“The River is Part of Me”

Maida Bilal’s struggle to save Kruščica River is part of a larger movement calling attention to the impact of small-hydropower in the Balkans.

When Maida Bilal began her fight to save the Kruščica River, she didn’t think she’d be putting her physical safety on the line. In fact, she had helped organize a women-led barricade of a local bridge in the town of Kruščica, Bosnia and Herzegovina specifically to avoid conflict with police. She thought that if police were called to break up the protest — which sought to protect the free-flowing river from two small hydropower plants by denying access to construction crews — they would respond more peacefully if the protesters were women.

Maida Bilal, who helped defend the Kruščica River from small hydropower development, is one of this year’s recipients of the Goldman Environmental Prize. Photo courtesy of Goldman Environmental Prize.

That didn’t turn out to be the case. In the early-morning hours of August 24, 2017, less than two months into their sit-in, Bilal and her compatriots found themselves face-to-face with special police forces in full riot gear. When the women refused to leave the bridge to make way for heavy machinery, the police attacked. Bilal was hit in the head so hard she almost lost consciousness. Her father, who stepped in to try to help, was beaten as well. He and 22 others were arrested, though charges against them were dropped.

“I have to say, that was one of the scariest moments in my life,” Bilal, one of this year’s six Goldman Environmental Prize recipients, tells me through a translator. But, she adds, “for so many reasons it only made our resistance stronger.”

After the police violently removed the peaceful protesters from the bridge, construction crews began to move in to start work on the two power plants, which would have provided only about 1.1 MW of energy combined. But the villagers were undeterred. Those who hadn’t been arrested put their bodies between a backhoe and the construction site. The crew ultimately left, and the bridge barricade resumed.

The women of Kruščica — who had been taking eight-hour shifts to maintain a constant presence on the bridge that connects their town to the adjacent forest — were determined to protect the river, which is a vital part of their community. As Bilal puts it, “The river is part of me, and it’s somehow hard to explain, but I had this feeling as a human being that I had to go out and fight for the river and for life in general.”

The women soon organized into a citizens association, Eko Bistro, to formalize their fight for the waterway, which provides drinking water to Kruščica’s 2,500 residents, as well as to some 145,000 people in two nearby towns.

Bilal and her fellow activists maintained a 24-hour-a-day presence on a local bridge for 503 days to block construction crews from breaking ground on the approved hydropower plants.

The Balkans region is home to Europe’s last free-flowing rivers, including the Kruščica.

Their effort is part of a larger movement in the Balkans calling attention to the impact of small-hydropower on the region, which contains Europe’s last free-flowing rivers. There are more than 400 mini-hydropower projects planned, under construction, or already built in Bosnia and Herzegovina, and thousands more across other parts of the Balkans. These projects put some 69 endemic fish species, and 40 percent of Europe’s endangered freshwater mollusk species, that rely on the rivers at risk. At the same time, they provide little local benefit: More than 95 percent of power generated by existing hydropower in Bosnia and Herzegovina is exported to Western Europe.

Activists note that mini-hydropower projects are often greenlit without much environmental review. And in the case of the Kruščica plants, at least, they were pushed through without local consultation: When the municipal government approved the hydropower plants in 2016, local communities were not informed, and “public hearings” about the project — held at the home of one of the investors.

In addition to physically blocking construction crews, the bridge protest bought organizers time. In between shifts at the blockade, Bilal fought the dams on several other fronts as well, leveraging media attention from the police attack to raise public awareness about the river, organizing protests at the regional capital, and working with a lawyer to challenge the permits for the dams in court.

Eko Bistro’s legal effort ultimately paid off: After 503 days on the bridge — including through the bitterly cold winter — a regional court cancelled the permits for the dams in mid-December 2018. The decision marked the first legal victory of its kind in Bosnia and Herzegovina.

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Bilal was in Sarajevo for a meeting when she received a call from a friend at the bridge, who was crying as she shared the good news. Bilal recalls taking off her hat and jumping around in the streets when she heard the news. She skipped the meeting, and instead ran from one bus to another trying to find one to bring her back to Kruščica, crying and laughing at the same time.

The news was a huge relief. “Those 503 days were very long,” Bilal says. “We had been through many things, subjected to many things. And sometimes I had this fear that I could not share with anyone at the time, that it would never end. Those were tears of relief and tears of joy at the same time.”

The fight for over quite yet, though. While the regional court annulled the construction permits for power plants, it did not revoke the concessions to the energy company behind them. The concessions remain in local planning documents, and Eko Bistro is still challenging them in court.

“The next step would be to take [the dams] off the planning charts, because if they don’t do that now, the next generation, my daughter, will have to deal with the same problem,” Bilal says.

For her bravery in protecting the Kruščica River and her dedication to her community, Maida Bilal was awarded the Goldman Environmental Prize via virtual ceremony on June 15, 2021

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