Ana Colovic Lesoska

2019 Goldman Prize Recipient

  • North Macedonia
  • Wildlife Protection

Ana Colovic Lesoska led a seven-year campaign to cut off international funding for two large hydropower plants planned for inside Mavrovo National Park—North Macedonia’s oldest and largest national park—thereby protecting the habitat of the nearly-extinct Balkan lynx. In 2015, the World Bank withdrew its financing for one hydropower project, and, in 2017, the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development canceled its loan to the North Macedonian government for the other. This is the first Prize for North Macedonia.

One of the last undisturbed areas in Europe

Bordering Albania and Kosovo, the 280-square-mile Mavrovo National Park’s deep gorges, plunging waterfalls, wild rivers, beech forests, and alpine meadows form one of Europe’s last undisturbed natural areas. In addition to more than 1,000 varieties of plants, the park is home to rare trout species, wolves, bears, golden eagles, and otters. Mavrovo also provides crucial habitat for one of the last remaining populations of the critically endangered Balkan lynx. Shy and elusive, only about 35 mature individuals remain, with most of the active breeding population found exclusively in Mavrovo.

As many Balkan countries prepare for EU membership, they must meet EU directives for increasing their energy derived from renewable energy sources. As a result, exploitation of hydropower has been fast-tracked as a “green” alternative to coal—though its environmental impacts are quite problematic. In the Balkans alone, roughly 2,700 new hydropower projects are currently in the works, many of them planned within national parks and other protected areas. With more than 400 dams planned across North Macedonia, the country is experiencing a “Gold Rush” on the rivers.

Plans for a system of 22 hydropower plants in Mavrovo have been circulating since the 1980s in an effort to move North Macedonia away from its reliance on coal and expensive energy imports. In 2010, state-owned power utility ELEM proposed the construction of two large hydropower plants in Mavrovo: Boškov Most (with annual generation of 126 GWh) and Lukovo Pole (with annual generation of 160 GWh). Plans for Boškov Most included a 108-foot-high dam, a five-mile tunnel, and new roads. Lukovo Pole included a 230-foot-high dam, a 12-mile pipe system, and new roads. Funding for Boškov Most was secured via a $65 million loan from the European Bank of Reconstruction and Development (EBRD). Lukovo Pole’s $70 million investment was through the World Bank.

A biologist-turned-advocate

A biologist by training, Ana Colovic Lesoska, 39, was motivated to protect North Macedonia’s environment and engage her fellow citizens in the process. She is the director and founder of the Eko-Svest Center for Environmental Research and Information. Eko-Svest, founded in 2002, works to safeguard North Macedonia’s national parks and cultural heritage from large infrastructure projects, encourage citizen participation in the country’s national energy strategy, and promote sustainable transport, waste management, and energy sources. Colovic Lesoska is also affiliated with Bankwatch, which investigates public financial institutions’ investments in development projects.

Using every available tool

Colovic Lesoska learned of the projects in the summer of 2010 and immediately began collaborating with other North Macedonian NGOs and environmental law activists in what became known as the “Save Mavrovo” campaign.

In November 2011, Colovic Lesoska filed a complaint with EBRD, alleging that the bank had violated four of its own policies—including failing to properly assess the biodiversity of the area—prior to approving financing for Boškov Most. In November 2011, she traveled to London to a meeting of the EBRD’s board of directors and presented each member with North Macedonian coins featuring the image of the lynx. At the EBRD annual meeting, she and Bankwatch colleagues also distributed stuffed animals in the form of lynxes with tags such as “Hug me, I’m endangered” and “Don’t jinx the lynx.”

Meanwhile, Colovic Lesoska kept up her activism, urging ambassadors of countries with representatives on the EBRD board to reject funding for the hydropower projects. She helped organize public protests and launched a petition asking the North Macedonian government, the EBRD, and the World Bank to shut down the projects; the petition gathered nearly 100,000 signatures. While seven months pregnant, she went door to door in the villages near Mavrovo informing locals about the impacts of the projects.

To elevate the issue to an international stage, in 2013, Colovic Lesoska submitted a complaint to the Bern Convention on the Conservation of European Wildlife and Natural Habitats. In December 2015, the Bern Convention found that the projects “could have a decisive negative impact on the lynx and as currently planned, should be abandoned.” It also instructed the EBRD and World Bank to “suspend the financing of dam projects in the Park” and the North Macedonian government to “suspend all hydro dams foreseen in Mavrovo National Park.”

Reaction from the World Bank was swift: In December 2015, the bank withdrew its funding commitment to Lukovo Pole. In May 2016, a North Macedonian court upheld a legal complaint against the Boškov Most project and annulled its environmental permit. With pressure mounting, the EBRD canceled its loan for the Boškov Most project in January 2017. If North Macedonia chooses to restart the projects, it would be in direct violation of the Bern Convention—and could jeopardize its chances for accession to the EU.

Colovic Lesoska’s use of grassroots activism and international legal mechanisms cut off the financial lifeline for the hydropower projects. Despite threats to her safety from the North Macedonian government and ELEM, she protected North Macedonia’s oldest national park and stood up for the critically endangered Balkan lynx.

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