Two illegal dams and villagers battling the year round

BOSNIA AND HERZEGOVINA/2009-2016

What can you do when your state fails? A question the people in Bosnia and Herzegovina living on the banks of the Željeznica River had a tough time answering. They decided to fight the construction of two hydro power plants based on flawed permits actively by blocking the machinery on the spot for a hardly imaginable 325 days. They were sued and massively fined. Even though later on a state court declared the construction was indeed illegal.

Fojnica – a town and a municipality in central Bosnia and Herzegovina, west of the capital, Sarajevo. The Željeznica, a fast mountain river with crystal clear water, flows through the region from south to north. In 2009 the villagers living alongside the river discovered that there were plans to build two hydro power plants there, which would cause significant changes to the flow of the river and the water quality – something the locals refused to watch from a distance.

 “Our fight against hydro power plants on the River Željeznica has lasted for almost ten years.”
Robert Oroz, Gotuša ecological-humanitarian organization

This story is one of the few cases in which environmental activists directly interfered with the construction of small hydropower plants.

Driven by concern for the nearby environment and for the river itself, which is often a source of drinkable water, the locals had no other effective choice than to literally block the construction machinery. In 2009 they spent three months at the site, preventing the trucks and the excavators from going into the riverbed. They used private cars to create traffic jams and benches to block the roads, and even stood up against the machines themselves. The second and greatest battle took place from 2012 to 2013, when the people of Fojnica successfully kept watch over the site for 325 days and nights.

Court: both hydropower plants are illegal

As a result, the company filed a lawsuit claiming trespass, demanding that the activists pay the costs of the proceedings. Both the first instance and later the appellate court concluded in 2016 that the citizens’ activities amounted to trespassing and as a result ordered the activists to cover the costs of the proceedings, amounting to BAM 6,500 (roughly €3250).

In the course of the action, the activists claimed that the company had no authority to build the hydropower plants. During a related court case, the construction permits were cancelled, making the intended projects illegal.

The construction of the Luke 1 and Luke 2 hydropower plants never started.

This unique case shows that there are activists in the Balkans who are willing to go to great lengths and endanger their well-being in order to protect the environment. Nevertheless, their actions don’t gain the protection of the institutions, which rather tend to secure other parties’ interests. On the other hand, the direct action was successful – the investor gave up his plan and the river remains free from the controversial dams for now.

When the politicians are selling the country overnight

The “Fojnica case” is just one chapter of a long story about Balkan wild rivers vanishing. Since 2002 hundreds of concessions for the construction of hydropower plants have been granted in Bosnia and Herzegovina. A country with countless natural wild rivers is experiencing a hydropower plant boom, with all the consequences that implies. “In 2006 the government issued 112 concessions overnight. Now our politicians are using this precedent as an excuse or an example,” Jelena Ivanić from Center for Environment explains. Because of this there has been irreversible damage to the environment, including the water quality and changes in the extent of the flow, changes as well as reshaping of the profile of the riverbed. Nevertheless, the story of Balkan rivers is still not finished.


Further reading:

ENG 08/12/2014 Hydroelectric Power Plants Boom (Arnika)

ENG 20/02/2015 Balkan dam boom threatens Europe’s last wild waterways (The Guardian)

BOS 29/12/2016 River keepers (H-Alter)

ENG 22/02/2017 Small is not (always) beautiful: small hydro development in the Western Balkans (Balkan Green Energy News)

BOS 17/08/2017 Civic Courage: The inhabitants of Kruščica are on a day-long guard duty by the river (H-Alter)

BOS 17/08/2017 Mještani brane gradnju hidrocentrala na rijeci Kruščici (Televizia Zenica)

Videos:

Freedom to the rivers (1 min): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1QjAAnFWPng

River keepers (8 min): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MClwRfpTG-I

Sutjeska NP: The Dead Capital (7 min): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MCRHUaLwV-Y

Sana being destroyed (2 min):https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RJbZ9v90pjo