Lejla Kusturica sits in front of the camera and starts to get ready. Dangerously competent and ready for action, she’ll be addressing the Bosnian public and government on one of the top media channels in the country in less than an hour. She’s in the peak of her campaign against small hydro-powerplants, and is known as the woman that gets things started. But first, she has a workshop to hold.
As an activist and executive director of the Atelier for Community Transformation, she can be found anywhere change needs to happen—which means that our workshop, with people from all over the world and different backgrounds, was the perfect stage for her to talk about grassroot activism and the protection of natural resources. With her own background as a graduated jurist, Lejla’s fields of social action span from environmental protection, to social rights, to youth entrepreneurship.
She refuses to define herself as an activist for a specific cause, but rather, an activist for life. “I believe in a world that might happen and I’m ready to fight for it,” Lejla says. “I’ve left Bosnia six times, and I’m in Sarajevo now… you can connect the dots, but I always come back home.”
Bosnia’s political complexity—or better said, political distress—is partially what fuels Lejla to keep fighting. ACT is a platform Lejla is part of, and was recently founded to unify the Bosnian people in a common goal: having Bosnia progress as a country, as well as a society. However, ACT is not inherently an environmental platform. It exists to support grassroot activism across Bosnia, especially those movements that fight to build harmony.
“The founder of ACT was a strong supporter of what we call ‘river activists’,” Lejla says. “So, naturally, the first thing ACT supported was this group of activists, who put their lives on the line every day in order to protect the rivers in Bosnia and Herzegovina.”
What makes this so symbolic is that rivers connect people. Bosnia has 244 rivers, and most are lush with wild and diverse nature. But immoral investors and corrupted politicians are sweeping in to purchase these rivers, and these acts are putting local communities at risk. “People divided by ethnicity lines, war lines… rivers have no borders,” Lejla continues. “They have power to connect people.”
Unfortunately, energy transition attempts in Bosnia have widely been met with even higher levels of corruption. One infamous project that received government backing was the mass construction of 450 small hydro-powerplants, which would have supposedly been enough to provide 80% of needed electricity. Instead of producing clean energy and new jobs after the Bosnian war, the movement resulted in a catastrophic disappearance of small rivers.
“This is important,” Lejla says, dismayed at her own story. “We’re talking about a whole agriculture depending on a river, an ecosystem around it. Major rivers have been destroyed after the Second World War due to the construction of massive powerplants, but we’re talking about smaller creeks with clean and drinkable water. We’re talking about the communities who live off that water falling apart.”
Eventually, the communities fought back. There have been local groups actively protesting construction and protecting rivers since 2010, and Lejla has been to as many as possible. These powerplants are still in construction, ten years later, but these communities are rising up with just as much passion and anger as the start.
“Something we have now is data,” Lejla says. “As of right now, there are 114 small hydro-powerplants in Bosnia. 110 of those are active. And the energy made from those 110 powerplants, which make up almost a quarter of the initial plan—which, remember, the plan was 450 plants for 80% of our energy needed—those 110 powerplants have generated 2.2% of our energy in 2020.”
Lejla finishes the workshop by explaining her theory on why such a decline was possible. She jokes that red flags in Bosnia are more like red dots, and that with youth leaving Bosnia as soon as possible, the level of mismanagement the people are willing to accept is astronomical. “At least it’s not the war,” Lejla says grimly. “At least there’s no bombs. If you live here, you wake up every day asking yourself, why am I not in the street? Why am I not demanding my rights? So why aren’t we?”
This passive mentality is no longer acceptable. It is up to the people of Bosnia now to rise up and demand just treatment, not just of humans, but of the precious natural resources this country still has.