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Environmental Resistance to Corporate Raiding: Is Bosnia-Herzegovina Becoming One Big European mine? Part II

Members of NGO “Ekološko udruženje Ozrenski studenac”, Petrovo Municipality, participating in the public discussion on the amendments to the RS Law on Geological Explorations at the RS Government building on 29 January 2024. The banner text in Serbian reads: “Mt. Ozren is not for sale!” Photo credit: An NGO activist who wished to remain anonymous.

All around Bosnia-Herzegovina, ordinary citizens are mobilizing to fight industrial developments threatening to damage, or have already destroyed, parts of the environment where they live. There are the stirrings of a widespread movement to protect the environment in numerous local situations around the country. Environmental resistance has the potential to create what could become the largest and most effective mobilization since the mass movement for refugee and displaced persons return in the late 1990s. 

This essay concentrates on the dangers of mineral extraction and resistance to this kind of exploitation. International corporations working in Bosnia are sponsoring a hunt for minerals such as lithium, nickel, zinc, and others that are essential to the worldwide “green transition.” These companies are interested in profit above all else. A critical aspect of these developments is the relationship between Bosnian politicians and the corporate representatives also known as ambassadors, who lobby for the benefit of the companies they represent. On the positive side, the environmental threat is bringing together people who, as one activist told me, were earlier “fighting each other to the last bullet.” A river in one entity flows into the other, and if it is carrying poisonous chemicals, that gives people a reason to join forces across entity and ethnic boundaries.
The present essay 1 is divided into two parts. Part I provided the context for the international hunt for essential resources in Bosnia and described corporate prospecting for minerals in two locations: Vareš in the Federation, and Mt. Ozren in the Republika Srpska. Part II discusses local resistance to corporate destruction of the environment and describes the complicity between domestic politicians, international officials, and the companies that strive to extract resources at all costs.

“The essence of the problem in BiH in both entities is an invasion of Western corporations. Our relationship with the West is such that they act like we are a colony; it is neocolonialism, like in Africa and Asia.”—Zoran Poljašević

Local resistance to environmental destruction by international extractive corporations is taking place throughout Bosnia-Herzegovina, and activism on Mt. Ozren and in the Vareš-Kakanj region is no exception. In recent years, there has been a ferment of struggle against mining for ore. Not only have local communities in the two regions mobilized, but they have found common ground for collaboration in the fight against politically facilitated international exploitation. 

In the case of Vareš and the Rupice mine, several grassroots organizations—both informal and registered ones—have been active in protests against the work of Adriatic Metals. The informal organization Nature Park Trstionica and Boriva (Park prirode Trstionica i Boriva), named after two endangered rivers in the forested watershed between Vareš and Kakanj, has been prominent in advocacy for preservation in the region. One of the leaders of this group is Hajrija Čobo, a high school English professor based in Vareš. Ms. Čobo is also an attorney with graduate degrees in criminal law and environmental crime. 

On behalf of the citizens of Kakanj, in August 2022 Ms. Čobo’s group filed a complaint with the Council of Europe about the Rupice mine, via the Secretariat of the Bern Convention. This put pressure on the government of the Federation and the state level of Bosnia to take greater care of the well-being of citizens, but the results so far have been mixed at best.

The communities that are downstream from the Rupice mine are, naturally, the most motivated to fight the pollution it has caused. The Network for the Defense of Nature, led by Dr. Elvedin Šabanović, and the Citizens Association Fojničani, led by Davor Šupuković, joined with the Trstionica and Boriva organization  to lobby the Kakanj municipal government. In September 2023, with full cooperation from Kakanj Mayor Mirnes Bajtarević, the three organizations met with the Kakanj municipal council to advocate for the preservation of the Mehorić recreational wilderness, encompassing the rivers and forests in question. 

The result of the meeting was a unanimous resolution by the municipal council to establish a protected area in the upper Trstionica region. With Kakanj’s population of nearly 40,000 in danger of losing its pure water supply, it is no surprise that Mayor Bajtarević is irate. He targeted both the Federation entity government and the European Commission, asking, “In Brussels they are talking about the need to close coal mines, and at the same time we are opening a damaging mine here, just across the border from the EU. Is that fair?”

On the other hand, Vareš Mayor Zdravko Marošević is pleased to support what is being heralded as an economic boom for his town, with great disregard for the dangerous effects it is causing downstream. He has declared, “Once the mine gets going, all the other wheels that were stopped for the last 30 years will start spinning too.” 

The mining is now underway, and one of those “spinning wheels” has already compromised the quality of Kakanj’s drinking water and that of dozens of nearby settlements. “I no longer dare to drink the tap water,” Amila Čizmić said. “I have been concerned about the health of my two children since they built there.” But activists are not giving up.

Ozren fights back

Meanwhile, activism in Petrovo and Lopare in the Republika Srpska (RS) continues with determination on the part of local inhabitants who hope to protect their environment. Compared to their neighbors in the Federation, they are at somewhat of an advantage regarding timing, , since the mining operations they wish to hold back are not underway, but are still only in the exploratory stage. Vareš is now a cautionary tale for the entire country. 

In April of 2021, the RS Ministry of Energy and Mining granted permission to Medeni Brijeg, a branch of Lykos Balkan Metals, to explore for zinc, nickel, copper, and other metals in several areas in Petrovo municipality, halfway between Tuzla and Doboj. At the time, citizens of Sočkovac, one of the villages in the spotlight of Lykos, were not informed of the pending exploration. 

Fearing the deadly pollution that accompanies the mining of these metals, members of the nearby communities held demonstrations in protest, and by later in the year, they had gathered 6,000 signatures in a petition to withdraw the permit. Some nickel ores require refining that involves poisonous substances including sulfuric or hydrochloric acid; their use can produce emissions of arsenic, fluorine, and chlorine—all of which are deadly to the environment. Other nickel ores are refined with sulfuric acid or ammonia, a process that leaves heavy metals behind. Both of these processes have a devastating impact on the soil, creeks, and groundwater. 

Local opposition to lithium development in the Lopare area was as quick to mobilize as in Serbia. Local residents are aware that the processing of lithium involves treating the ore with acids, then spraying it with large quantities of water. The settling of the resulting toxic wastewater and slag would threaten the underground waters, rivers, and orchards of the Lopare area. Resulting pollution in this region situated on the slopes of the Majevica hills would travel even farther, toward Tuzla in the west, and Posavina in the north. 

In December 2023, activists from several non-governmental environmental organizations held a public forum in Lopare, attended by more than 300 people. An expert addressing the forum noted that the ore is “loaded with other damaging substances…arsenic, lead, nickel, and other toxic materials.” One environmental journalist commented, “The clear intention of the multi-national mining companies is to achieve their goals where attention is not paid to the health of the people and the environment—in countries with corrupt governments.”

Lopare municipal council member Milanko Tošić commented, “The fate of Lopare cannot and must not be determined by bribed experts and corporations, and by sponsored studies, whose only goal is to acquire the greatest possible profit for a minimum of investment.” 

Mayor of Petrovo Ozren Petković took the side of his constituency, acknowledging that the inhabitants around Mt. Ozren depend on the region’s natural riches, clean water, and clean air. He asked, “Do we now have to allow all this to be excavated, so that in 100 years our green mountain will look like the surface of the moon?”

A few months later members of the two regional environmental groups Ozrenski Studenac (Ozren Springs) and Čuvari Ozrena (Guardians of Ozren) descended upon what was meant to be a public forum organized by Lykos. Instead of participating in a discussion about geological explorations with director Miloš Bošnjaković, the activists held a demonstration with protest signs and whistles. One demonstrator said, “We did not come to listen, but to peacefully tell Mr. Bošnjaković and his geologists that they are not welcome on Ozren.”

In similar developments in the same entity, activists from the organizations Eko Put (Eco-road) and “Budimo se ljudi” (Wake up, people) mobilized against the Swiss company Arcore, which was prospecting for lithium in the area around Lopare. Situated on the slopes of Majevica, drainage of poisonous wastewater would extend to a broad swath of territory including Bijeljina and Brčko to the north, Tuzla to the east, and several municipalities to the south as well. 

The president of Eko Put noted that “the area that would be endangered by the damaging results of mining lithium comprises nearly half of Bosnia-Herzegovina.” This assessment includes possible lithium mining other than what has been examined here, including sources near Zvornik to the south, as well as those in Brčko and Ugljevik. Bosnia is not much smaller than the mountainous state of West Virginia, another place where outside mining interests have all but destroyed the environment.

After some wavering, Lopare Mayor Rado Savić declared himself in agreement with the activists, saying “It is my moral duty to side with my people”. He added, “We consider that opening a lithium mine on Majevica would be very dangerous and damaging, because in the Republika Srpska and in Bosnia-Herzegovina there are no institutions that would guarantee the respect of certain norms.”

Underscoring his mistrust of state and entity institutions and the officials who administer them, Savić took a shot at the Republika Srpska Minister of Energy and Mining Petar Đokić, a perennial functionary under any government of the autocrat Milorad Dodik, president of the RS. Savić said, “You cannot have Petar Đokić, a man steeped in crime and corruption, as head of the Ministry,  and expect that he will guarantee, with some authority, that we not end up with pollution of the waterways, the land, the soil, and the air here.” 

Reports on the corruption of political officials throughout Bosnia-Herzegovina could fill an entire library, compounding the public’s skepticism about the motivation behind non-transparent business deals. Just a few points from Mr. Đokić’s dossier feed this distrust:

  • In mid-2020, environmental advocates from Republika Srpska filed a request for the removal of Mr. Đokić since, over a period of six years, he had allowed dozens of small hydroelectric dams to be built, enabling the destruction of riverbeds, the cutting of forests, endangerment of habitat, and restriction of water supply to local residents. Activists mentioned that Đokić was allowing such dams to be built without permits, and that he has also canceled incentives for wind farms. 
  • In November of 2023 the US Treasury Department placed Mr. Đokić on its sanctions list, explaining that Đokić was being sanctioned for behavior that obstructed the implementation of regional security, peace, and cooperation.”

Petar Đokić’s behavior is not exceptional; rather, it is a minor example of the cronyism and disregard for environmental concerns that are present throughout the political food chain in Bosnia-Herzegovina. 

By late February 2024, activists had garnered significant public support for a petition against lithium mining, presented by Lopare Mayor Rado Savić to the Republika Srpska National Assembly. More than 3,700 citizens had signed the petition in the space of a week. Leading politicians from nearby Bijeljina and Teslić also added their signatures. In addition, RS President Dodik and prominent RS opposition figures all declared against lithium mining, although it remains to be seen how much of this was purely a matter of political opportunism. On another occasion, Dodik has declared that the exploitation of lithium deposits near Lopare is “an opportunity for development that should not be missed.”

The activists of Majevica and Mt. Ozren in the Republika Srpska are militant in the face of the profiteering and environmental carelessness of their politicians. For some inhabitants of the region, the difficult memories of the 1990s war are ever-present; one resident stated, “I defended Majevica against one enemy, and now I am defending it against another,” referring to Arcore

In my conversation with activist Zoran Poljašević, he emphasized the emotional connection of the local population to Ozren. Mr. Poljašević said, “There were fierce battles on Ozren during the war; many people were killed defending it. This is a Serb-populated area, with three medieval monasteries, many churches, and Orthodox graves. So many people died; they paid heavily for the defense of the area. People have lived here for 400 years, so they are traditionally connected to the land.”

Possibilities for inter-ethnic and inter-entity collaboration

Given the traumatic fighting between ethno-national forces, I asked Mr. Poljašević if this history complicated the interaction between the Serbs of Mt. Ozren and people on the other side of the entity boundary, in the Federation. He answered, “Ordinarily that would complicate things, but in this case of environmental damage, people overcome that problem. We have no problem, regardless of the war and the fact that so many people died; people are ready to work on this joint struggle and to help each other. This fight for the environment connects people; it is useless to defend our part of the country if they destroy the other side tomorrow. That is why we are working together. People wish to live here, to raise their children, to have a good connection with our neighbors.”

In this vein, Hajrija Čobo said to me, “In my area around Kakanj, we all used to live together. But now we hear about how we hate each other. Our politicians keep sending the message that we can’t live together; that narrative still exists, as it works for them to divide us. But although we have fought each other, when a third force appears in Bosnia, then we will combine forces. At some moment, our people understand that we need to do this, and then they, the interlopers, will get a black eye.”

In that spirit of cooperation activists from both sides of the entity boundary attended a public forum in Boljanić in Petrovo municipality on 13 January of this year, following a similar event that took place in November 2023. The organization Ozrenski Studenac called the event, announcing a discussion of the “Results of geological exploration and opening of a nickel mine on Ozren.” Community organizations went door to door inviting inhabitants of Mt. Ozren, and they asked citizens from Maglaj and Gračanica in the Federation to participate as well. 

In addition to efforts of a number of regional environmental NGOs, Abbot Gavrilo Stevanović of the St. Nikola monastery, located on Mt. Ozren, also voiced strong support for the movement. Stevanović said, “No one wants the digging around their house, and by force, without advance notice. But people are here and they are united… they will not give up their land and they are afraid that it will be polluted, and that they will all have to leave… in the end, maybe even the monastery would have to move from here.”

Between 600 and 700 citizens attended the event in Boljanić. Mr. Poljašević told me in advance that politicians would be allowed to attend, but not to speak. The speakers called for the immediate termination of geological explorations given to Lykos Balkan Metals and for the region to be declared a protected natural area, as is already foreseen by the Spatial Plan of the Republika Srpska.

Zoran Poljašević, leader of NGO “Ekološko udruženje Ozrenski studenac”, Petrovo Municipality, at a public discussion on the amendments to the RS Law on Geological Explorations, facilitated by the Ministry of Industry, Energy and Mining of the Republic of Srpska. Photo credit: An NGO activist who wished to remain anonymous.

As one participant wrote to me, the activists gave a presentation on biodiversity around Mt. Ozren and about the health hazards of nickel and lithium mining. Hajrija Čobo spoke for ten minutes via video link, discussing the example of the destruction that has already been caused in the Mehorić area due to prospecting by Adriatic Metals. Over 400 people signed two petitions, one calling for the annulment of the concession for Lykos’ geological exploration on Mt. Ozren, and another for the annulment of anti-democratic legislation under consideration by the Republika Srpska National Assembly. The general feeling at the end of the forum was that it will be “very difficult for Lykos and the authorities to enable any geological explorations at Ozren.”

There was a similar public forum in Doboj two weeks later, on 27 January. This gathering was marked by the fact that activists and experts who were veterans of the campaign against Rio Tinto’s prospecting in Serbia were on hand to make presentations. Activists and government representatives from the surrounding municipalities of Maglaj, Kakanj, and Ozren were also present. 

An indication of the developing collaboration across entity boundary lines was the fact that the Imam of the Kuršumlija Mosque in Maglaj, Hafiz Hidajet efendija Talić, participated in the 27 January forum. The Čuvari Ozrena organization presented him with an award in appreciation of his advocacy for the protection of Mt. Ozren. Hajrija Čobo spoke at this conference as well, to great applause, having exhorted wartime adversaries to join the struggle to defend the mountain together.

Domestic officials sponsor international exploitation

We have seen that most of the politicians in Bosnia-Herzegovina—with a few exceptions at the local level—effectively support exploration and mineral extraction by foreign corporations, with great disregard for the environment. In late 2023 and early 2024, leaders in both entities implemented new measures that sidestep public sentiment. 

It came as a shock to citizens in the Federation when, in late December 2023, entity Prime Minister Nermin Nikšić announced that participation of the state-level Office of the Public Attorney would no longer be required in order to approve a “change in the use of forest land or the temporary use of forest land” for “other purposes.” This change in property law pertains directly to ongoing exploitation by Adriatic Metals of land near Vareš. But it also has statewide ramifications. 

The government of the Federation resolved in mid-November that forest lands, in addition to being used for traditional management of the woods, may also be used for other purposes, including the exploitation of minerals and other natural resources. To date, such a change in the use of forest lands has required the approval of the Public Attorney, because the lands controlled under such an act are state property. 

With the recent amendment, the state-level power has been usurped and transferred to the entity government. Prime Minister Nikšić stated that this change was enacted with the approval of Christian Schmidt, the international overseer who serves as the High Representative of the international community in Bosnia and Herzegovina (an institution created by the 1995 Dayton Agreement). Christian Schmidt has not made any public statement to deny this assertion—and the change is particularly illicit considering that, in July 2023, HR Schmidt imposed a law temporarily prohibiting the disposal of state property. This law is technically still in effect.

In addition to safeguarding the ability of Adriatic Metals to continue wanton clearcutting of forests in the wilderness of Bosnia, the measure touches upon the controversial matter of state property in a very chancy way. The disposition of state property, including the rivers, forests, agricultural land, and military installations, was not resolved in the course of drafting the Dayton Agreement. In more than one instance, the Constitutional Court of Bosnia and Herzegovina has ruled that these properties indeed belong to the state—but officials in the Republika Srpska have been steadily usurping lands and buildings for profit. So far, politicians in the Federation have steadfastly opposed such unregulated exploitation. 

The Peace Implementation Council (PIC), a Dayton institution that supervises the High Representative’s administration of postwar Bosnia, has declared that the resolution of the controversy of state property is a prerequisite for Bosnia-Herzegovina’s accession to the European Union. This requirement is listed as one of the objectives in the PIC Steering Board’s “Five plus two” list of five objectives and two conditions that would lead to the closure of the Office of the High Representative. It is the state-level parliament that must resolve this problem. The Federation’s muddying of the issue is counter to resolving the property question, because it implicitly gives legitimacy to the abuse of state property as perpetrated by the Republika Srpska.

On 13 March of this year, the Public Attorney filed a complaint in Sarajevo Canton against the Federation government’s decision to allow the temporary use of forest lands for mining while bypassing the authority of the Attorney’s office.

A similar initiative to bypass citizens’ involvement in the disposition of natural resources is underway in the Serb-controlled entity. In December 2023 the RS National Assembly adopted a draft law for consideration that would, according to environmentalists, “impinge on the health of the citizens, especially on Majevica and Ozren… Under the law, the entity government would take away the right of local communities to vote in situations involving the exploitation of certain ores and metals in their territories.” Proponents of the draft law explain that local authorities “do not have the capacity to understand the serious nature of such work.” 

The draft law also calls for a fifty-fold increase in the maximum amount of ore allowed to be extracted for “testing purposes”—from an already sizable 200 cubic meters to 10,000 cubic meters. The proposed law was to be discussed for a period of 60 days at several public meetings. 

The anti-democratic nature of the proposed law, and the arrogance with which it has been explained, were part of what spurred the organization of the 13 January public forum in Boljanić, where a petition against the law was circulated. The organizing NGO Ozrenski Studenac commented that “the initiative essentially centralizes the process of allocating permits, with the clear goal of benefiting the geological and mining companies, completely ignoring the interests of local communities.”

Following the 13 January public forum that expressed strong opposition to the draft law, the Republika Srpska Ministry of Energy and Mining scheduled a series of meetings, ostensibly to gauge public sentiment on the issue. Four meetings were arranged: in Gacko, Zvornik, Prijedor, and Banja Luka—none of which are close to the present sites of controversy around Lopare and Ozren. What is more, the meetings were scheduled on weekdays when people needed to be at work. 

However, those who managed to attend the meetings were forthright in expressing their opposition. In Zvornik on 23 January, RS Deputy Minister of Energy and Mining Esad Salčin and a team of geologists promoted the draft law, but they were not able to convince concerned citizens of its merits. Amidst the trading of insults, citizens stood by their objection to the attempt to bypass local participation. One commentator said, “It is obvious that there is an attempt to pull the wool over the public’s eyes, feigning democracy.” Siding with the citizens, the mayor of Bijeljina said that the people of Semberija [the region around Lopare] will “defend their environment with their bodies… because it is clear that the law will be adopted without regard to the objections of everyone in the Republika Srpska.”

A subsequent meeting on the same subject took place in Banja Luka on 29 January. It was also well attended, and the voicing of objections to mineral exploitation on Mt. Ozren lasted for more than two hours. Among others, Mr. Zoran Poljašević spoke in his capacity as chairman of the NGO Ozrenski Studenac. As it happened, within days he was fired from his job at the Electrical Utility Company of Doboj, where he had been employed as an environment protection engineer. Mr. Poljašević received no explanation of the reasons for his dismissal, but it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that this measure is part of a campaign of retaliation by the Republika Srpska government against those who raised their voices and organized in opposition to environmental destruction. 

Harassment of activists

Alongside the maneuvers by the governments of both entities to illicitly streamline decisions about the use of public property, various actors have worked to intimidate people who are trying to defend their environment. The Facebook page “Ozren na dlanu” (Ozren in your palm) slandered the activists, calling them “quasi-environmentalists, mercenaries, people without shame and without morals…”. 

Without specific evidence as of yet, one can only assume that this page is administered by operatives in the service of Lykos Balkan Metals, bent on creating divisions among the mobilized population and instilling mistrust inthe activists. On the same page, under the rubric of “Ozren Dossier,” pro-mining advocates posted a list of two dozen activists with their names and photos. Text accompanying the photos characterized the activists as “enemies of the economic prosperity of the Republika Srpska.”

In an additional case of harassment, Adriatic Metals filed a lawsuit in December 2023 against Hajrija Čobo for allegedly “damaging the reputation” of the company, which accused her of making “unfounded comments” that warned against water pollution and degradation of habitat in the Mehorić region between Vareš and Kakanj. The lawsuit focused on Ms. Čobo’s activism via social network media. Radio Kakanj characterized the lawsuit as a “classic intimidation tactic” and a SLAPP suit (Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation). When news of the lawsuit was released, numerous environmental organizations in both entities responded with expressions of outrage and support for Ms. Čobo. 

Between mid-2022 and the time of this lawsuit, Ms. Čobo was also receiving threatening messages via social media, as well as “friendly warnings” in person from people who cautioned that someone may wish to kill her. 

Adriatic Metals demanded that Ms. Čobo compensate the company with 2,000 KM, with interest from the date of an investigative article that quoted her. But, calling on citizens to mobilize, she said, “This is just a way of frightening me, but a lawsuit cannot scare me. Not even a bullet in the head can scare me, but I am afraid of living with polluted water. That should be the greatest fear of everyone from Kakanj.” Ms. Čobo was further quoted as saying, “They deprive us of freedom of expression, the right to a healthy environment and clean water. I want the government to terminate the contract [with Adriatic Metals]. The profit goes to that company; our lives are worth more than what the government receives.”

In an interview, Ms. Čobo expressed despair on the question of domestic leadership. “We tried to elect other political options,” she said, “but we came into a worse situation yet. New officials just continued with the same policies and made things worse. We don’t have someone available to choose who would resolve the problem, to say ‘stop’; they are just continuing to destroy the rivers, the means of life.” Broadly targeting domestic officials in office, Ms. Čobo continued, “What is going on now would not happen if our politicians weren’t allowing it. But it is happening. It is not in harmony with the laws. So we need to fight the politicians; they are the main guilty party.”

International officials promote their favorites

In the nearly three decades since the end of the 1990s war, it has been customary for ambassadors and other international officials working in Bosnia-Herzegovina to advocate for special treatment of corporations based in their home countries. In recent years we have seen Norwegian, British, and American diplomats acting as opportunistic promoters for companies that are mentioned above – even though they are aware that these companies are involved in cases of environmental destruction. The diplomats’ advocacy is often couched in the language of “green transition” and “economic progress.” 

In early 2022, then-British Ambassador to Bosnia, Matthew Field, visited Zenica-Doboj Canton and praised the canton’s cooperation with Adriatic Metals in its mission to implement exploration and mine development in Vareš. Ambassador Field said, “That project is one of the most impressive things that we have seen in Bosnia-Herzegovina, and a part of my work is to ensure that they do things in the right way, that they fulfill ecological and other standards, invest in the community, and open places of employment that have a future.”

Activists assessing the environmental destruction at Crni Vrh, Tešanj Municipality. Photo credit: an activist who wished to remain anonymous.

In mid-2023 Bankwatch, a watchdog organization that monitors international finance with an eye to environmental safety, published a blog warning against what it called “Adriatic Metals’ ruthless mining.” The blog noted that the British Embassy, the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD), and the Norwegian and US Embassies all sent representatives to the Vareš mine to confirm support for the project. The representatives touted “the most significant foreign investment in the country and [the] commitment to talent, safety, community, and sustainability.” Bankwatch called the statement by international representatives “tone deaf,” and asked why the EBRD has been silent on the destruction caused by Adriatic Metals.

After the visit to the Vareš mine, five Bosnian environmental networks sent an open letter to the British, US, and Norwegian Ambassadors criticizing their gesture. The letter expressed concern that the visit had taken place after civil protests against the mine and against Doboj municipality’s approval of explorations to be implemented by Adriatic Metals. The statement declared, “We know very well that our future is not in deforestation and digging up mountains, but in the European Union, which puts the protection of nature and the preservation of biological diversity in the first place.”

As recently as 7 February British Ambassador to Bosnia-Herzegovina Julian Reilly met with the prime minister of Zenica-Doboj Canton and other local officials to advocate for Adriatic Metals’ continued, unimpeded prospecting in that region. There was no mention of the lawsuit against AM chief Paul Cronin.

Later in the same month, Cronin proudly announced that the first amount of ore had been produced and extracted from the mine near Vareš. He asserted that the processing plant had been “designed and constructed using the newest technology of leading producers in the industry, respecting the highest standards regarding health and safety.”

Commenting in an interview on the attitude of the international community regarding mining in Bosnia-Herzegovina, Hajrija Čobo said, “Bosnia is a country of some two million; as such, we are like the suburb of a big city in Europe. I believe that this number is considered a very small collateral damage for the international community to make Bosnia into one big mine. But I also know that our people have defended this country for many years; now we have to defend it from European companies—also from Canadian, British, and Australian companies. The whole world wants to make a mine of BiH.”

How to win

The environmental activists of Bosnia-Herzegovina have declared that their greatest treasure is their “beautiful nature.” If they are to win out against the profit-driven schemes of international agents of extraction, they must resolutely continue and escalate their course of resistance. It is critical that they preserve and further develop the cooperation that has arisen between ethnicities and across entity lines. And the international community must refocus its support on the activist groupings—which are, in essence, human rights organizations. 

In my forty-odd years of visiting and living in Bosnia-Herzegovina, the effective grassroots movement that most stands out, as I witnessed it, was the drive for refugee return after the end of the 1990s war. My close observation of grassroots human rights movements in the postwar period led to the publication of my book, Surviving the Peace: The Struggle for Postwar Recovery in Bosnia-Herzegovina (2019). Since then, there have been episodes of struggle against discrimination, in favor of memorialization, and against corruption. The ongoing efforts to preserve the environment are, for the most part, regional and fragmented. However, they have the greatest potential for the creation of a movement that I have observed since the war’s end. 

An effective movement for environmental preservation is at the same time a movement for fundamental and systemic political change because, as I have attempted to illustrate, it is the expression of a conflict between the mass of ordinary Bosnians and Herzegovinans and a small elite of ethno-nationalist leaders whose positions of power were enshrined in the Dayton Agreement. It is alarming to observe that operators from the “international community” are working to optimize this power in an ongoing way. 

The task of the grassroots organizers is two-fold: on one hand, to use lobbying, voting, and direct action to put a brake on the behavior of their leaders, and on the other hand, to convey the message to international officials that they will not tolerate their complicity. 

The international community must work to support the rule of law by pressuring Bosnian leaders to uphold institutions at all levels that can fight to preserve the environment, and that listen to the voices of ordinary people who know what is best for that environment. 

It would be helpful to create a statewide organization similar to the Coalition for Return, which functioned well in the late 1990s and throughout the period of the movement for refugee return. Such an organization, led by capable and politically uncompromised organizers, would coordinate inter-entity advocacy among leaders throughout Bosnia, and it could be instrumental in disseminating information effectively. 

None of this is to say that all mineral development in Bosnia-Herzegovina must be stopped or prevented. Bosnia exists in the 21st century. But it is imperative to develop methods that can preserve the country’s environment in a healthy and thriving condition. And in the course of Bosnia’s long hoped-for accession to the European Union, the country must not be left in limbo due to lingering dysfunctionality, nor should it be consigned to a permanent second-class status in the community of states.

International activist organizations such as Bankwatch, Front Line Defenders, and Human Rights Watch should continue to support environmental activism in Bosnia. And the burden of all these changes is ultimately on the shoulders of the local activists who can trust themselves far more than they can trust international power. They must, first of all, struggle aggressively to strengthen cooperation and trust across all the boundaries imposed within Bosnia. They can start by spreading their pro-environmental, pro-democratic message in the run-up to the 2024 municipal elections. Finally, the task of grassroots activists is to compel international officials to pay attention and to take their message seriously. 

We can see hope for Bosnia-Herzegovina emanating from the communities that were, not so long ago, fighting each other to the last bullet. Today, many of them see eye-to-eye on a very serious mutual danger. These people must be supported.

Peter Lippman is the author of Surviving the Peace: The Struggle for Postwar Recovery in Bosnia-Herzegovina (Vanderbilt University Press, 2019). He is a lifelong human rights activist and native of Seattle, Washington. He has spent many years since the early 1980s visiting and living in the former Yugoslavia, especially in Bosnia-Herzegovina. 


  1. The author thanks Hajrija Čobo, Zoran Poljašević, and Boris Mrkela for their assistance.