Thanks to the lack of the Law on Forests in the Herzegovina-Neretva Canton, large areas of forest in this Canton have been ravaged for almost 15 years without any consequences. The new Government of the Herzegovina-Neretva Canton urgently needs to come to grips with the problem that the previous government avoided solving.
When in March the last year the residents of the Orašac local community in the Prozor-Rama municipality blocked the forest road to Osojnica, the forest rich in spruce, beech and fir in the mountain above Rama, the simmering problem of the absence of the Law on Forests in the Herzegovina-Neretva Canton resurfaced. The trucks of Public Company Šume Hercegovačko-neretvanske could not reach the forest because the locals blocked the passage with cars every morning. This was the case until this company, after twenty days of blockade, gave up, at least temporarily, its intention to exploit this previously untouched forest. Their request is establishing a legal framework before any felling.
A brief history of lawlessness
In 2009, the Constitutional Court of the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina declared the Law on Forests of the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina unconstitutional, and since then there has been no FBiH law on forests. After that, all cantons except the HNC passed laws on forests at the cantonal level. In this canton, there has been chaos in the field of forestry for decades, and forest exploitation is carried out by several companies instead of one, as in other cantons. Considering that during the war forest administrations were established at the municipal level or at the level of the then Croat Republic of Herceg-Bosna, the rudiments of those decisions still determine the current situation in this field. So today there are three companies that manage forests in this canton: Public Company Šume Hercegovačko-neretvanske d.o.o. Mostar, Šumarstvo “Prenj” d.d. Konjic and Šumarstvo “Srednje Neretvansko” d.d. Mostar. Although the Public Company Šume Hercegovačko-neretvanske was founded in 2005 in order to bring forest management under a single umbrella at the cantonal level, this has never been done in practice.
Let us go back to Rama now. Slavko Nović, a farmer from the village of Proslap and one of the locals who set up the blockade, led us to the forest via a broken road.
– They stole everything, only the forests remained for them to cover, he said for Naratorium, referring to politicians, while at the entrance to the forest, abandoned wood extracting machines appeared in front of us.
Twenty days have passed since the blockade was started, so the company Šume Hercegovačko-neretvanske gave up sending trucks. Nović showed us fallen trees deeper in the forest. Over 70-year-old spruces and some firs lied crooked on the ground, ready to be pulled out.
– As long as I’m alive, this will not come out of the woods, he firmly asserted.
The company asked the police to unblock the road, but their request was rejected because they did not have a logging approval.
Josip Jurišić, advisor to the mayor of Prozor Rama Municipality, Joza Ivančević, has been following this problem for years. He said that in the last three years they sent at least 100 letters to different authorities. This did not result in a major success, but at least they stopped the logging temporarily and drew attention to the problem.
– Unfortunately, firewood is not taken from here, and we as a municipality suffer because of it. There is no warehouse where citizens can legally buy firewood, so they have to buy from those who harvest wood illegally. This company (Šume Hercegovačko-neretvanske) takes high-quality wood for furniture and construction.
Trpimir Jelić, director of the Šume Hercegovačko-neretvanske, confirmed that illegal logging is a huge problem. In the 12 years that he has been head of the company, he has spent more time dealing with legal disputes than forest management. He is from the municipality with which this company has a dispute regarding the logging of wood.
– I come from Prozor, where more forest is stolen than cut down by us. One forest section, called Kučevac, had a stock of 335,000 trees and now there is nothing. The damage in that section only amounts to 65 million KM. I said that to the Government as well. “Nobody reacted”, Jelić told us in his office in Mostar. As proof of this, he showed us satellite images of different economic units.
Nevertheless, in 2021 the FBiH public defender Jakov Dujić, based on the report made by the Prozor-Rama Municipality, declared that the Šume Hercegovačko-Neretvanske company does not have any legal basis for the management and use of real estate owned by Bosnia and Herzegovina, and therefore do not have legal conditions for logging on these real estates, all this due to the lack of cantonal law.
State property registration
In neighbouring Konjic, the scale of forest theft is even greater, Amir Variščić from the Association for Environmental Protection “Zeleni Konjic” said. Variščić expressed his regret that the association did not deal with the problem of forest destruction until this year, because, as he put it, their priority was the protection of the Neretva River. Since the Association for Forests of Bosnia and Herzegovina was founded this year, including several organizations, it promised to pay more attention to the devastation of forests. The majority of residents in this city are satisfied with the chaos and lawlessness in this field, he believes.
– Many buildings are forced to use large amounts of wood, mainly for heating. In Konjic, 80 percent of people heat using wood. Thanks to this, a huge economic space opens up for shady people who abuse this situation and who illegally log trees, he said explaining to Naratorium the specificity of the problem at the local level.
Konjic is the largest municipality in the country by area, and a good part of that area is occupied by forests on Prenj. Because of this, organized crime groups have more room for theft manoeuvring. Deep in the mountains, it is more difficult to catch thieves. We received information from the HNC Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Water Management only 40 forest guards are employed at canton level, while the sufficient number would be 60. Thieves are often connected to political and police structures, our sources said.
– It is extremely dangerous to talk about this, because there is a lot of money at stake, said Variščić.
He told us one such story.
– I personally know of cases where people, hikers, found people employed in forestry working “for themselves” on weekends. The person who posted the video on social networks of one such employee works in the FBiH Prosecutor’s Office. In two days, she received over 100 threats from different phone numbers and was asked to remove the video. That person deleted the video. What would happen to someone like us who do not have anyone watching our back if we went up against that octopus, Variščić rightly asked.
However, some groups get caught in crime. Last year in April The Cantonal Court in Sarajevo filed an indictment against an organized group of 15 people for illegal logging. Among the accused are forest guards from Sarajevo Canton and Herzegovina-Neretva Canton. The majority of forest thefts are carried out on the borders of cantons and entities, because that is where the police are least present.
This is only one aspect. Although on the website of the Šume Hercegovačko-neretvanske it is stated that Šumarija Konjic is an organizational unit of this company, in reality this forest service does not even exist.
Director Jelić admitted that this company has never entered the forests in Konjic. Instead of the cantonal company, forests in Konjic are managed by Šumarija “Prenj”, which is not a public company but a joint-stock company. According to the FBiH Securities Register, the City of Konjic has 51 percent ownership in this company, while the rest of the shares are held by private companies or individuals. The largest share among private individuals is held by the Closed Investment Fund “Bonus” Sarajevo. Not only are the forests not managed by a public company, but the Šumarija “Prenj” has been illegally registering state property, i.e. forests, on itself for years, claimed Jelić while showing us excerpts from the land registry in support of his claims.
– This company (Šume Hercegovačko-neretvanske) currently has nine appeals before the Constitutional Court. So, the courts do not respect the decision of the High Representative on the prohibition of disposal of state property and register the property to companies that do not have a status and which are registered for services in forestry. This is done by the cantonal court and municipal courts. Last year, Forestry “Prenj” and Forestry “Srednje neretvansko” registered that they are one the two owners. Crime! Literally crime. This is a parastate, he was explicit.
– If the Constitutional Court rejects appeals to register the property to the state, then all the talk about Milorad Dodik loses its meaning, he added.
The 2016 financial audit report confirmed that Forestry “Prenj” does not operate within illegal frameworks:
– The company operates in the absence of laws on forests, both FBiH and cantonal, which is why it manages forests without a forestry basis and projects for the execution of works approved by the FBiH Ministry of Agriculture, Water Management and Forestry. For 2015 and 2016, the company adopted Annual Forest Management Plans, which were approved by the Konjic Municipality Council, with the following conclusion: The Municipal Council of the Municipality of Konjic does not have the authority to approve Forest Management Plans, bearing in mind that forests are a natural resource owned by the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina, and that they can only be managed on the basis of a contract signed with the Cantonal Ministry of Agriculture, Water Management and Forestry on the transfer of tasks. management of state forests, as regulated in other cantons in the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina. This was stated in the report, among other things.
Who is blocking the passing of the law?
Almost the entire period since the suspension of the FBiH forest law, HDZ’s Donko Jović has been head of the HNC Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Water Management. He was a minister from 2011 until November this year, when a new government was elected after nine years, in which SDA and HDZ remained, and SDP joined. At the time of research for this article, Jović declined to speak directly with us. Instead, we got answers from his office. Among other things, we asked him what this Ministry did to pass the new law. The Cantonal Assembly has tasked the Ministry several times to proceed with the adoption of the draft law. The service confirmed that all forestry companies/enterprises in this canton are operating illegally.
– During 2021, the Forestry Inspection of the HNC Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Water Management filed criminal charges against Forestry “Prenj” d.d. Konjic, Forestry “Srednje Neretvansko” d.d. Mostar and the Forestry Company “Šume Hercegovačko-neretvanske” d.o.o. Mostar due to illegal logging in the area of the municipalities where the mentioned companies are logging. The HNC Prosecutor’s Office has informed the Ministry that no investigation would be conducted against the aforementioned forestry companies.
In the reply, it is stated that this Ministry has prepared several times the Draft Law which was not adopted. The last time this was done was last year.
– At the 144th session of the HNC Government, which was held on March 31, 2021, the subject of discussion was the Proposal of the HNC Law on Forests, resulting in the Conclusion of the HNC Government number: 01-1-02-873/21 of 31 March 2021, tasking the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Water Management to make additional alignment of the HNC Draft Law on Forests and after to submit the final Draft Law to the Government. In a letter number 08-02-1-1474/21 of 27 April 2021, Konjic Municipality sent comments and suggestions to the Ministry regarding the Proposal of the HNC Law on Forests, which was discussed at the 144th session of the HNC Government, and in a letter number: 01-22- 971/21 of 30 April 2021, Jablanica Municipality submitted comments and suggestions to the Ministry regarding the Proposal of the HNC Law on Forests. In amendments to the proposed Forest Law, the Ministry took into account most of the comments and suggestions of the abovementioned municipalities, and the latest version of the Proposal of the HNC Law on Forests was sent to the HNC Government in a letter number: 11-02-2146-2/20 of 5 September 2022.
Unofficially, the amended Law was sent to the Government and now no one knows what was done with it. When one asks government officials and employees who is blocking the law, they get a vague answer – politics. We were unable to get a concrete answer. However, one can read between the lines. Local governments are afraid of losing control over forests. Municipalities like Konjic, which are rich in forests, fear that they will be competent for their own forests in the same way as, for example, Neum, where only low-quality karst forests grow. Of course, if the canton started to manage the forests, the chances of various shenanigans that we are witnessing now would decrease. The canton’s takeover of forest management does not work for the Konjic SDA, which has ruled the city since the independence of Bosnia and Herzegovina, and the City of Konjic has 51 percent of ownership of Forestry “Prenj”.
Arman Zalihić, president of the Mostar SDP and a representative in the HNC Assembly, participated in the negotiations for the formation of the new HNC Government. The worn out Jović at the head of the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Water Management was replaced by a much younger party colleague, Marijo Jurica. Zalihić told Naratorium that it was emphasized in the negotiations that the new government must pass the Law on Forests. This was emphasized earlier, but the law was not passed. The complex inter-ethnic relations in the canton, further complicated by the mistrust of the local communities towards the cantonal level, will surely fuel scepticism, among those who are familiar with the situation, towards the possibility of any changes in the near future. SDP’s representative in the Cantonal Assembly pointed out that the SDA is afraid of HDZ’s dominance, that is, that HDZ would appoint the majority of staff to the public company, as they did in some cantonal agencies and institutions, after passing the Law on Forests. The SDP is trying to play the role of a mediator.
– HDZ must give up that idea of managing the forests, like it rules in some other institutes and companies in the canton. The Statutes of the company and the Law on Forests must be adopted so that everyone in the HNC is protected, including the local self-government units. On the other hand, the SDA must understand that a public enterprise must exist at the cantonal level and that we must systematically solve this problem with the Law on Forests. Now there are subtleties that have to be solved in the Law. The partners in the new government must understand that we need to protect forests through a new Law, instead of just passing the Law so that someone could gain political power or some political positions in order to manage forests in the future, said Zalihić.
A decade of pushing the problem under the rug has taken its toll. For political actors, this may seem as a sign that this is not an urgent problem, while deep in the Herzegovinian forests, far from the eyes of the public, forests are being mercilessly destroyed. The actual extent of the destruction has yet to be determined.
This text was prepared in cooperation with the Heinrich Boll Stiftung Sarajevo.