I’ve worked for Bankwatch, the organisation that monitors public international financial institutions such as the World Bank and the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) since 2001. Very early on we learned that these two banks were planning to support two hydropower projects in the National Park of Mavrovo. Both projects had been somewhere in a drawer since the 1980s. They were designed to be an integral part of the Yugoslavian electricity system.
We were discussing the issue when one of my colleagues from the Macedonian Ecological Society mentioned that they had just received footage from the camera traps they had placed in the area where one of these plants was supposed to be built and they had seen the Balkan Lynx. I was immediately triggered by this because it was in contrast with the policy of the EBRD which clearly stated that they would not go into critical habitats with investment of any kind. That was the moment when I thought, this is absolutely insane, and we have to stop it.
The same year, or early next year they put the first GPS collar on one of the lynxes so they could see where he was sleeping, eating, moving and drinking. He was moving exactly in the area where there would be a reservoir and where they wanted to build the dam. At that time the Balkan Lynx was not officially filed as critically endangered because the taxonomy of cats was not finalised within the IUCN, so they were still in that process. Eventually they did testing which showed that there is a genetic difference between the Eurasian lynx and the Balkan lynx, therefore it should be considered a sub-species and critically endangered. These are very timid, scared animals and they don't want human presence. Their area of movement can be 60 kilometres wide and they use the entire mountain up and down from Mavrovo. Because they have been constrained to a smaller and smaller area their population has dropped and only about 35 mature individuals remain.
When the EBRD approved the loan for the Boškov Most dam project I filed a complaint to the bank claiming that they were going against their own policies – including failing to properly assess the biodiversity of the area. I also took the map and showed it to the board of the EBRD in 2011 in London. Everyone was telling me not to bother and to give up, because the bank had already signed the contract for the loan with the government. I felt a bit alone at times. But over the next couple of years the bank worked on a compliance review which proved that it hadn’t followed its own procedures and that the environmental impact assessment study was insufficient.
The government of North Macedonia was against us all the time. We got support from nearly 200 scientists all across the world to support our claims and to show that the government’s own environmental study was rubbish. When we went to the Bern Convention with another complaint they really got pissed off. With that complaint we actually put the spotlight on the Macedonian government for not respecting international law. When we came back, there were all these articles in the newspaper saying that we were enemies of the state and collaborators with the secret service. I was also threatened inside the Ministry of Finance by one of the key people from the Ministry of Transport who said I would go to jail for going on the TV and talking about risks of government corruption.
The Bern Convention ended up coming onto the ground and writing a report. It concluded that if the dams were built, we could say goodbye to Mavrovo and say goodbye to the Lynx. That was in 2015 and that was when the World Bank pulled out. I was very happy. I went on their website and circled the world cancelled. Then the EBRD announced they were pulling out. The next day was my birthday so it was like the best birthday present ever. Every day I can go to sleep and know that Mavrovo is free of dams, and I still feel it. This is why I’m still working on it, because there are new threats because of other, smaller dams.
For North Macedonia, transition is difficult. We have to transform our entire society, from the way we use electricity, to our laws and industry. We don’t have a recycling scheme, we don’t have water purification facilities – we are stuck in the 1970s. And there is so little capacity left in our country. Most smart, well-educated, capable people left, and we have massive emigration.
But now in the energy sector things are changing. We have young people in their 30s being modellers for the sector. As a result of our involvement in this campaign, we also got involved with overall energy strategy discussions along with other NGOs. Now we finally have good scenarios on the table and the government is looking to develop new renewables and shut down coal as well.
The Goldman Environmental Prize honors grassroots environmental heroes from the world’s six inhabited continental regions. Find out more about the prize here.
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