2021 Goldman Environmental Prize winner for Europe, Maida Bilal
2021 Goldman Environmental Prize winner for Europe, Maida Bilal

Maida Bilal

2021 Goldman Prize Recipient

  • Bosnia and Herzegovina
  • Freshwater

Maida Bilal led a group of women from her village in a 503-day blockade of heavy equipment that resulted in the cancellation of permits for two proposed dams on the Kruščica River in December 2018. The Balkans are home to the last free-flowing rivers in Europe. However, a massive hydropower boom in the region threatens to irreversibly damage thousands of miles of pristine rivers. This is the first Prize for Bosnia and Herzegovina.

A rush on the rivers

After the collapse of the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia in 1991, Bosnia and Herzegovina—one of its six republics—was ravaged by a brutal war that often targeted civilians and children; peace was finally reached in 1995.

The legacy of this conflict is weak rule of law and significant corruption. Another byproduct is that the Western Balkans contain some of the most untouched wilderness in Europe, dubbed the “Blue Heart of Europe,” with largely undammed rivers and biodiversity hotspots hosting 69 endemic fish species and 40% of all endangered freshwater mollusk species. However, recent years have given rise to a dam boom in the region, with 436 mini-hydropower projects built, planned, or under construction across Bosnia and Herzegovina—and many more in the wider region. Most of these are small, producing only 1MW-5MW of energy.

Dams profoundly alter wild river ecosystems by forcing free-flowing waterways into large concrete pipes, leaving riverbeds dry and significantly disrupting crucial habitat for riverine species. Problematically, only around 2% of Bosnia and Herzegovina’s land is currently under official protection.

The Kruščica River lies within the boundaries of a protected landscape. It is the lifeline for the village of Kruščica and the main water source for about 145,000 people in two nearby towns. In 2016, the local municipality bowed to political pressure and modified its land-use plan to allow construction of two small hydropower plants on the river—Kruščica 1 (.66MW) and Kruščica 2 (.48MW). Local communities were not consulted or informed of the plans; “public hearings” on the projects were held at the home of an investor, with attendance mainly limited to members of the ruling political party.

A fighter emerges

Maida Bilal, 39, is the co-founder and president of the Eko Bistro citizens’ association, which was formed in late 2017 to fight for protection of the Kruščica River. She’s also an unpaid board member of Bosnia-Herzegovina River Coalition, representing 30 Bosnian and Herzegovinian environmental groups. Bilal was born in Zenica and raised in Kruščica, a village of 2,500 people in the mountains 40 miles west of Sarajevo, where her family has lived for generations. Her brother was killed in the war at the age of 18.

Bilal had no previous background in environmental activism and made a living working part-time in financial administration and with the support of her family.

Bridge of brave women

In early July 2017, villagers learned that heavy machinery was en route to Kruščica to begin construction of the dams. To access the dam site, bulldozers needed to traverse a small wooden bridge that connects the village to the adjacent forest and river. In an impromptu protest, Bilal and 300 other villagers—half of them women—went to the bridge to peacefully block the bulldozers’ access, knowing that violence was virtually guaranteed if only men were involved.

The protesters thought that the blockade would be short-term symbolic protest; instead, it became the key tactic to prevent construction and continued for 503 days, with the group—now mostly made of up women—occupying the bridge 24 hours a day in 8-hour shifts through heat, rain, and snow, braving bitter Bosnian winters.

At dawn on August 24, 2017, a special police unit in full riot gear attacked the seated women, including Bilal and one pregnant woman, to clear them from the bridge by force. The violent attack was filmed and widely publicized, galvanizing an outpouring of national and international support. Bilal was struck on the head and almost knocked unconscious during the attack; her 70-year-old father, who intervened to protect her, was himself beaten and then arrested. The bridge was renamed “Bridge of the Brave Women of Kruščica.”

Following the attack, the protesters were charged for violating public order and peace and assaulting a police officer, but those false charges were later dismissed.

Undeterred, Bilal launched a grassroots campaign to save the river while still completing her shifts on the bridge. She co-founded Eko Bistro in December 2017, organized community protests in the region’s capital to demand a free-flowing river, coordinated with local and global NGOs, leveraged media attention after the police attack, and enlisted the help of a lawyer to challenge the legality of the construction permits—including non-compliance with environmental laws—with villagers helping to fund the legal fees.

In 2018, in response to the protest, the local court began annulling the environmental and other permits for dam construction; however, lacking faith in the judicial system, the women continued their blockade of the bridge under Bilal’s leadership. In December 2018, the regional court upheld the decision and canceled all environmental and construction permits for the dams; the women left the bridge on December 19, 2018.

With no background in environmental activism, Bilal mobilized women in her village into an organized, strategic unit, resulting in the cancellation of all dam permits in December 2018—the first legal and community environmental victory of its kind in Bosnia and Herzegovina. What began as an impromptu attempt to protect the Kruščica River evolved into a powerful symbol of peaceful resistance—among Bosnians and Herzegovinians—in a region still recovering from the aftermath of a brutal war.

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