By Ellen Lomonico
“The Blue Heart of Europe.”
It’s a nickname for the Balkans that evokes identity and nostalgia, purity and beauty. But as unearthed in our interview with conservationist Ana Colovic Lesoska (North Macedonia, 2019), the Balkans are also rife with lingering civil unrest and opaque financial dealings. The region’s free-flowing and stunning waterways have ironically made it ripe for a contentious source of energy development: hydropower.
“Why is my eye twitching—ah, it must be the stress!” Smiling and affable, albeit slightly harried, Ana logged onto our Zoom call. Based in Skopje, North Macedonia, a very busy Ana is determined to protect her country and region from an energy boom with the potential to fundamentally alter the regional landscape. As of late 2020, over 3,400 hydropower plants have been proposed across 11 countries in the Balkans.
Building in the “Blue Heart of Europe”
“Green—sure. Sustainable—definitely not,” Ana noted as we began to discuss the influx of planned hydropower projects.
In an area where rivers are widespread, hydropower is often presented by business and government leaders as an appealing, cookie-cutter energy source. The formula is well established, and government and industry are, by now, fairly efficient at deploying the projects. What’s more, because of hydropower’s self-sustaining water cycle, it is considered a renewable energy source.
However (and that’s a big however), despite these attributes, hydropower causes irreversible environmental damage, harming natural landscapes, habitats, biodiversity, drinking water, and local communities. Dams contribute to climate change, releasing greenhouse gases and destroying free-flowing rivers that act as a carbon transportation system. Measured against the alarming backdrop of the August IPCC report, it’s easy to argue that hydropower development should be weighed not only as a regional issue but as a global one.
As Ana and her NGO, Center for Environmental Research and Information (Eko-Svest), begin a three-year civil society program for climate action, one of their many focuses is hydropower. Eko-Svest is analyzing subsidies going to small hydropower and identifying legal gaps that allow the projects to move forward. From here, the organization plans to conduct a public campaign to raise awareness about how public funds finance these projects and demand that the government transition from a system of feed-in tariffs (which guarantee stakeholder profits regardless of energy produced) to premiums (which contribute to competition in the marketplace and align with European laws). Ana’s work is aided by Bankwatch, a strong regional partner with a unique NGO focus: monitoring international finance to ensure that European and international funding do not harm the environment and its people.
In a testament to Ana’s work ethic and strategic collaboration, the number of proposed hydropower plants in North Macedonia has significantly decreased. Whereas 400 plants were originally planned, to date there are 90 in operation, 20 currently in construction, and another 20 to 30 still in development.
Strong Connection Means Strong Opposition
Ana is deeply aware of the strong cultural and emotional significance of North Macedonia’s waterways, especially in small river towns. In the Balkans, she explained, “water is life.” She has visited towns where community members fought and died to protect their rivers in the 1980s and ’90s. Rooted in this painful history, there is a strong collective sentiment among locals to defend their waterways. “In the community of Tresonche, located in Mavrovo National Park,” Ana shared, “the local people call the investor every day asking for more water in the river. They call every day. They cannot stand the fact that the river is dry.”
The story runs parallel to that of recent Goldman Prize winner Maida Bilal (Bosnia and Herzegovina, 2021). Maida and a group of community members now known as “The Brave Women of Kruščica” blockaded a bridge for 503 days, preventing the construction of small hydropower projects along their local river. “The shocking thing,” Ana noted, “is that these projects are really small.” While many of the construction sites identified may look like rivers on a map, an in-person visit often reveals a one-meter-wide stream. The town of Kruščica provides the perfect example: the two proposed dams, Kruščica 1 and Kruščica 2, were only .66 megawatts and .48 megawatts respectively. At their small size, one questions the value of their contribution to the electricity grid when compared to profoundly altering the landscape for an entire community.
The COVID-19 pandemic put an additional spotlight on the harms of hydropower development, underscoring access to water as a fundamental right. Hydro projects left some communities without water for several months in the middle of the pandemic. “It’s not just the environment that’s at stake,” Ana added, “but the practical experience of local communities.”
Inspired by her many visits to Mavrovo National Park, a stunning area where “you can experience four seasons in one hike,” Ana is also determined to help conserve North Macedonia’s natural resources. Eko-Svest works with programs like WWF Adria‘s Protected Areas for Nature and People II to improve the management of protected spaces in the country and provide strategic legal and advocacy support.
Ana was excited to share that the Šar Mountains, located to the north of Mavrovo National Park, were recently proclaimed North Macedonia’s fourth national park on June 30. The date holds special significance for the tight-knit community of North Macedonian conservationists: it marks the birthday of Ljupcho Melovski, Ana’s mentor, professor, and long-time parks advocate who passed away in 2019.
The protection of the Šar Mountains also means increased habitat security for the critically endangered Balkan lynx. Recent monitoring of this elusive species by the Macedonian Ecological Society revealed that the lynx travels through areas previously thought to be outside its natural range. While the species still hovers near extinction, with around 40 individuals, Ana noted positively that the current population is stable. You can stay up to date by following the Balkan Lynx Recovery Programme on Facebook.
A Global Grassroots Family
At the end of our interview, Ana picked up her entire computer and rotated the camera around, showing us a collage of Goldman Prize winners and newspaper articles on her wall. “When you meet a fellow Prize winner,” she smiled, “it’s like meeting yourself but in a different version. You have the same values.” Ana draws inspiration from her community of fellow activists, who are united by their grit, commitment to grassroots advocacy, and passion for the natural environment.
“I know that I’m overburdened and have so much to do, but in my head, I see the larger cause. And that makes everything easier.”
This blog post is part of the Prize Winners Today series, a monthly installment that reports on the latest news and projects from past recipients of the Goldman Environmental Prize. From reflections on the Prize to updates from the field, we’ll answer the question—what are these extraordinary individuals doing today?