War on Bosnia

The War on Bosnia

In the ethnic war of a decade ago, people and communities suffered and died. Now, it's the environment's turn.

 

In war, the silences are sometimes more terrifying than the noises. It was one such silence, in the cratered streets of Mostar, that made me pause in mid-stride and duck behind a bombed-out van-moments before a mortar round crashed to earth and exploded a few feet from where I had been standing. Stinging clods of dirt peppered my face, but the metal hulk absorbed the shrapnel.

Another falling shell, another inexplicable escape. They happened all the time during the recent (1992-1995) war in Bosnia and Hercegovina (BiH). But thousands of people were not so lucky, as I saw in Mostar while helping to evacuate wounded children from the besieged eastern half of the city. Few areas there could be called safe, and even the makeshift hospital where the children awaited my ambulance had been hit nine times in the previous week by the artillery and mortar fire that rained down on the sector east of the river.

Yet horrific as it was, this was just a small corner of a complex and vicious war (see sidebar, "A Brief History of the Bosnian War," page 14) that wreaked widespread devastation on people, communities, and the countryside. Whole villages were destroyed-families driven out, the men sometimes executed, and houses put to the torch. Sarajevo (the capital), ringed closely on three sides by mountains, endured a four-year reign of terror that exposed its residents to indiscriminate death from artillery and sniper fire delivered by Serb gunners on the heights above. Over 10,000 died during the city's ordeal, including more than a thousand children. The pockmarked sidewalks and shattered buildings can still be seen. Casualty figures have been heavily manipulated by all sides for political purposes and thus vary widely, but there is little doubt that the war cost hundreds of thousands of Croats, Serbs, and Bosnian Muslims their lives.

Of course the tragedy did not end merely because the shooting stopped. Much of the lasting legacy of the Bosnian war can be read in the landscape itself. Apart from the "cleansed" villages, where the walls of roofless cottages rear up like tombstones, the physical scars are nowhere more apparent than in the huge clearcuts of ancient forest growth-emblems of the desperation and opportunism spawned by a war-ravaged economy. For in addition to the immediate toll of death, dislocation, and ancient enmities revived, the Bosnian war inevitably disrupted economic life and crippled the physical, social, and political infrastructure necessary for a functional economy. Unemployment remains as high as 40 percent, the lack of economic opportunities has driven many to the edge of despair-and the country's rich natural resources have been laid wide open to predatory exploitation.

Contested Riches

Those "rich natural resources" may be a surprise. Few people think of Bosnia and Hercegovina as a land of pristine wilderness in the heart of the Dinaric Alps, but the clash of Mediterranean and alpine climates has created one the most magnificent ecosystems in all of Europe. Mountain rivers from the high peaks of the Dinaric range have carved deep canyons on their way west to the Adriatic Sea or east to the Black Sea basin. Bosnia is abundantly watered by its rivers, streams, and springs (the name derives from bosana, Indo-European for water), and though it is smaller than the U.S. state of West Virginia, the country hosts a staggering diversity of landscapes, flora, and fauna. Over 400 types of rare and endemic plant, and 200 animal species, can be found in this middle Balkan state.

BiH's resources have helped make it a battleground for centuries. The Romans fought the native Illyrian tribes for over 150 years to conquer the region, not only to expand their empire but also to secure access to the gold, silver, salt, and other resources found there. The Ottomans followed suit more than a millennium later, seeking less to convert the mainly Christian population to Islam than to claim those resources in their push toward Vienna. When the Austro-Hungarian Empire assumed control in 1878, its engineers immediately began sinking mineshafts and building railroads to extract the vast wealth of hardwoods, salt, and coal. The old communist state of Yugoslavia in effect used BiH as an energy base for its six republics, tapping its hydropower resources and siting coal-fired generating plants there. BiH accounted for 32 percent of total air pollution in the former Yugoslavia-but only 20 percent of the territory and 17 percent of the population, according to the Sarajevo-based Center for the Promotion of Civil Society (CPCS).

Today a similar pattern can be seen, as some European Union members exploit the weakness within the present government (see sidebar, "The Most Complicated Government in the World," page 16) and the lack of effective regulation. Very little is being done to urge Bosnia and Hercegovina toward reform of its environmental laws and adoption of European standards, and a number of local policymakers seem more than willing to sell the country's natural bounty to the highest bidder. This ecological colonization and thievery is evident in the treatment of Bosnia's forests, water and energy resources, and vulnerable "protected" areas.

Forests

With the unemployment rate sky-high and per-capita gross domestic product about one-twentieth that of the United States, few people in BiH have the time or inclination to address what amounts to a forestry crisis. Over 50 percent of the country was covered by forest before the war, but the harvesting of old forests and the changing land-use tendencies after clearcutting put that figure at less than 35 percent today. (The Economist has pegged it at around 30 percent). The institutions legally responsible for regulating the logging industry have an appalling record, and most environmentalists believe few or no exact statistics exist because exposing the truth would mean the forced resignation of many government officials and the drying up of the river of cash from sales of high-quality hardwood. Around Pale, the former capital of the Republika Srpska entity of BiH and a region of staunch nationalist support for war criminal Radovan Karadzic, there are over 240 timber companies. Fondeko, a Sarajevo-based environmental group, estimates that at least 60 percent are not registered.

This year alone, more than 3,000,000 seed trees from a tree farm in Olovo will be destroyed because S˘umarstvo, the state forestry service, has failed to manage their cultivation properly. The norm for annual seedling plantings is 20 million, but this year S˘umarstvo planted only 500,000. Eighty percent of the forested land in Bosnia and Hercegovina is state-owned, and the responsibility to ensure replanting lies ultimately with the state. The current law spells out the replanting requirement in very specific terms, but Nesad Bojadzic, the former head forestry inspector for BiH when it was part of Yugoslavia, says the requirement is blatantly ignored at every level. He can cite some telling figures. For example, according to Bojadzic, in the valley of the Vrbas River in central Bosnia, 2,900 hectares of hardwood have been totally clearcut without any replanting. Clearcutting of black pines on Ozren Mountain in the northeast has devastated 3,400 hectares of forest, again with no replanting. The lumber company Voljice Pidris brutalized an old hardwood forest to such an extent that the entire town of Gornji Vakuf had no potable water all last summer. This type of clearcutting is not a criminal offense in Bosnia and Hercegovina (i.e., offenders can be fined but not imprisoned). Bojadzic has done his best to fight this corruption, by lobbying for the criminalization of clearcutting and the prosecution of complicit forestry officials, recommending that the replanting requirement be increased to compensate for almost a decade of completely unregulated logging, and calling for a moratorium on logging until local inspectors can make accurate assessments of the situation. He was once one of the most respected men in local forestry, but his expert advice has fallen on deaf ears.

Ironically, the law may not protect Bosnian forests, but landmines sometimes do. The war left as much as 20 percent of the forests littered with mines-one of the few protections they enjoy. But some illegal loggers have managed to twist even this circumstance to their advantage in the intense competition over BiH's rich hardwood forests. Several clearcutting locations-marked with landmine tape and warning signs to keep inspectors and forest rangers away-aren't mined at all. A few dozen meters behind the tape is a hardwood graveyard. Although not commonplace, this tactic shows the lengths to which illegal loggers will go in order to clearcut the forests without being regulated and taxed.

Water and Energy

The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) predicts that the world's water use will increase 31 percent over 1995 levels by 2020. Bosnia is better positioned than many countries to handle rising demand, but it desperately needs to take better care of its pure water sources.

Evidence of opportunism and abuse is plentiful. Consider, as a case study, the unique and ruggedly scenic Neretva River Canyon, one of the deepest in Europe and home to at least 32 endemic types of animals and plant. The canyon lies within the area of the proposed new Prenj-C˘vrsnica-C˘abulja national park, but BiH's state-run electric company, Elektroprivreda, and an Italian corporate partner have secretly developed plans to construct five high dams, two of them on the Neretva. BiH law requires the utility to inform the public of any intent to build a dam, and to secure the proper permits even before developing a plan. Elektroprivreda did neither; it simply announced the plans' completion as a fait accompli.

One dam would drown the Neretva Canyon under an artificial lake that would forever change the face of the town of Konjic. The people of Konjic voted overwhelmingly against it, but their wishes counted for little. The dam would also flood the ancient villages of Spiljani and Dzajici and forcibly relocate people whose roots in these places are centuries deep. At a news conference to announce the project, former Yugoslav premiere Ante Markovic, representing the Italian company involved (the name of which is closely guarded), praised the economic development projects under way in BiH as the country makes its way toward membership in the European Union. But he neglected to mention the purpose of the dams: to generate electricity for export to Italy, because Italian public sentiment-and its tourism and agricultural interests-would never permit construction of such energy facilities on Italian territory. Journalist Nijaz Abadzic, BiH's best known environmental crusader and a member of the UNEP Global 500 Roll of Honour, has roundly condemned the plan: "We will spend $17 million to repair the Old Bridge that spans the Neretva River. A bridge that took years to build was destroyed in seconds by our crude and brutal technology. Now everyone turns a blind eye on a canyon that took millions of years for nature to build and if we destroy it no sum of money can repair the irreversible damage we will create by building a high dam on the Neretva."

Building new dams to export electricity makes no sense anyway, because the existing dams are underutilized. Current demand uses only about 18 percent of existing hydropower generating capacity, according to Zelenih Konjic, a grassroots environmental group opposed to the high dam. The Neretva River already has four large dams in a 40-kilometer corridor from Jablanica to Mostar. Before his recent appointment as executive director of Elektroprivreda, Enver Kreso opposed the Konjic dam, and told ecologists that the four existing dams were functioning at only 17-20 percent of their potential.

The truth is that repairs and technological improvements would be a much more efficient and practical method of increasing BiH's energy output. Three years ago the World Bank estimated that only 25 percent of BiH's energy potential was being realized due to old technology, yet little or no effort has been put into modernization. As Sadi Cemalovic, a former director of Elektroprivreda for BiH, put it, "People within Elektroprivreda always lived twice as good as anyone in BiH. When we build a hydroelectric dam, however, we live four times better."

Cemalovic's view of the Konjic high dam is simple: if it is built, the people from Konjic may as well pack their bags and leave. Construction of the earlier dam in Jablanica caused marked changes in temperatures and biodiversity, and failures of certain crops. Many fear that the changes in microclimate, as well as other problems, caused by another dam would be so drastic that Konjic in many ways would be destroyed.

The tragedy is compounded because the canyon offers alternative, more sustainable, means of economic development. Demand for whitewater rafting trips is rising rapidly and more than a dozen rafting operations have sprung up to meet it. Eco-tourism, in the forms of village tourism, hiking, climbing, camping, fishing, and biking, have all proven viable. Organic farming and organic honey production could help a much larger portion of the population than the construction of a high dam. These types of small and medium enterprise afford a real chance for Bosnia and Hercegovina to move from a poor transitional economy to a stable developed economy. Eco-tourism is a labor-intensive (i.e., job-rich) industry and the World Tourism Organization estimates that eco-tourism investments typically enjoy tenfold returns. As for honey, the market is there; every year Hungary exports eight times more honey than BiH produces, and the conditions for honey production in BiH, particularly in the Konjic area, are significantly better than in Hungary due to climate, altitude, hours of sunlight, and biodiversity.

"Protected" Areas

Bosnia and Hercegovina protects only 0.5 percent of its lands, one-tenth of the European norm. Scientists cited in a 2002 report from the Center for the Promotion of Civil Society believe that 16 percent of BiH lands would need to be protected in order to maintain the country's biodiversity. BiH could approach this goal by granting national park status to the Bjelasnica/Igman region to the south of Sarajevo, which naturally connects Rakitnica Canyon and Visoc˘ica Mountain to the east and the Prenj-C˘vrsnica-C˘abulja region to the south. With Blidinje Nature Park on the north side of C˘vrsnica Mountain, this would complete the logical chain and establish the heart of the Dinaric Alps as a protected zone. Protected status would allow for the development of scientific research, eco-tourism, and organic and other types of agriculture, and would in turn support the many cross-sector economies that revolve around these activities. This initiative would not only validate the priceless value of this area but would also help stiffen enforcement efforts to stop the illegal cutting and dumping.

However, this goal seems remote. The Neretva valley has been ravaged by illegal logging, dumping, and quarrying despite-or perhaps because of-having been earmarked as a national park since pre-war times and studied extensively to that end. The logging problems on Prenj and C˘vrsnica have reached epidemic proportions. In the Jablanica and Konjic municipalities, illegal cutting has destroyed the last remaining examples of the endangered Munika black pine and Tise, trees that were heavily exploited at the turn of the twentieth century by the Austro-Hungarian Empire and were placed on the protection list during Yugoslavian times. Although the cutting of the endemic Munika black pine was made illegal by the Federation parliament, Sipad Wood Processing Company, the largest wood exporter in the country, has illegally constructed a road into the heart of Prenj Mountain to cut the remaining Munika. When environmentalists objected, S˘ipad claimed they were "sanitary" cuts meant to curb the threat of spreading disease, but there was never any confirmation of this by the Ministry of Forestry and Agriculture. An independent assessment directed by ecologists with the Mostar City Council confirmed that the cuts were in no way sanitary. S˘ipad has also been illegally logging in the strictly protected zone of Diva Grabovica on C˘vrnsica Mountain. Ancient beech tree forests have been butchered off the mountainside, accelerating erosion and the siltation of the reservoir behind the Neretva River hydroelectric dam.

Another company, Prominvest of Konjic, gouged out a sand quarry in Diva Grabovica in 1996 without securing the required permits. Legal challenges from the Mostar city council led to a long court battle with the company and to a Supreme Court ruling against Prominvest in June 2000. The company ignored the decision and continued operations. Then the Mostar city council ecology department petitioned the Federation Ministry of Physical Planning and the Environment. The ministry accepted the case with reluctance but eventually issued a "final" warning: shut down the quarry or the ministry would have the complex dismantled. That ruling was also ignored, and the threat proved idle. Further complaints from environmental groups prompted the ministry to issue another "final" warning, this time backed by a threat to cut off the electricity. This deadline (October 21, 2003) also passed without result.

Meanwhile, Prominvest management fought back with a media barrage claiming victimhood at the hands of an "ecological mafia." The company also purchased so-called ecological certificates-unofficial and irrelevant affidavits from independent ecologists-claiming that the quarry was not a danger to the environment. Enver Becirovic, the company's director, was seen physically threatening and intimidating environmentalists and public officials. (He once screamed at me, "Who gives a damn about nature? Do you mean to tell me the life of a wild goat is more important than feeding my workers? It's just a bunch of trees and mountains in the middle of nowhere!") To gain Muslim support for his schemes, Becirovic tried to portray his company as the victim of "Christian crusaders" from within the Office of the High Representative (see "The Most Complicated Government..." sidebar) and the European bodies working in BiH-neglecting to mention that the suit against Prominvest was filed by Sead Pintul (a Mostar city council official) and supported by Nijaz Abadzic, both Bosnian Muslims. Prominvest has signed a $500,000 deal with Elektroprivreda to produce concrete poles for electrical installations, impossible without the sand quarried from Diva Grabovica. Anonymous sources in the Federation ministry say that intense pressure from parliament members close to Elektroprivreda has forced them to abandon their own orders. But legally, they say, Prominvest doesn't have a leg to stand on.

Complicity

After the war, came the deluge-of outsiders. They arrived with various motives: to heal and offer solace, to help rebuild, to teach the ways of capitalism. Some came to make a little money. In the wake of a nasty war fueled by ancient suspicions, perhaps it is only natural that Bosnians are wary of the new ways on offer.

For example, I met an old man who was skeptical of the intent of the international community's presence in BiH, and where it would lead. Capitalism, he argued, changes the mind-frame and soul of communities. "Just down there in Bas˘c˘ars˘ija is a shoemaker who has a wife and two children," he told me. "One morning a customer walks into his shop and wants to buy a pair of shoes. The shopowner says, ‘Thank you for your business, sir, but my neighbor also makes good shoes and he too has a wife and two children. I have already sold a pair of shoes this morning. Please buy from him so that he may take care of his family.'" The old man paused. "That, son, you don't know in the West. That is the way we grew up and that is how things need to be."

This little story echoes many Bosnians' caution about the motives and goals of the foreign interests that are active in the country. For while the Bosnians are responsible, in the end, for the heedless exploitation of their country's natural wealth, they have had a lot of outside help.

Some of BiH's closest neighbors have been involved in what might be called the ecological colonization of the country, and many feel this is an especially dangerous example to set before a government that is already corruption-prone. The international community portrays itself as walking the high moral ground and its program of reforms as being tied to European standards-but when it comes to exploiting BiH's natural resources, there always seem to be exceptions. For instance, the massive reconstruction plan in Kosovo to rebuild homes destroyed by Serbian forces and NATO bombing, however well intended, came at a heavy cost to BiH's forests. Hundreds of unregistered lumber companies sold high-grade hardwood to NGOs for the reconstruction efforts after the NATO bombing in Serbia and Kosovo in 1999. Slovenian private contractors intend to build hundreds of small dams-each producing only 1 megawatt each of electrical energy-on Bosnia's most precious and unspoiled natural resource, its crystal-clear mountain rivers. (In contrast to Slovenia, where the environmental lobby is so strong that plans for hydroelectric dams on that country's own Suca River were abandoned after public outcries, the Bosnian public remains largely uninformed and silent.) Austria has continually imported Bosnian hardwood at well under the market price, and has shown no interest in seeing forestry laws or regulations being implemented by their local partners.

The Office of the High Representative (OHR), created under the Dayton Accords, embodies the international community's presence in BiH. It has come under increased pressure to show real results after more than a decade of assistance, although the current push for reform is viewed by some local politicians as heavy-handed and undemocratic. Lord Paddy Ashdown, a former British Member of Parliament appointed as the High Representative, has taken a strong-arm stance in implementing reform. His administration, often criticized as a colonizing or imperialist power, has aggressively embarked on an anti-corruption campaign that has resulted in numerous public officials being removed from office (including the Bosnian Serb president, Mirko Sarovic, who was removed in 2003 on charges that he was involved with illegal sales of weapons to Iraq via an arms manufacturer in Serbia). Deeply in debt to the World Bank, BiH badly needs to revamp its public spending, and a "bulldozer" committee has been established to force laws through parliament that are intended to eliminate obstacles and reduce administrative spending in the overwhelmingly bureaucratic public sector. These measures have brought about marked results in easing certain taxes and eliminating costly and time-consuming administrative procedures that discourage foreign investment.

That's valuable, as far as it goes. The trouble is that the private sector in Bosnia and Hercegovina is just as corrupt as the public sector. In many instances the major private firms and organizations are run by the same circle of people who dominate the political scene. The animating formula of the international community's efforts-all growth is good, regardless of its costs to the environment-often tacitly abets large corporations that flagrantly evade taxes, exploit natural resources, and support the nationalist movements. Joanna Walshe, an anthropologist with the Sarajevo-based environmental firm Green Visions (disclaimer: I helped found Green Visions), concludes that "despite continued criticism of the often draconian measures which the debtor nations must implement in order to keep receiving aid and loans from the North, the World Bank and the IMF [International Monetary Fund] continue to push their neo-liberal medicine on the developing world, forcing already impoverished nations further into debt. The model on which these reform measures are based is no longer justifiable. The market-driven approach to alleviating poverty has failed and should be cast out in favor of a more culturally appropriate, self-reliant and human centered idea of growth."

Many Bosnians feel that, by dangling the carrot of European Union admission over their heads, the international community has had a free hand to push its agenda, democratically or not. In some respects this is true. However, the attitudes and actions of the OHR in Bosnia are deeply enabled by-indeed, possible only because of-the atrocious local management of this country at every level. Corruption is such an integral part of everyday life here that weeding it out will take a mighty effort. Public servants have rarely shown the will or competence for country building and compromise, and intellectuals and scientists have consistently been marginalized in the decision-making process by incompetent officials. Officials' brutal attitudes toward the environment clearly echo the attitudes many of them displayed when humans were being brutalized only a few years ago.

Sustainable Alternatives

If current plans are carried out, the flooding of the Neretva and Rakitnica Canyons by the proposed hydroelectric dam in Konjic will lead to the final exodus of the local population from Spiljani and Dzajici villages and seriously threaten the lifestyles of the villages of Dubocani and Lukomir (see sidebar, "Bosnian Highlanders: A Threatened Species?"). The population there is already declining, mainly because of the lack of schools, clinics, and other social services, according to a study of Lukomir carried out by Green Visions and Chad Staddon of the University of the West of England. But the study also found that the villagers want to preserve their way of life as highland shepherds, while also being open to alternative means of livelihood.

Such alternatives-ecotourism and organic farming, for example-could provide better prospects for long-term, eco-friendly development to a much larger portion of the population than logging or the construction of high dams. These labor-intensive sectors are growing at a global rate of 15-20 percent per year, according to the World Tourism Association. In a 2003 report, the Stanford Research Institute placed Bosnia and Hercegovina in the top five countries in the world for potential ecotourism growth-provided the natural landscapes it depends on are not destroyed.

Or consider the energy picture. The ancient, polluting thermoelectric plants at Tuzla and Kakanj have a generating capacity of 32 megawatts. Yet experiments conducted by the University of Mostar engineering faculty on the nearby Podvelezje plateau suggest that 230 megawatts could be produced by wind farms sited there. There is no energy problem in Bosnia and Hercegovina; only the methods of energy production are a problem. Even as many countries turn towards more advanced forms of energy, such as wind, Bosnia and Hercegovina wants to construct five high dams and dozens of mini-dams that will compromise its precious, free-flowing mountain rivers and streams.

If there is reason for hope that BiH can capitalize on these possibilities and steer itself toward a more environmentally sound future, it lies in the country's history. Bosnians have been here before. BiH was an industrial mainstay of the former Yugoslavia, a federation of some 25 million people, and Bosnia's natural resources were heavily exploited during the socialist era. Most socialist countries after World War II gravely miscalculated the ecological consequences of crude industry, and Yugoslavia was no exception. But strict regulations imposed during the second half of Marshall Josip Tito's regime brought about significant change in industrial regulation and in the protection of Yugoslavia's pristine nature. These environmental laws were very much in line with international standards of the time, and the voices of science and reason were effective in some environmental reforms.

When the Dayton Accords were signed, these laws were brought forward into the new constitution of Bosnia and Hercegovina until more modern, European laws could be adopted. But this budding sympathy for progressive environmentalism went dormant with the collapse, along with the former Yugoslavia, of the rule of law and viable mechanisms of enforcement. Even though the regulations and laws remained on the books, the region descended into a kind of chaos that has allowed an unseen war to be waged on forests and waterways throughout the country.

But Bosnians' history has given them recent experience of a time when the environment that supports their economic life was afforded something like due respect. And while the cries of scientists, environmentalists, and the affected communities have often gone unheard by BiH's ecologically illiterate political elite, it is increasingly difficult for that elite to utterly disregard pro-environment sentiment-which, while long quiet, has never disappeared altogether and is now beginning to bubble and simmer with renewed energy. Economic circumstances continue to absorb the time and efforts of many Bosnians, but others are coming to understand exactly what is being done to their country, and who is doing it-and they are beginning to raise their voices in protest against the clearcutting, the defilement of rivers and streams, and the fouling of the air. Bosnia and Hercegovina is ripening toward an ecological reawakening. When it comes, it's bound to create quite a stir.

 

Former international aid worker Tim Clancy has lived and worked in Bosnia and Hercegovina since the end of 1992, and also coordinated aid projects in Montenegro, Albania, and Kosovo during the crisis in 1999. A U.S. native, he is a partner in the Sarajevo-based eco-tourism/environmental protection firm Green Visions. He has started a new NGO, Earth in Mind, that is dedicated to community development, environment, and education.

 

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