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Bosnian Villagers Stave Off 'Mini-Dams,' But For How Long?

Local women spearheaded the effort on the ground with round-the-clock riverside vigils at the dam site.
Local women spearheaded the effort on the ground with round-the-clock riverside vigils at the dam site.

Two summers ago, when villagers erected a makeshift shelter on the grassy, wooded bank of the Kruscica River in central Bosnia-Herzegovina, they knew it was no ordinary campout.

Animated by the sight of tons of digging equipment and inspired by a similar grassroots protest 20 kilometers away, their goal was to defeat one of hundreds of planned dams across the country.

A coalition of residents battled the investor's government incentives for two mini-hydropower stations on the Kruscica -- which is more stream than river around their village -- in the courts.

Meanwhile, convinced that a male-only presence might encourage more drastic measures by the other side, women spearheaded the effort on the ground with round-the-clock riverside vigils at the dam site.

One of Kruscica's women, Advija Trako, recounted one of the standoffs with construction workers in which she and other protesters physically prevented trucks from carrying equipment to the construction site.

"The truck started. I was the first one to sit down in front of it," Trako told RFE/RL's Balkan Service. "The driver says, 'Get out of here, I have to move!'"

She told him: "'You don't have to go, you won't go, there's no construction here!' I would do the same again. I wouldn't be afraid of anything."

WATCH: Report on the protests in Kruscica from April 2017 (in Serbo-Croatian):

But the demonstrators have made significant progress since a predawn operation in the first month of the protest, when riot police forcibly removed the activists from the bridge leading to the planned site of the dam.

The encampment was taken down late last year and the women could go home -- more than 500 days after they began their protest -- thanks to a cantonal court's revocation of the construction and planning permits for both of the Kruscica dams.

Now an environmental group leading a campaign to stop what it regards as a runaway push to dam up "the last wild rivers of Europe" is honoring the women of Kruscica with its EuroNatur Award 2019, to be presented in October.

Kruscica is just one of hundreds of projects in the Balkans.
Kruscica is just one of hundreds of projects in the Balkans.

'Almost Unspoiled' Example For Europe

The hydropower stations at Kruscica are just two of around 300 such projects in the pipeline for Bosnia, which already gets more than one-third of its energy needs from more than 80 hydropower plants of various sizes.

Twenty-seven-year-old Haris Djelilovic, who was born in nearby Zenica and has spent most of his life in Kruscica, supports higher renewable energy goals but opposes the damming of rivers as overly destructive.

"Bosnia has solar, wind, and thermal power potential and we don't even talk about it out loud," Djelilovic, who has helped run several local ecological NGOs, told RFE/RL. "Why not?"

He complained of loose controls on "greedy private corporations and investors that want the dams to be built so they can sell power to the Bosnian government and earn money free from any competition."

"Dozens of dams are built with missing documents and no one really cares," Djelilovic said. "The people of Kruscica cared, and we won our battle. We proved that money doesn't come before life, and life is water."

Meanwhile, there are dozens, if not hundreds, of disputed river projects throughout the Balkans, where more than 2,800 hydropower projects are slated for construction as governments seek alternatives to energy imports and reliance on fossil fuels amid rising demand.

Buoyed by a smattering of successes, local opponents are mounting increasing challenges -- sometimes with international help but frequently on their own -- to the policies of granting concessions for private efforts that create energy but alter the course of local rivers and the surrounding landscape.

Some of the groups that find common cause with the Balkan protesters even see them as an example for the rest of Europe.

"We assessed the Balkan river web and arrived at an impressive result: 80 percent of the 35,000 river kilometers that we examined is still in very good or good condition, 30 percent is almost unspoiled," says RiverWatch, which is also part of the Balkan conservation effort called Save The Blue Heart Of Europe. "In the rest of Europe the picture is reversed: 80 percent is in bad condition."

In many cases, opponents argue that wind and solar power could help meet changing energy needs and still reduce the role of coal-fired power plants to hit renewables targets.

But the dams and water diversions, ecologists warn, could forever change a sparsely populated region crisscrossed with wild rivers and babbling streams that have captured runoff from the Dinaric Alps, hosted water-dependent wildlife, and supplied clean water to riparian settlements for thousands of years.

And even back in Kruscica, opponents of those mini-dams acknowledge that the battle is far from won.

"Concessions have been extended seven times," Kruscica community leader Tahira Tibold tells RFE/RL. "We now have a case in the municipal court, we have another case in the cantonal court. We should have received a decision from the municipal court, about the concessions, last December, and you see -- now it's been eight months and we still haven't received any decision."

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    RFE/RL's Balkan Service

    In 2019, RFE/RL's Balkan Service marked 25 years of reporting in one of the world’s most contested regions, championing professionalism and moderation in a media landscape that is sharply divided along ethnic and partisan lines.

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    Andy Heil

    Andy Heil is a Prague-based senior correspondent covering central and southeastern Europe and the North Caucasus, and occasionally science and the environment. Before joining RFE/RL in 2001, he was a longtime reporter and editor of business, economic, and political news in Central Europe, including for the Prague Business Journal, Reuters, Oxford Analytica, and Acquisitions Monthly, and a freelance contributor to the Christian Science Monitor, Respekt, and Tyden. 

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