Ibrahim Turak and Pusti me da tečem20 April 2023
A rural community determined to protect their local environment
Ibrahim Turak and his fellow villagers have successfully advocated for a ban on small hydro-power plants in their valley and in the entire Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina.
Ibrahim Turak is an energetic man. With a head of thick white hair, this soft-spoken retired farmer from the Neretvica valley, near the town of Konjic, has always been an active member of his community and since 2020, he has been president of ‘Pusti me da tečem’, a local movement to protect his valley from an illegal small hydro-electric plant construction project.
“We first found out about plans to build 15 small hydro-electric plants on the Neretvica River in 2006, a river that is only 27 kilometres long. 200 people signed a petition against the construction at that time, and according to the official legislative process, the Konjic municipality was obliged to confer with the local community to consider our views. Of course, they never bothered, and in January 2020, we learned that the contract was signed and that construction of two of these plants was to go ahead,” he says.
Ibrahim and his fellow villagers knew that this construction would be a death-knell to their valley and an ‘ecological disaster’ in this rich natural environment known for its unique ecosystem, flora and fauna, and one of the few places in Europe where the white-legged crab is still found. It would cut local farmers off from water sources and mean that visitors and locals alike would no longer be able to access the river. The project would not even bring employment into this rural community; it was likely to do the opposite and push even more people to emigrate at a time when this region, like many others in Bosnia and Herzegovina, is haemorrhaging people.
Ibrahim relates that the experts commissioned by the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD), a significant funder of the state electricity company Elektropriveda, to review the project recommended that it should not go ahead due to environmental concerns. This recommendation was ignored by investors to the project.
He relates that there are currently 121 small hydro-electric power stations in Bosnia and Herzegovina, and they provide just two percent of national electricity supplies, with a disproportionate negative impact on local environments. “These are one of the weakest forms of electricity generation,” he says.
In January 2020, five local associations came together determined to fight this construction. They created a Facebook group, and in February that year, they organised a mass protest in the valley with 1,500 people attending, an incredible undertaking given that there are only 2,000 people living in this valley community. The protest got national media attention.
A two-prong campaign
The villagers decided on a two-prong approach. Groups of protestors would physically block the trucks to prevent the construction from taking place, providing time for a team of legal experts to mount a case against the municipality showing that the construction permits were fraudulent. The committee also began to work on improving the tourist potential of the region, creating swimming and picnic areas.
Over the next twenty months, villagers physically blocked the bridge to their village over the Neretvica river three times. Everyone came out to protest, old women and men, parents with young children. One of the main faces of the campaign was Safet Sarajlić, a former construction worker, who joins Ibrahim for a conversation with EED.
“We developed a system of monitoring trucks arriving from Mostar, and then we had a couple of hours to organise our protests. We had a strong network of contacts. We removed construction signs and physically blocked the bridge to our village. 300-700 people came out from Neretvica each time the trucks arrived. We knew the legal system in our country is slow, and these protests bought us time,” says Ibrahim.
It was around this time that Pusti me da tečem received EED support, which Ibrahim describes as a ‘miracle’.
“This funding meant we could keep up our protests. We had the finance to pay police fines, and to mount our legal case. We bought a container that we placed beside the Neretvica bridge. We had several people there at all times monitoring the area,” he says.
Court ruling against the construction
In August 2021, the group’s legal team successfully obtained a court ruling that the hydro-plant constructions were illegal.
Now in addition to the container which stands on one side of the bridge, there is a large billboard with a photo of smiling protesters holding a large banner and dressed in t-shirts with the campaign’s logo and its slogan ‘voda ili krv’ (water or blood).
“We were ready to give our life for this river,” says Safet. “Our people cannot live without this water.”
Not content with this local victory, the group began collaborating with environmental groups from throughout Bosnia and Herzegovina to campaign for a total ban on the construction of these small hydro-power plants. Thanks to their work, a law was passed in July 2022 banning the new construction of small hydro-power plants in the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina.
“Pusti me da tečem has become a national brand well known throughout Bosnia and Herzegovina. Musicians and movie stars have even worn our t-shirts and we are seen as a leader in environmental activism,” explains Ibrahim about the group’s role in this campaign.
Today, the local activists are developing a museum dedicated to the river and to their campaign. “We don’t want people to forget,” says Ibrahim.
They know though that their work is not over. There are still legal processes against activists who are being sued in court by Elektropriveda.
Ibrahim says his community has the mettle to keep on fighting for their future. He shows off promotional brochures for tourists of the Neretvica region, with photos of lush mountain landscapes, crystal blue lakes, and flowing rivers, and of course, photos of the white-legged crab.
“Locals here are seen as tough people and we played on this card during this campaign. But in fact, we are very welcoming,” he says.
This article reflects the views of the grantee featured and does not necessarily represent the official opinion of the European Endowment for Democracy, the European Commission or any other European State or other contributors to EED.