A group of French peacekeepers rafting on a sunny October day through the spectacular gorge of the Neretva river are among the last of many tourists before the cold, rainy season.
GLAVATICEVO, Bosnia A group of French peacekeepers rafting on a sunny October day through the spectacular gorge of the Neretva river are among the last of many tourists before the cold, rainy season.
But aficionados of the rushing, emerald green river wedged between the rocky Dinaric mountains say it may lose its appeal if authorities proceed with controversial plans to build four hydropower plants on the Neretva's upper stream.
Rich in rivers, wooded mountains and breathtaking landscapes, Bosnia wants to develop both power generation and tourism to help it offset the loss of communist-era heavy industry and reform the economy after the 1992-95 war.
Plans to build new power plants on rivers have already irked communities across Bosnia, but nowhere is the clash between the two visions more polarised than on the Neretva.
Rafters, fishermen and trekkers say the project offers doubtful economic benefits and would harm tourism and endanger nature in one of Bosnia's most attractive locations.
"This is a precious gem we have here but they want to destroy it," said Amir Variscic of the Zeleni-Neretva (Greens-Neretva) group, which is part of a growing activist movement opposed to the plan.
The plan's backers say its opponents exaggerate the environmental impact of the 922 million Bosnian marka ($604 million) project.
They argue the plan is the only hope for recovery for the impoverished town of Konjic -- home to about 15,000 people where several socialist-era factories stand looted and abandoned -- and the surrounding area.
The 225-km (140-mile) river, which empties into the Adriatic Sea, flows through Mostar beneath a replica of the historic white-marble Old Bridge from the Ottoman era, built in 2004 after being hit by Croat artillery in the 1992-95 war.
The river already supports four big socialist-era power plants between Konjic -- just below the rafting route -- and Mostar.
The new dams would be built upstream from the 15-km (10 mile) rafting stretch but rafters say the daily regime of closing and opening them would make the sport all but impossible.
They argue the dams would make the river, one of the world's coldest and purest, even chillier, raise pollution and pose a danger for fish.
MADE FROM NOTHING
Campaigner Variscic said nobody objects to plans to build 30 small plants without dams on Neretva's tributaries. "With big plants it simply won't be the same river. Can't they leave part of it untouched for us to enjoy?"
Rafting tours have brought some economic relief to Konjic since restaurant owner Teofik Niksic and others started the runs down the river. About 10,000 tourists have come this year, including many on a day trips from Croatia's Adriatic coast.
"We have made this out of nothing, from pure enthusiasm and with no help," Niksic said at his restaurant, where guests feed on plates of traditional grilled meat after an exhausting trip.
"Now the authorities are getting involved, but in the wrong way," he said.
The Bosnian energy company Intrade-Energija, which has offered to build three of the plants and transfer them to the state after 30 years, says the objections are unfounded.
"We have designed smaller dams that take care of all natural and tourism concerns," director Emir Avdic said, adding the company had scaled down an ambitious 1980s socialist-era plan.
He said the latest plans include a low dam, to help create whatever water conditions the rafters want.
The government of the Muslim-Croat federation has yet to give the final go-ahead for the project, awaiting environmental and other studies.
The same applies for the Serb Republic, Bosnia's other region, which would have to approve the fourth plant closest to Neretva's source, to be built by the Serb Republic power company.
But some in Glavaticevo, a village on the river just below the site of the smaller plant, support the project in the hope that it will generate jobs.
"If they don't build these plants, the young will leave and this village will die because we earn nothing from tourism and rafters," said Sabina Jazvin, who owns a run-down restaurant.
The Konjic municipality has backed the project, provided all environmental concerns have been addressed and it gets a share of profits during the concession as well as an ownership stake once the state takes over the hydro plants.
Rafter Niksic is not convinced. Sitting in a cafe overlooking the swirling river, he pointed to the muddy currents created by the construction of a bridge nearby.
"They say they would protect the environment too, but look at this and imagine how the Neretva would look after several years of construction," he said.