The five-day meeting of members of the largest ecological network in the world, Friends of the Earth, organized by Center for Environment and colleagues from FoE Europe, whose goal was to exchange experiences and plan further joint activities of the network in the fight to preserve rivers and biodiversity, ended today in Banja Luka.
Part of the meeting was devoted to the issue of the harmful impact that the construction of hydroelectric power plants has on rivers and water, not only in the Balkans but also in the world, and the participants were addressed by Sunčica Kovačević and Sara Tuševljak, who are part of the informal citizens’ initiative “Stop the construction of small hydroelectric power plants on Kasindolska river” and the Coalition for the Protection of the Rivers of Bosnia and Herzegovina, which are exposed to pressure and lawsuits from investors due to their fight against the construction of a small hydroelectric power plant.
These are so-called SLAPP lawsuits (strategic lawsuits against public participation), which are a particularly dangerous social phenomenon and their main goal is to intimidate and demonstrate financial power.
On this occasion, the gathered activists supported Sunčica and Sara, and Hemantha Withanage, president of Friends of the Earth International who comes from Sri Lanka, said that it is the duty of the whole world to save these activists who are fighting for the rights of nature and future generations.
“Our duty and responsibility is to protect them”
“The SLAPP lawsuit is one way for investors to harass, censor, and ultimately silence local activists. This is an unacceptable process of filing a lawsuit against environmental activists. When Sara and Sunčica acted against this project, they were protecting nature, protecting the rights of other living organisms, and the rights of other people. Our duty and responsibility is to protect them, because they acted not for their personal benefit, but for the rights of nature and for intergenerational equality. Younger and older generations must support them,” said Hemantha Withanage and noted that the future of this planet depends on activists like Sara and Sunčica.
Daniel Ribiero from Friends of the Earth Mozambique pointed out that they are doing something very brave and selfless that carries a lot of risk, and that they are not doing it for themselves, but for all of us.
“Cases like this (SLAPP lawsuits) often involve minority groups, vulnerable groups, and that’s why you often see women and youth in them, because they seem like easy targets. But this is a mistake, because they underestimate the strength in today’s youth and in women. I admire the courage of these activists. I have visited some of the rivers in BiH and they are among the most beautiful rivers I have seen, and I have visited many of them. This is something we should admire and we should support the activists who save the rivers for all of us. I am grateful that I got the opportunity to be here and give my voice of support”, said Daniel Ribiero.
“The only way to fight for our rights is to act together and in solidarity”
Sunčica Kovačević, the president of the informal group of citizens “Stop the construction of MHE on Kasindolska rijeka”, pointed out that their struggle is unimaginable, and that the proceedings against her and Sara by the Belgian investor put a great challenge in front of them, but that the support they receive from Bosnia and Herzegovina and the whole world facilitate the whole process.
“A total of three lawsuits were brought against me and Sara, two against Sara, one against me, and last year we also received two warnings against new lawsuits after the organization of the photo exhibition “Two Years of Struggle for the Kasindol River”. The preliminary hearings in our court proceedings were completed this week and we do not expect the main hearing before September. We believe that the aim of these lawsuits is not to protect the legal interests of investors, but rather to intimidate, silence and deter us from further action. In our struggle, the support we had from networks of organizations, the Coalition for the Protection of the Rivers of BiH, Eco BiH, and now from Friends of the Earth meant the most. In a society like this, where there are pronounced and unequal power relations and where we try to replace the lack of democracy and the rule of law with pressure, and where we see that decisions and even laws are made not in the general interest but in the interest of small groups, the only way to fight against such injustices and for our rights is to act together and in solidarity. I am grateful that through this challenging and difficult period for Sara and I, we can witness togetherness and solidarity, and I am really glad that I am here today,” said Sunčica.
When it comes to pressures on activists and the fight against harmful projects on rivers, both Daniel Ribiero and Hemantha Withanage pointed out that hydropower plants are killing rivers and biodiversity, and that activists around the world face similar problems and pressures as activists in Bosnia and Herzegovina.
“If we remain silent, then we are also accomplices in crime”
“Not only in BiH, and in my country, we fight against dams, small hydroelectric plants, large hydroelectric plants, micro hydroelectric plants, because they kill our rivers and destroy biodiversity. The fish don’t live in the river, they go to the ocean and then return to the river to spawn and that’s how they get young and maintain the population. If we block those rivers, we definitely stop those migrations, and the whole biodiversity is destroyed. That’s why people fight against dams, it doesn’t matter if it’s a big, small or micro hydroelectric plant, they all destroy biodiversity. In my country, we have dozens of fights against such dams, members of Friends of the Earth International from various countries, e.g. India, Nepal, Bangladesh, Guatemala, Mozambique, and many other African, Asian and Latin American countries are fighting against these dams. This is an important fight for us, because if we destroy these rivers, there will be nothing left for future generations,” said Hemantha Vintage.
Daniel Ribiero said that it is very difficult to understand the negative impact of dams, and that unfortunately we learn about them when it is too late and that there is always much more bad influence than we could have predicted.
“When activists stand up and protect ecosystems, you have to stand with them, especially when they try to silence them. If we remain silent, then we are also accomplices in crime. That’s why we need to raise our voice and support the people who are fighting for the truth, for these ecosystems and for life. This is very important and I hope that more people will start raising their voices”.
“This is the fight of all activists and we will persevere!”
Jelena Ivanić from Center for Environment said that solidarity in the network and solidarity of activists in general is very important, because it shows that we are not alone in the fight for the rights of nature and the fight for basic human rights.
“In addition to the fact that this meeting is strategically important to us, we wanted to take advantage of the presence of international organizations in order to provide special support to our young activists. For years, we have been pointing out the problems that small hydropower projects cause to nature, the economy and local communities in our country, and we will never give up the fight to protect our rivers. This is the fight of all activists, not only Sara and Sunčica, and we are here to support them as much as possible, to win together and to show investors and everyone that we are fighting for the right thing and that we will persevere in it”.
As part of the meeting, a visit to the Pecka Visitor Center was organized, to the sources of the Sana River and the Prizren Grad canyon, where the Center has been conducting a series of activities in cooperation with the local organization Greenways for years.
Center for Environment has been a member of the Friends of the Earth network since 2015