“If there is hope, it comes from the Balkans.”
By Laura Moreno on October 21, 2023
It’s late May in the tiny village of Ulog, nestled in the lower Eastern part of Bosnia and Herzegovina. Once home to a population of 4,000, the isolated town has dropped to all but 10 villagers who have stayed despite the pull of opportunity and industry in the country’s city centers. Here, they live in the heart of a kind of nature that many in today’s world could only imagine.
On a map, it’s a blue line that travels 140 miles (230 kilometers) through Bosnia and Herzegovina and Croatia, before its confluence with the Adriatic Sea. In person, it’s a force that shapes the untouched landscape, a pristine source of life that sustains an exceptional network of species, including humans. It’s an undeniable presence of something truly wild: the Neretva River.
Believed to have its origins in the Illyrian language, it is said that the name Neretva comes from the word Nera-etwa, meaning heavenly water, or heavenly river. Giving way to a network of tributaries that support dozens of villages and small river communities, its upper stretches remain unaltered and free-flowing, a rarity in today’s Europe. Here, the river and its tributaries lie in the heart of a karstic valley home to underground rivers, plunging sinkholes, and deep caves. Flanked by untouched alluvial forests, deep gorges, and tumbling waterfalls, the river is the true centerpiece of a rich and complex ecosystem. From endangered endemic trout to bears, wolves and lynx, the word “wildlife” takes on its true meaning in a place like this.
For the second year in a row, for one week, this watershed has increased the population of Ulog tenfold, bringing together an international team of over 100 scientists, journalists, photographers, artists, and activists along the river’s upper banks for Neretva Science Week, part of the Save the Blue Heart of Europe campaign. They meet under one objective: to gather scientific data that will help support a growing movement and tell the urgent story of what many here already know, that the Neretva River is a paradise that cannot be lost.
As with many countries whose natural resources have not yet been tapped, the Balkan Peninsula has become the target of a rush of development projects driven by foreign and local investors, with devastating environmental and social impacts.
From Slovenia to Albania, plans to build almost 3,500 hydropower plants, in addition to the over 1,700 that are either already operating or have been approved, endanger the last of Europe’s free-flowing rivers, considered to be the most important hotspot for threatened freshwater biodiversity on the continent.
More than 90% of these dams are projected to be Small Hydropower Projects (SHPPs), and over 1,600 of these SHPPs are planned within protected areas.
For those not yet familiar with the arguments for or against hydropower, specifically SHPPs, here’s a quick rundown: while governments and investors championing hydropower sell it as a viable source of renewable energy, this easy narrative conveniently ignores several basic facts. Hydropower requires massive, often prone-to-corruption investment, has staggering impacts on ecosystems and destructive consequences on local communities relying on rivers. But at the end of the day, hydropower produces a relatively insignificant amount of energy. In Bosnia and Herzegovina specifically, only 3% of the country’s annual electricity production comes from existing SHPPs, with the rest of the produced energy exported to Western Europe, while renewables such as solar, wind, and geothermal are largely ignored.
Not to mention that by diverting rivers, hydropower plants are placing previously free, communal water supply into pipes, restricting access to water for local communities. Many argue that hydropower is simply large-scale privatization of water supply, raising valid questions about water management interfering with basic human rights.
All over the Balkans, local communities are standing up and putting their bodies and voices on the line against the damming of their wild rivers. For Bosnia and Herzegovina, in the shadow of war and genocide, the river movement is changing the narrative of the country towards one of hope.
For those of us in countries where civil disobedience is still a natural response to injustice, it might seem like an obvious reaction for Bosnian river communities to protest against destructive hydropower.
But as local activist and Director at ACT, Foundation Atelier for Community Transformation, Lejla Kusturica says, “It’s only been 30 years since the war ended, and you know, people don’t like to riot here. Trauma is still very much present. People don’t like even the slightest resemblance of losing some sort of order, in terms of peace. No matter how unsatisfied we are, it’s very hard for us to go into the streets and demand our rights. For us, it’s a reminder of how the war started…That’s what older people tell us. They say, ‘At least we have peace. Let’s not disturb it.’”
In a post-war political climate that still plays on the tensions and divisions of the past, Lejla says that hope can feel distant. But when it came to rivers, it was a different story.
“Politicians are making sure that people of different religions and ethnic groups are divided,” Lejla shares. “But with rivers, ordinary people started coming together, not only on the level of their local communities but on the level of Bosnia and Herzegovina. Everyone who cares about one river cares about all other rivers, and that’s the beauty of the movement. Because the truth is, we crave to see people in solidarity.”
Expanding on the self-organized actions of local communities to become the strongest post-war movement the country has seen, this new narrative of solidarity united by rivers has captured an international spotlight.
And for the past two years, another level of cooperation has arrived on the banks of the Neretva, this time lending a coordinated effort of skills and expertise to the cause: Neretva Science Week.
Following the success of its first year on the river, this year Neretva Science Week (NSW), organized by the Center for Environment (Banja Luka, Bosnia and Herzegovina), headed to the free-flowing upper “Gornja Neretva” and its tributaries. In total, there are 70 hydropower projects along the Neretva and its tributaries, with two large HPP projects currently under construction. One of these two large projects is the HPP Ulog, located on the upper stretch of the river.
Neretva Science Week follows the model of the first Science Week in Vjosa, Albania. Under the umbrella of the initiative Scientists for Balkan Rivers, these annual Science Weeks bring together local and international researchers, calling for scientists to not only use their expertise but, uniquely, their voices as well. And they’ve proven effective. Today, the construction of the proposed hydropower plants along the Vjosa has halted, and the river is officially declared a national park.
But science, however critical, is just one piece of the puzzle.
As Lejla puts it, for local people facing the Goliath of political and economic power, you need all hands on deck.
“It’s absolutely crucial to have the scientific argument to back up our story. But we need all of it. Local, ordinary people standing up with support from NGOs, lawyers, scientists, media, and international allies…We are fighting state institutions and powerful investors. In Bosnia and Herzegovina, we don’t have an independent judiciary and the country is very much corrupt. So when you fight, you are fighting against one giant unjust octopus.”
Enter Ulrich Eichelmann. Ecologist, conservationist, and coordinator of the Blue Heart campaign from RiverWatch, Ulrich is one of the key players behind the four science weeks held between the Vjosa in Albania and the Neretva in Bosnia and Herzegovina.
As Ulrich puts it, “If you want to have a good meal, you need to have a lot of ingredients.”
He explains that within the strategy of the movement, after recruiting legal experts, science was the logical next step to equip the fight in the courts with hard data. But science by itself wasn’t enough. Combining the mind, the heart, and the megaphone, Ulrich and the Blue Heart team needed an initiative that would bring the proof of the beauty of these rivers to life.
From the scientific perspective, for Neretva Science Week’s Lead Scientist, Professor Gabriel Singer from the University of Innsbruck, the thought and design behind NSW check off some rare boxes in the science world.
“It’s not that easy to actually identify a valid scientific question that also contributes to conservation, maybe even produces evidence that’s useful in a legal conflict, and at the same time, is such cool science that it actually feeds a scientific CV,” Gabriel says. “It’s almost impossible.”
Reflecting on his own career and experience through Science Weeks, Gabriel acknowledges an ever more present need for scientists to use their skills and voices toward action.
“At the places I worked as a scientist, during my Ph.D. and also during postdocs, there was a bit of involvement in conservation but people kept themselves at a distance. It’s this attitude of scientists that say, ‘I want to stay as neutral as possible. I’m the one who provides knowledge, but somebody else is supposed to put this into action, not me…’ But if you play this scientific career too seriously, you slip into this game of worrying about your CV, your impact points, publishing, and so on. I think by doing so, you simply lose. In the Anthropocene, ecologists have to take responsibility beyond their bubble. Maybe it’s also a bit of a personal attitude thing: How do you think of yourself as a scientist?”
It’s not a difficult case to make that a position of neutrality, across more areas than just science, no longer makes sense given the climate and biodiversity crises. But it seems that activism and conservation are a natural byproduct of visiting the banks of a river like Neretva.
For Špela Borko, Researcher and Coordinator at Scientists for Balkan Rivers, just one week in the field on the Neretva was enough to bring the scientists to the heart of the movement to save the river. It’s one thing to know what is at stake, but entirely another thing to feel it.
“Every scientist who was on the first Neretva Science Week came back from the field trip with eyes big with biodiversity. They were so surprised, because while they’ve been studying this their whole lives, in the rest of Europe, you cannot find rivers like this anymore… Even though we work through numbers and statistics, in the end, we are still humans. It’s not about the knowledge of the pristine nature but the feeling of it, how you perceive it when you’re there.”
Given the river movement emerging in a post-war Bosnia and Herzegovina amidst the backdrop of an almost completely developed Europe, there is a reason the world is beginning to look to the Balkans with hope, and perhaps a degree of awe.
In the face of the biodiversity and climate crises, and so much environmental and social injustice, now more than ever, we need an example.
“You know these Russian dolls, where you open one and there’s another one, another one, another one?” Ulrich says. “If you only use your brain, looking at the way we treat the world there is no hope. But if there is hope, it comes from the Balkans. Because the river movement is a really nice mix of locals, activists, scientists, lawyers, artists, international NGOs…The Balkan Peninsula is a role model for Western Europe. This is a story about the beauty of nature and the people standing up for it. It’s about the people here standing up for all of us…So that we could always go to the Neretva, to the Vjosa, to be in these wild places that still exist.”
Laura Moreno is a writer and communications specialist from the world of ocean conservation, working to share the stories that drive the protection and restoration of the wild. She is passionate about elevating the voices that inspire us from the front lines of conservation and exploring the species that remind us of the magic of what's worth protecting. When she's not writing or looking at photos of nudibranchs, she spends her time surfing between one of two west coasts, California and Portugal, and digging for hidden sonic gems in record shops. Laura loves finding the right words, sounds, movements and music that make good stories come alive.