brutal 1992-95 war, opposition to the commercial exploitation of free-flowing rivers has brought together people of different ethnic backgrounds. So far, activists fighting for the Neretva River Basin have stopped or delayed construction of 56 hydropower plants.

As villagers physically blocked access to rivers for construction crews, teams of legal experts and scientists challenged these permits in court. In around a dozen cases, Bosnian courts have found authorities failed to comply with obligations to consult local communities, protect nature conservation areas and require environmental impact assessments from investors before consenting to their plans. The court said authorities also failed to properly inspect the construction and operation of the factories.

Campaigners were particularly happy to prevent the construction of two small hydropower stations at the confluence of the Buna and Neretva rivers, a stunningly beautiful conservation area that provides habitat for softmouth trout, a species endemic to the Western Balkans. .

In many other cases, however, authorities have allowed construction projects to continue despite successful legal challenges.

Lawmakers in Bosnia’s other semi-autonomous part, Republika Srpska, responded to public pressure this year by halting subsidies for new power plants with a capacity of more than 150 kW, rather than banning them outright. and simply. At the same time, some municipalities in Republika Srpska have moved away from small hydropower projects.

Yet even Thursday’s conservation victory has its limits. The new electricity law gives existing concessionaires three years to obtain the necessary permits and approval from local communities for their projects to proceed. This has raised fears that investors and local authorities could again find ways to circumvent the rules.

“We have proven in court that this is a nature conservation area and that the law forbids any construction here,” said Oliver Arapovic, 48, who spent eight years fighting to protect the confluence of the Buna and Neretva rivers.

“We will use the protection of the law as much as possible, but if that fails, we are ready to defend this area, to block access to investors and their heavy machinery with our own bodies,” he added.

Fellow activist Miroslav Barisic, 61, was equally adamant.

“People here are determined to fight to the end, even if it means dying” for the cause, he said.

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