Mark one for the Balkans

It took 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, passed Thursday, bans the construction of small hydroelectric plants in the larger of Bosnia’s two semi-independent entities. Still, the new law only highlights the long way to go to protect such rivers throughout the Balkans from being degraded, diverted and traded by people with connections to the region’s corruption-prone political elite.

“This is extraordinary. It will become the role model for other European countries, I am 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 rivers from Balkans.

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 places for European biodiversity”. It says the Balkans have more than 28,000 kilometers (17,400 miles) of waterways in a pristine or near-natural state, with “extensive gravel banks, pristine alluvial forests, deep gorges, spectacular waterfalls, and even underground karst rivers.”

In total, more than 2,700 large and small hydropower plants are planned to be built on these Balkan rivers, including some within national parks.

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

“This whole small hydro business started about 15 years ago when investors started visiting villages and promising prosperity to local people,” explained Lejla Kusturica, a prominent Bosnian river conservation activist.

In his account, he added, “rivers were supposed to be beautified, we were supposed to generate significant amounts of clean electricity, and local communities were promised that it would all benefit them greatly.”

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

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

Balkan activists continue to fight for the last wild rivers in #Europe. #Biodiversity #Bosnia #WildRivers

But after a construction boom that saw 110 small hydropower plants built 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 towns and cities began to spontaneously mobilize against small hydropower plants, documenting their destruction of nature, analyzing official statistics on their alleged economic contributions, and launching lawsuits against the permits the authorities continued to issue for new Projects.

The resistance included peaceful protests, sometimes lasting months, on highways and bridges to prevent investors and their heavy machinery from accessing the rivers. On occasion, local authorities used violence to disperse activists.

Still, a popular river protection movement gradually gained widespread popular support in Bosnia and abroad, especially after it was revealed that numerous contracts for the commercial exploitation of rivers were awarded to politically connected people.

“People took on investors in their rivers. They were not knowledgeable people, they were not ecological experts or scientists, they were ordinary people living by a river,” Eichelmann said.

According to official data in Bosnia, carefully compiled by activists, Bosnian small hydro owners over the last decade have been collecting millions of euros in subsidies while paying minuscule concession fees, typically between 1% and 3% of their income.

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

The battle has been especially fierce along the Neretva River, a cool 255-kilometre (158-mile) emerald-green waterway that is a popular destination for rafters, fishermen 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 stations were originally planned, seemed impossible, as it required in-depth knowledge of the different and sometimes contradictory laws in the two administrative parts of Bosnia.

But unlike any other issue in Bosnia since the end of its brutal 1992-1995 war, opposition to the commercial exploitation of free-flowing rivers has brought people of different ethnic backgrounds together. So far, activists fighting for the Neretva river basin have stopped or delayed the construction of 56 hydroelectric plants.

As villagers physically blocked access to rivers for construction crews, teams of legal experts and scientists have been challenging those permits in court. In about a dozen cases, Bosnian courts said authorities failed to comply with requirements to consult with local communities, protect nature conservation areas and require environmental impact studies from investors before consenting to their investments. plans. The court said authorities also failed to adequately inspect the construction and operation of the plants.

The activists were particularly pleased to prevent the construction of two small hydroelectric power plants at the confluence of the Buna and Neretva rivers, an incredibly beautiful conservation area that provides habitat for the Western Balkans endemic softmouth trout.

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

Lawmakers in Bosnia’s other semi-autonomous part, the Republika Srpska, responded to public pressure this year by halting subsidies for new plants with a capacity of more than 150 kW, rather than an outright ban. At the same time, some municipalities in the Republika Srpska have distanced themselves from small hydro projects.

However, even Thursday’s conservation victory has its limits. The new electricity law gives existing concessionaires three years to obtain the necessary permits and the approval of local communities for their projects to proceed. This has sparked fears that investors and local authorities will once again find ways to bend the rules.

“We proved in court that this is a nature conservation area and that construction is not allowed here by law,” 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.

His fellow activist, Miroslav Barisic, 61, was equally emphatic.

“The locals here are determined to fight to the end, even if it requires dying” for the cause, he said.

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