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From Rivers to Babies: Civic Awakenings Aim to Secure the Future of Bosnia-Herzegovina for all Bosnians

by Maria Hetman on Sunday, June 16, 2013

Me_for left eastThursday, June 6, 2013. An early summer day in Sarajevo, and the streets were filled with sound. Listening closer, it was not just the usual buzz of warm weather foot traffic and outdoor cafe crowds. Instead, there were whistles, drums, vuvuzelas, shouting, and a cacophony of car horns honking. A protest was taking place. That would have become evident to anyone hearing and seeing the mass of people and taxis occupying all sides of the Parliament that day. But, what may have been less evident to the casual observer was that it was not just one protest. There were two protests which, by happenstance, coincided on the same day. (I was participating in both of them.)

Ljuta Protests_Photo 1First, the one that has received a great deal of media coverage, the sometimes-so-called ”Bosnian Spring” (a.k.a. ‘‘bebolucija’’ or “baby revolution”) − which started over the government’s failure to issue ID numbers (JMBG) to babies born after the New Year. It had informally begun the day before (June 5) and continues today. On June 6, the number of JMBG protesters were estimated to be around 3,000, though the number has since grown by the thousands and has expanded to other cities around the country. Some are saying it is the largest and most significant protest in the post-war period. The other was a less publicized, smaller (approximately 250 people), but no less important protest for one of Bosnia-Herzegovina’s (BiH’s) most precious common water resources: the Ljuta River. At one point on the same day, both groups of peaceful demonstrators crossed paths, and for a few moments, some participants protested in solidarity together, in recognition that both issues−and the people demonstrating for each−are interconnected.  (Some of the Ljuta protesters, in fact, joined those at the Parliament in later hours and days.)

The Ljuta River lies in the municipality of Konjic, in the Herzegovina part of Bosnia-Herzegovina. (The distinction between the “B” and the “H” is essentially topographical and climatic, though over the ages these factors have arguably contributed to the formation of some cultural distinctions as well.) It is a tributary of the upper reaches of the Neretva River, which is one of BiH’s most significant waterways and the only one which flows to the Adriatic Sea. The area around the Ljuta has an amazing array of forests and mountain peaks, and is touched by a rare degree of biodiversity and endemic flora and fauna. The Upper Neretva (including the Ljuta) is said to possess some of the coldest water in the world, and it flows in gushing rapids, which over the years have carved out steep limestone canyons 800-1200 meters in depth. Most remarkably, the Ljuta is still potable for its entire length.

Ljuta Protests_Photo 2Recently, the Ministry of Environment and Tourism in the Federation granted environmental permits which allow the building of three major hydroelectric dams on the Ljuta River, despite the fact that an independent environmental evaluation unequivocally advised against such a project due to the destruction it would cause. Nevertheless the Ministry’s own ”internal” evaluation gave the green light to go ahead. This decision is part of a larger context of misuse and abuse of BiH’s common water resources for more than a decade, a recklessness which is fueled by BiH’s uniquely rotten cocktail of self-interested politicians, a corrupt business environment worsened by a misguided and uncritical rhetoric of ”growth,” lack of transparency, and an exceedingly complex and dysfunctional legal system. Other rivers throughout the country have also been designated as hydroelectric dam sites, and in many cases, the rights to these dams have been promised to firms, mostly foreign or multinational, including Chinese and Italian, and usually with the aim of exporting energy to western Europe. In many cases in the past, several such plans have fallen through for a variety of reasons (some of them unknown), but the threat remains real and constant.

JMBG Protests_Photo 1Amir Variščić, a protester, activist, hiker, and active member of the local NGO “Green Neretva,” explained why the Ljuta case is unique. ”It was the last straw,” he said. ”In recent years, the Ministry of Environment has approved every project regardless of its negative environmental impact. One of the goals of the Ljuta protests is to put pressure on the Ministry to carry out the jobs for which they were elected and whose salary come from the taxpayers.” Variščić went on to explain that while the protest for the Ljuta may not have been the largest protest related to the protection of rivers in BiH’s recent history (he cites a number of examples from 1998-2008), he argues that it is extremely important and unique precisely because it successfully united many independent organizations that deal with protection of nature and nature recreation, including ”green” NGOs, sports clubs (especially rafters), and mountaineering societies (of which there are many in BiH).

On June 6, Ljuta protesters gathered at the newly reconstructed library in Sarajevo’s old town, and marched through the center, past the Parliament (where the JMBG protest was taking place), to the Socijalno neighborhood which is characterized by blocks of flats. The Ministry of Environment and Tourism is located in one of those blocks. When the demonstrators arrived at the site, two people who appeared to be working in the Ministry were waiting at an open window, peering out with a lazy curiosity. They remained at the window for a few moments, but once the protesters began to “boo” and make their demands heard, they closed the window and retreated inside.

Variščić also explained why, from the perspective of the protesters, it is unnecessary and harmful for large hydroelectric dams to be built on the Ljuta (in addition to the fact that an independent evaluation already described the potential dams as destructive). Among the reasons: BiH already produces more electricity than is needed, and the majority of new dams would export energy rather than produce it for internal use; the rivers on which the Ministry plans to build dams are among the most pristine in BiH [and in Europe]; the rivers can be used for more sustainable development along the lines of organic agriculture, sustainable tourism, and drinking water; the construction of new high-power dams benefit only a small number of people (not the commonwealth), mostly foreign investors, resulting in a loss to local communities. He suggests that energy investors look to sustainable form of energy production, such as small hydropower, wind, and solar. My position is the same as Variščić’s in this regard. Particularly considering the increasing scarcity of fresh water in the world, it is senseless and unethical to recklessly abuse the few resources which do exist in order to produce energy which is first of all unnecessary but which can also be produced in much more sustainable ways.

Protests like this one are not simply environmental (thought they are that, too), nor do they naively put nature above people. Rather, the environmentalism expressed in instances like this also has a deeply human dimension, considering that the people of BiH depend on water resources for their livelihoods, in multiple senses. Destroying these sources of livelihood robs future generations of health (including recreation) and potentially even the means of securing the necessities of life. The protest is also a critique of putting profit before community, and a resounding ”no” to the deep and pervasive lack of accountability in the increasingly interconnected spheres of business and politics (a phenomenon which is, of course, not specific to BiH). In short, these protests highlight the inextricable links between human well-being, the commonwealth, and nature itself.

Bosnia-Herzegovina has historically been known for its abundance of fresh water. Recently, in a detailed piece by journalist Andrea Rossini, the country was described as “the land of blue gold” due to its H2O resources: some of the richest in Europe.  According to historian Mustafa Imamović, among others, the word “Bosnia” itself most likely means “flowing water.” If the etymology of the country’s name bears any relation to its fate, the case of the Ljuta highlights that it may not be because of an abundance of fresh water. It may, rather, obtain new significance because its water wealth will be at substantial risk. The UNDP’s 2013 analysis of water in BiH indicates that it is increasingly endangered due to drought, climate change, urbanization, and pollution, which means that drinking water and water for agriculture are also in danger. Indeed, dams built on the lower part of the Neretva River during the Yugoslav period may foreshadow the fate of other rivers. Rossini interviewed Asad Herić, a biologist and member of Green Neretva, who said that the dams built in the socialist era “have modified the climate irreversibly. Here [at Konjic] vines were once cultivated, eels could be found in the river; now no more.” But, as the Ljuta protests show, development projects for BiH’s rivers have not gone unchallenged. NGOs, mountaineers, citizens’ groups, and tourism advocates around the country have mobilized to protect BiH’s water resources from exploitation and climate change, with varying degrees of success, with the Ljuta being one of the most recent examples, and unique for the reasons cited earlier.

The protests for the Ljuta happen to come at a time which appears to be a larger civic awakening in Bosnia-Herzegovina, after a long period of relative apathy and resignation. The ice seems to have been first broken last summer when major demonstrations, called ‘‘The Park is Ours,” took place for several months in Banja Luka, born from a very similar reason that the protests are taking place in Istanbul’s Taksim Square today: the destruction of a common park. Of course, the park itself was important in both the cases of Banja Luka and Istanbul, but the deeper problem is linked to the role of profit in politics, corruption, and disregard for common interests. I would argue that the Banja Luka protests of last year (while largely unsuccessful in meeting their aims) have had a larger, unintended purpose which, though not explicit, bear at least some indirect relation to the number of protests taking place today—almost exactly a year later. Other past protests for BiH’s water sources surely play a role as well. That is, by setting the example that strong, steady, peaceful civil disobedience is possible in Bosnia-Herzegovina, protesters have made it more likely for other protests, perhaps even more successful ones, to take place in the future. The role of social media has been crucial in spreading these examples. Though, again, many of these protests are not consciously linked to prior or future ones and it is difficult to prove any direct correlation, I would argue that civil awakening often grows like mycelium under the ground, spreading slowly and sprouting spontaneously, perhaps where least expected. Therefore, I would urge those who do not see immediate ”results” of their demonstrations not to lose heart: change is a process, which in some cases, happens slowly, until one day a critical mass emerges, and something clicks. (The ‘‘bebolucija’’ may turn out to be just that ‘‘click.’’) Other than evolving strategy and power in numbers, the key seems to be perseverance. And, for the moment, protesters in Bosnia-Herzegovina still have a relatively peaceful environment in which to protest—as should be the case everywhere.

But what next for the Ljuta? The protesters have submitted their demands, and the Ministry has acknowledged receiving them. The demands include: voiding the environmental permits for the dams on the Ljuta within 30 days; to urgently put into procedure a law protecting a national park encompassing the mountain range which includes Bjelašnica, Igman, Treskavica, and Rakitnice Canyon (Visočica) [and, by extension, the water resources within them]; to provide permanent legal protection of natural resources within existing protected areas and to design the law in such a way that it prevents exploitation of common resources in accordance with standards set by the European Union and International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN); and that all future decisions concerning the environment and all future procedures for issuing environmental permits be done with full transparency, with full involvement of the public, and with consideration for the public’s opinions. The protesters have also added that if the Ministry does not respond within a reasonable time-frame and if they continue the tradition of behaving without regard for the public interest, that the protests will continue in even greater form, as will pressure on the Ministry to improve their practices and protect BiH’s nature.

Meanwhile, other peaceful protests continue in Bosnia-Herzegovina: several for rivers, JMBG, recent student protests in Sarajevo and Banja Luka against corruption in the academy, and more. This is happening in a larger context of protests taking place around the world (which, again, surely have had an unseen influence here), including the current demonstrations in Istanbul which have distressingly become a violent war waged from the side of the Turkish government.

In my humble opinion, I expect there to be more protests for the Ljuta, and many other issues, in the months to come. As for the ongoing JMBG/”bebolucija” protests: some politicians and media are pathetically (yet predictably) attempting to spin many the common issues expressed by the protests into “ethnic’’ issues, which is, as always, a tactic to prevent solidarity on the ground. Social media, once again, has played a strong role in sharing information about the protests, their peaceful methods and their aims for the common-good, which handicap the extent to which the manipulators can manipulate. Though, of course, the battle against political propaganda can never cease, since the propaganda itself is—sadly—relentless, unscrupulous, and powerful.

In the immediate future, on Tuesday, June 18, some of BiH’s famous musicians, including internationally-known Dubioza Kolektiv, plan to join the JMBG protesters in front of the Parliament by delivering an evening concert from 5:00 to 10:00 p.m.  However, in recent hours, protesters are allegedly debating whether continuing with plans to hold the concert would be appropriate, considering the fact that a baby named Berina passed away yesterday in a Belgrade hospital after waiting for hours at the Bosnian-Serbian border, and who furthermore allegedly did not received the funds for an operation promised to her by the Federation. She couldn’t leave the country to get the medical care she needed because (due to the stalemate in the Parliament) she lacked an ID number and hence had no ID card and no passport. Now, the protesters are reportedly asking themselves whether something other than a concert is needed as a peaceful response to this unacceptable situation. Concert or no concert, it is important that petty politics and representatives who do not actually represent their constituencies do not claim any more lives−or livelihoods−in Bosnia-Herzegovina, and it is now up to the people to continue to demand a better future for themselves, their environment, and their children.

Maria Hetman is a freelance writer, editor, researcher, and permaculturalist who has been living in Bosnia-Herzegovina intermittently since 2009. She is currently based in Sarajevo.

Photo captions:

  1. Protesters in Sarajevo, including whitewater rafters, protest against plans to build highly destructive hydroelectric dams on Bosnia-Herzegovina’s Ljuta River (photo by Bakir Ganić)
  2. The author holds a sign in Sarajevo which says “Ljuta Sam:” a double entendre, meaning both “I am the Ljuta [River]” and “I am angry” (photo by Nedim Bosnić)
  3. Protesters demand ID numbers (JMBG) for Bosnia-Herzegovina’s children in front of the Parliament in Sarajevo on June 11, 2013 (photo by Maria Hetman)

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