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The Goldman Environmental Prize: an interview with recipient Maida Bilal

  • Written by  Geographical
  • Published in Water
Maida Bilal Maida Bilal Goldman Environmental Prize
17 Jun
Maida Bilal risked all to prevent contractors building a dam on the river near her home in Bosnia Herzegovina

The Goldman Environmental Foundation has announced six recipients of the 2021 Goldman Environmental Prize, the world’s foremost award for grassroots environmental activists. Among them is Maida Bilal (39) from Bosnia and Herzegovina.

Maida 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 (there are 436 mini-hydropower projects built, planned, or under construction across Bosnia and Herzegovina alone) threatens to irreversibly damage thousands of miles of pristine rivers. Most of these projects are small, producing only 1MW-5MW of energy, yet they have the potential to alter wild river ecosystems by forcing free-flowing waterways into large concrete pipes, leaving riverbeds dry and significantly disrupting crucial habitat for riverine species. 

resze Maida Bilal Photo Goldman Environmental Prize 08 scaledMaida Bilal and other activists on the bridge where they blocked construction equipment [Goldman Environmental Prize]

In early July 2017, Maida and her fellow 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 blockade continued for 503 days, with the group – now mostly made of up women – occupying the bridge 24 hours a day in eight-hour shifts. At dawn on 24 August, 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. 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’.

Maida Bilal Photo Goldman Environmental Prize 07 scaledKruščica, a village of 2,500 people in the mountains 40 miles west of Sarajevo, where Maida and her family has lived for generations. Her brother was killed in the brutal Balkans War at the age of 18 [Goldman prize]

Bilal launched a grassroots campaign to save the river while still completing her shifts on the bridge. She co-founded Eko Bistro citizens’ association in December 2017, organised 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.

We caught up with Maida to hear more. 

Geographical: Hi Maida. I'd be interested to find out what made you feel so strongly that you didn't want these dams built on the Kruščica river?

Maida: I grew up in my village, Kruščica, and all of my memories of childhood and growing up are connected to the river. This is where I learned to swim, this is where I spent countless nights waiting for the sun to come up. I have felt love from the river and I felt it was just the right thing to do – to fight save it.

Geographical: We've written a few times about the growth of hydropower plants and dams in the Balkans. Were you aware of this growing issue?

Maida: Of course, I had read media stories and various investigative reports printed in the press. I was aware that dams and mini hydropower plants are happening across the Balkans on wild rivers and so it was just a matter of time until it would start happening in Bosnia and Herzegovina. And aside my love for the river, it's just the fact that those mini hydropower plants are very damaging to the drinkable water that we have here. I'm also aware that only one individual will benefit from this power plant while the local communities are devastated. That was actually the key reason that influenced my decision to join the fight, not only for the river in my village but all rivers in Bosnia and Herzegovina.

Maida Bilal Photo Goldman Environmental Prize 06 scaledThe Kruščica River [Goldman Environmental Prize]

Geographical: How did you start the campaign and how did you gather support?

Maida: It was actually very spontaneous. We were aware of what was happening and information was being shared through the social networks so we were following the developments and the whole community just came together. What maybe contributed to this very spontaneous, very fast, reaction, was that for years now we have witnessed nature beining destroyed. A part of the mountain where this river starts from has already been devastated by the cutting of the trees. Our logic was: they have destroyed the forest, they have destroyed the woods. Now they want to destroy the river as well. And actually that was a very painful realisation and that was basically the reason why we decided to use ourselves, use our bodies, to protect the river. 

Geographical: You decided to block the bridge yourselves. When the developers came it must have been intimidating.

Maida: It was a terrifying event and it's not something I remember fondly.

Geographical: How hopeful were you that you would succeed? Did you think that you could stop them? 

Maida: Well, in the beginning, we thought that our words and our reasoning would be enough. The whole community was trying to have friendly conversations, to reason with the developers, because we really feel for this river. It means so much to us. I have to say, we did not expect such a brutal attack.

Geographical: Your group was made up of many women, can you tell us a bit more about that. 

Maida: Of course, the focus is on women but we had men with us, we were all together, it's only that us women kind of took over and led the whole thing. So we are very thankful for our fathers, for our neighbours, for our brothers, who were an amazing support to us during those times and who were trying to keep us secure and safe to the extent that they could. We were all exposed to the same pressure and the same influences, and it was so much easier that we were able to share this pressure among ourselves. 

Maida Bilal Photo Goldman Environmental Prize 10 scaledMaida shares a traditional Bosnian coffee with Tahira Tabolt, a friend and fellow activist. Maida had no previous background in environmental activism and made a living working part-time in financial administration and with the support of her family  [Goldman Environmental Prize]

Geographical: Given the 2018 decision not to allow the dam to be built, how do you feel about the campign now?

Maida: So we have won a few battles, but the war is still ongoing. We have the court fights ahead of us now. I'm happy and proud. As long as we are there and we are present those dams will not be built. But we are very much aware that we still have quite a few things to do ahead of us. What I'm really thankful for is that, as you say, it has taken a long time and it is still ongoing,  but as time passes we only get more encouragement and more support. This is actually what gives me hope, that our big family just keeps growing and that we will save the rivers. 

I would like to thank you for taking the time to talk to me. We really are very thankful and very excited to be recognised and to receive this amazing award. We hope we will serve as an inspiration for everyone around the planet who's fighting against the pollution of water, of air, of land and those protecting the forests and rivers.

The Goldman Prize was founded in 1989 in San Francisco by philanthropists and civic leaders Rhoda and Richard Goldman. 

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