The Brave Women of Kruščica saved their river after 503-day blockade

In June 2021, 40-year-old Bosnian economist Maida Bilal was awarded the Goldman Prize, sometimes called the “Green Nobel”, for leading a group of local women who stopped two proposed dams on the Kruščica River after a 503-day blockade. It is the first time a Goldman Prize has been awarded in Bosnia and Herzegovina.

Awarded annually to environmental heroes in each of the world’s six inhabited continental regions, the Goldman Environmental Prize honours the work of grassroots environmental activists from around the world. Bilal was awarded the European prize for 2021.

While the Western Balkans contains some of the most untouched wilderness in Europe, with largely undammed rivers and biodiversity hotspots, recent years have seen a dam boom, with 436 mini-hydropower projects built, planned, or under construction across Bosnia and Herzegovina—and many more in the wider region. Most are small, producing only 1MW-5MW of energy but can disrupt wild river ecosystems by forcing them into large concrete pipes, leaving riverbeds dry and disrupting habitat for riverine species, says Goldman. Only around 2% of Bosnia and Herzegovina’s land is currently under official protection.

The Kruščica River, which lies within a protected landscape, is the lifeline for the village of Kruščica and main water source for about 145,000 people in two nearby towns. In 2016, without consulting or informing local communities, the municipality modified its land-use plan to allow construction of two small hydropower plants on the river.

Bilal was born in Zenica and raised in Kruščica, a village of 2,500 people in the mountains 40 miles west of Sarajevo, where her family has lived for generations. 

Goldman tells the story of what happened next:

In early July 2017, villagers learned that heavy machinery was en route to Kruščica to begin construction of the dams. To access the dam site, bulldozers needed to traverse a small wooden bridge that connects the village to the adjacent forest and river. In an impromptu protest, Bilal and 300 other villagers—half of them women—went to the bridge to peacefully block the bulldozers’ access, knowing that violence was virtually guaranteed if only men were involved.

The protesters thought that the blockade would be short-term symbolic protest; instead, it became the key tactic to prevent construction and continued for 503 days, with the group—now mostly made of up women—occupying the bridge 24 hours a day in 8-hour shifts through heat, rain, and snow, braving bitter Bosnian winters.

At dawn on August 24, 2017, a special police unit in full riot gear attacked the seated women, including Bilal and one pregnant woman, to clear them from the bridge by force. The violent attack was filmed and widely publicized, galvanizing an outpouring of national and international support. Bilal was struck on the head and almost knocked unconscious during the attack; her 70-year-old father, who intervened to protect her, was himself beaten and then arrested. The bridge was renamed “Bridge of the Brave Women of Kruščica.”

Following the attack, the protesters were charged for violating public order and peace and assaulting a police officer, but those false charges were later dismissed.

Undeterred, Bilal launched a grassroots campaign to save the river while still completing her shifts on the bridge. She co-founded Eko Bistro in December 2017, organized community protests in the region’s capital to demand a free-flowing river, coordinated with local and global NGOs, leveraged media attention after the police attack, and enlisted the help of a lawyer to challenge the legality of the construction permits—including non-compliance with environmental laws—with villagers helping to fund the legal fees.

In 2018, in response to the protest, the local court began annulling the environmental and other permits for dam construction; however, lacking faith in the judicial system, the women continued their blockade of the bridge under Bilal’s leadership. In December 2018, the regional court upheld the decision and canceled all environmental and construction permits for the dams; the women left the bridge on December 19, 2018.

What began as an impromptu attempt to protect the Kruščica River evolved into a powerful symbol of peaceful resistance—among Bosnians and Herzegovinians—in a region still recovering from the aftermath of a brutal war, said Goldman.

WWF Adria, MAVA Foundation and the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency provided technical, moral, and financial support to the women, helping them prepare court cases for the revocation of licenses, and invited them to tell their story to members of the European Parliament at a 2019 conference, Save the Rivers of Balkans: Resisting the Construction of Hydropower Plants in the Balkans and Albania

In a recent study, researchers from the CALTUS Institute Namibia calculated that in total, between 470,000 and 1.2 million people could be affected by currently operating hydropower projects in Albania, Bosnia & Herzegovina, Bulgaria, Croatia, Northern Greece, Kosovo, Montenegro, North Macedonia, Serbia and Slovenia – depending on how far they live from the affected river stretches. The researchers predicted that if all 3,400 HPPs currently planned and under construction  go into operation, this number will increase between three and 10 times, affecting the livelihoods of up to 11% of the 42 million inhabitants of the Balkan region.

In July 2021, activists from Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Kosovo, Montenegro, and Serbia Sarajevo met in Sarajevo to create a pan-Balkan alliance to protect rivers in the region, with the slogan “Let’s defend the Balkan Rivers”. The groups will work together, they say, “because the issues are the same in all countries: the threat of widespread destruction of rivers and streams is caused by corruption, criminal schemes, political ignorance as well as wrong financial as incentives to destroy nature.”

The boom in mini hydropower plants throughout the Western Balkans over the past decade or so, has been helped by government subsidies for renewable energy projects and guaranteed contracts to buy the electricity produced, Reuters reported. “This movement in the Balkans is unique in Europe,” said Anes Podic from the Sarajevo-based Eko Akcija. “If it was not for the activists, all our rivers would have long been set in concrete.”

“Simply, the people have gathered around something which is not dividing them,” said Serbian environmental activist Aleksandar Jovanovic Cuta. “The protection of nature is the only topic which makes sense to the people after 30 years of hopelessness,” he said, referring to the period following the Balkan wars in the 1990s.

But while a news conference to announce the new group was disrupted by angry protesters who said they were employed by companies making parts for hydropower plants, some of the campaigners can call on star power for support.On July 13, Darko Rundek and his band supported the fight to save the Kraljevo mountain rivers with a free concert for 2,000 people in the main square in Kraljevo, organized by the Right to Water Initiative in cooperation with the Artists for the Rivers of the Balkans within the Blue Heart campaign. The area around Kraljevo is a focus for the Blue Heart campaign in Serbia because it is threatened by as many as 52 hydropower plants, ten of them already built.

Sources:

Bosnian woman awarded ‘Green Nobel’ for fighting to save river. Reuters Jun 16, 2021

The Goldman Environmental Prize: an interview with recipient Maida Bilal. Geographical, Jun. 17, 2021

Bosnian Maida Bilal honoured with Goldman Environmental Prize. Sarajevo Times, Jun. 15, 2021

Maida Bilal. The Goldman Environmental Prize, June 2021.