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Bosnian woman awarded 'Green Nobel' for fighting to save river

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KRUSCICA, Bosnia June 16 (Reuters) - Maida Bilal endured being beaten and harassed when she spent more than 500 days guarding the site of a planned mini hydropower plant on Bosnia's Kruscica River with a team of women from her village before the building permits were annulled.

That battle in central Bosnia may have been won back in December 2018, but she is still on the frontline in the fight against other proposed plants across the Balkan country and has now been honoured with a so-called "Green Nobel".

The 40-year-old was the named European winner of the 2021 Goldman Environmental Prize, that honours grassroots environmental pioneers from six regions around the world.

"We have defended the river for 503 days, physically 24 hours a day," Bilal told Reuters. "If needed, we'll guard her for another 5,300 days."

In the summer of 2017, the villagers prevented heavy machines from crossing a wooden bridge on the route to the building site, saying the project would ruin the environment.

She said they endured an attack by police who she says forcibly moved them for violating public peace and order.

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Maida Bilal poses for photo near Kruscica river in Vitez, Bosnia and Herzegovina June 10, 2021. REUTERS/Dado Ruvic

But they fought on, and after the permits were revoked a year and a half later, the bridge was renamed after the women.

"I lost my job, I lost my friends, my daughter was bullied in school," Bilal, a trained economist, said. "I would lie if I said it was easy, but then I did it in spite of everything. I have a daughter and don't want her as a grown up to face the same problem as her mother."

The virtual prize-giving ceremony hailed the winners: "These everyday heroes demonstrate the power of grassroots activism in the fight to protect our planet."

Following its war in the 1990s, Bosnia, known for its free-flowing mountain rivers and untouched nature, has experienced a dam boom, with 454 mini-hydropower projects built, planned or under construction.

Officials say it is part of its plan to produce more energy from green resources.

One of Bosnia's two autonomous regions, the Bosniak-Croat Federation, home to the Kruscica and the sites of the latest protests, in April proposed banning the construction of mini plants but it still needs to be approved by parliament - a process that may take years.

It has been delayed due to conflicting interests of political parties and investors connected with them.

Reporting by Daria Sito-Sucic; Editing by Alison Williams

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