Bosnia's 'Brave Women' And The Fight For Free-Flowing Rivers

In the Balkans, developers are rushing to install hydroelectric plants on Europe's last untapped river systems. Activists — including an unlikely group of Bosnian villagers — are fighting back.

Art installation on a Bosnian dam
Art installation on a Bosnian dam
Emanuele Bompan and Marco Ranocchiari

KRUŠČICA — The country road that leads to Kruščica meanders through wooded hills, haystacks and scattered houses. It's a sleepy landscape, sometimes enlivened by the loud colors of the corrugated iron on a mosque roof or the bright red of apples in a roadside vendor's stall.

Nearby is a stream that bears the same as the village. Bosnia has a slew of formidable rivers. The thin Kruščica isn't one of them. And yet, many people here value its clean waters, so much so that for the past year-and-a-half, a group of activists has guarded — through rain and shine — what is now known as the "bridge of brave women." Their goal is to prevent the construction of two hydroelectric plants.

This village of 800 inhabitants is one of numerous places in the Balkans where the indiscriminate construction of hydroelectric plants risks altering the life of local communities and the environment. In fact, approximately 3,000 new power plants are under construction or planned throughout the peninsula. About a third of those projects are in protected areas; 118 are in national parks. And it's all taking place in the only European region where almost all rivers still flow in their natural state, free from dams or other regulating works.

The numerous actors involved in the fight against the hydroelectric proliferation met last September in Sarajevo for the first ever European Rivers Summit, a large conference organized by a network of organizations from the Balkans and all over Europe, with the support of the Patagonia clothing brand. Some of the more than 250 activists and scholars from more than 30 countries ventured all the way to Kruščica to pay tribute to the hrabre žene, the "brave women" who have become true symbols in this struggle.

Flags and banners fly on both ends of the bridge. Visitors are astonished to be facing some very ordinary ladies from the countryside rather than fearsome pasionarias. Some have white hair. One wears oversized, old-school glasses. Others have colored shawls or long skirts. They tell their stories as they sit with a Bosnian coffee prepared on a camp stove.

We have all lived through the war. We've had enough of abuse.

In the summer of 2017, construction work was set to begin on two hydroelectric plants that would have captured the waters of the Kruščica, almost draining it. The river is the fulcrum of life of this village, which is predominantly based on agriculture. There had been no public consultation, even if it is required by law. Moreover, police were sent in to disperse the crowd.

One of the women, Majda, shows a video on her cell phone: It offers a clear sense of the kicking, shoving and screaming. The violence caught the villagers off guard but only added to their resolve. "They were beating my son," says Ilduza Mujkić, another activist, her eyes still bright with indignation. "We have all lived through the war. We've had enough of abuse," echo the others.

Some women had decided therefore to guard the bridge themselves — the only access to the construction site. "We didn't think they would have the courage to beat us. They did it anyway. But we remained just the same," one of them explains.

News of the determination of these women began to spread, making inroads in a country that had long been immobile. Eight of the "courageous women" ran in local elections, winning a majority. The result was all the more remarkable given how men have traditionally dominated Bosnian politics.

The battle continued through legal channels. A June 2018 ruling recognized that the Kruščica flows into an environmentally protected area and that the concessions would have to be re-negotiated. It was a victory, albeit just a partial one. Pending a final ruling, the energy company made attempts to open the site. And so, the stream's self-appointed guards remained day and night, in a state of continuous tension.

"After the 2008 crisis, only two types of investments have become safe: real estate and the green economy," says Gabriel Schwaderer of the Euronatur foundation. Often, however, the "green" bit is more in name than in reality. More than 90% of new concessions are related to so-called mini and micro hydroelectric power: Developers set up facilities that are certainly less showy than a large dam, but capable of exploiting ever smaller streams, sometimes of great environmental value.

River systems are among the most vulnerable ecosystems. According to a WWF report, fresh-water systems have lost 81% of their wildlife over the past 40 years. The scientific community does all it can to suggest ideas for truly sustainable hydroelectric systems, but rarely are they put in practice. Concessions are issued in a hurry, more to pocket the generous subsidies at a fixed rate than to effectively reduce the use of fossil fuels.

The EU Water Framework Directive aims to achieve, by 2027, a "good ecological status' for all water bodies on the continent. This is an ambitious target. "But the nations that have to accept it, including the candidate countries for EU membership," says Eef Silvers of Wetland International. "It's important to act above all on a national and local scale."

It's a true ethnocide.

This is particularly true in the Balkans, the new European mecca of dam builders. Smoky bureaucracy, high rates of corruption and a great haste to enter the European Union, whose norms are often copied in a superficial way by the rulers, expose these countries to the risk of speculation.

Investors include mainly banks and companies from Western Europe, in particular from Austria and Italy. The numbers are mind-boggling: Over 300 new stations planned in Bosnia; 837 in Serbia. Even sunny Albania has decided to snub photovoltaic and invest the entire renewable energy budget on blue gold. Never mind that the longest European river in its natural state, the Voiussa, flows into the Adriatic after a journey of 260 kilometers between breathtaking scenery, or that the Cem, in the remote Albanian Alps, sustains a chain of pastoral communities dependent on agriculture.

"It's a true ethnocide," says Martine Wolff, an anthropologist who has lived among the mountaineers of the north of the country for over 10 years. From Greece to Montenegro, from Bulgaria to Croatia, the scenario is the same.

"In the Balkans you have what we Western Europeans have lost: an intimate relationship with the river," says Austria's Ulrich Eichelmann of Riverwatch.

Sometimes mobilizations achieve important victories.

It's true: While in the West the waterways have been progressively reduced to channels and excluded from the urban fabric, in the Balkans, rivers play an important role in uniting people. Just think of the old bridge over the Neretva in Mostar, a symbol of coexistence between different faiths. Or the bridge on the Drina celebrated by novelist Ivo Andrić. Or the sinuous Danube.

Sometimes mobilizations achieve important victories. Macedonia's Mavrovo National Park, habitat of the elusive Balkan lynx, is safe for the time being. In Belgrade over 5,000 people took to the streets in January; in Kosovo, a massive mobilization led Prime Minister Ramush Haradinaj to block the construction of seven power plants in the Rugova mountains in February.

The most emblematic news, however, comes from Kruščica. On Dec. 14 the long-awaited final ruling arrived: The building permits were canceled. The stream continues to flow freely under the "Bridge of the brave women," where the group's banners and flags — weathered from long exposure to the elements — continue to hang. After 17 months, the hrabre žene can finally go home.

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In Argentina, A Visit To World's Highest Solar Energy Park

With loans and solar panels from China, the massive solar park has been opened a year and is already powering the surrounding areas. Now the Chinese supplier is pushing for an expansion.

960,000 solar panels have been installed at the Cauchari park

Silvia Naishtat

— Driving across the border with Chile into the northwest Argentine department of Susques, you may spot what looks like a black mass in the distance. Arriving at a 4,000-meter altitude in the municipality of Cauchari, what comes into view instead is an assembly of 960,000 solar panels. It is the world's highest photovoltaic (PV) park, which is also the second biggest solar energy facility in Latin America, after Mexico's Aguascalientes plant.

Spread over 800 hectares in an arid landscape, the Cauchari park has been operating for a year, and has so far turned sunshine into 315 megawatts of electricity, enough to power the local provincial capital of Jujuy through the national grid.

It has also generated some $50 million for the province, which Governor Gerardo Morales has allocated to building 239 schools.

Abundant sunshine, low temperatures

The physicist Martín Albornoz says Cauchari, which means "link to the sun," is exposed to the best solar radiation anywhere. The area has 260 days of sunshine, with no smog and relatively low temperatures, which helps keep the panels in optimal conditions.

Its construction began with a loan of more than $331 million from China's Eximbank, which allowed the purchase of panels made in Shanghai. They arrived in Buenos Aires in 2,500 containers and were later trucked a considerable distance to the site in Cauchari . This was a titanic project that required 1,200 builders and 10-ton cranes, but will save some 780,000 tons of CO2 emissions a year.

It is now run by 60 technicians. Its panels, with a 25-year guarantee, follow the sun's path and are cleaned twice a year. The plant is expected to have a service life of 40 years. Its choice of location was based on power lines traced in the 1990s to export power to Chile, now fed by the park.

Chinese engineers working in an office at the Cauchari park


Chinese want to expand

The plant belongs to the public-sector firm Jemse (Jujuy Energía y Minería), created in 2011 by the province's then governor Eduardo Fellner. Jemse's president, Felipe Albornoz, says that once Chinese credits are repaid in 20 years, Cauchari will earn the province $600 million.

The Argentine Energy ministry must now decide on the park's proposed expansion. The Chinese would pay in $200 million, which will help install 400,000 additional panels and generate enough power for the entire province of Jujuy.

The park's CEO, Guillermo Hoerth, observes that state policies are key to turning Jujuy into a green province. "We must change the production model. The world is rapidly cutting fossil fuel emissions. This is a great opportunity," Hoerth says.

The province's energy chief, Mario Pizarro, says in turn that Susques and three other provincial districts are already self-sufficient with clean energy, and three other districts would soon follow.

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