For years, residents of several villages at the foot of Mount Tušnica have been fighting to preserve the only access to drinking water from the "Pašinac and Vrtli" springs and to prevent the destruction of the Mandek stream, the environment, and local infrastructure. They fear for their drinking water due to the concession granted for the exploration and exploitation of mineral resources. Initially held by the company "Dže-Co" d.o.o. Livno, the concession was transferred to the "Lara-Natural" d.o.o. Livno in 2018. With the change of investors, there is also a change in the drilling site, moving from Poljana to Krivića Vrtli, in close proximity to three drinking water sources.
Residents and the informal citizen group "Protect the Mandek Springs" claim that all the mentioned activities have been done unlawfully.
NUMEROUS IRREGULARITIES SINCE THE FIRST CONTRACT
Authorities in Livno turned a blind eye to the report of the working body of the Government of Canton 10 from 2021, which identified a series of irregularities in the entire process leading to the issuance of the first concession and everything that followed.
According to the documentation in possession of Žurnal, just two days after the company "Dže-Co" submitted a request in April 2006 for the acceptance of the proposal for the concession for the exploration and exploitation of mineral resources for industrial purposes, the Ministry of Economy provided an opinion on the justification of that request, and the Government of Canton 10 accepted it. In early July 2006, "Dže-Co" was granted the exploration of mineral resources, and deadlines for specific activities were established. However, deadlines were missed, and the resolution expired in the meantime. Instead of terminating the contract, the Ministry satisfied a new request from "Dže-Co", leading to the expansion of the exploration area.
The working group's report emphasized that in this case, a new public discussion should have been conducted.
In August 2020, confirmation of mineral resource reserves was obtained, and three days later, the Ministry of Economy requested approval from the Municipal Council of Livno for the concession.
"The ministry, by the decision of August 23, 2010, confirms mineral resource reserves, there is no notice of the start of work, although this is an obligation defined not only by the decision but also by law. The decision is again in favour of the company Dže-Co without any evidence of meeting legal conditions, and so on", the working body's report highlighted.
In early October 2012, a concession contract for the exploitation of groundwater from a well at the Poljane location was signed between the Ministry of Economy and the company "Dže-Co". According to the contract, also in possession of Žurnal, water exploitation was supposed to start within a maximum of 36 months from the date of signing, with measures to protect the lives and health of people, the environment, and the property of others.
However, that did not happen, but despite this, the contract was not terminated. After years of inactivity, the company "Dže-Co" d.o.o. Livno submitted a request in November 2018 for the transfer of the concession to the company "Lara-Natural" d.o.o. Livno.
CONCESSION COULD NOT BE TRANSFERRED
The report of the working body emphasizes that the concession contract for the exploitation of groundwater from the well at the Poljane location does not contain all the prescribed elements of the Concessions Act. For example, it lacks provisions regarding the transfer of the concession or conditions for the extension of the concession period. In light of this, the stance of the working body is that the transfer of the concession could not have been executed.
In May 2019, the Ministry of Economy and the company "Lara-Natural" signed an annexe to the concession contract. In August of the same year, this company applied for approval of detailed research, which was granted. The City of Livno issued a location permit for additional research on November 10, 2020, and the Ministry of Agriculture, Water Management, and Forestry approved it.
"The working body does not find documentation or other evidence that the Government, as the grantor, was aware of or gave consent to the mentioned annexe to the contract. Also, other adequate and previously mentioned opinions are missing", the report of the working body emphasized.
According to Article IV of the Decision on granting consent to the transfer of the concession, which Žurnal had access to, it states that "consent to transfer is given based on the fulfilment of legal prerequisites and the absence of legal obstacles, especially due to the good financial condition of the new concessionaire-acquirer".
According to data from Akta.ba, the owners of the company Lara-Natural are Stipo Marelja and Josip Sužanj, each with an initial capital of 250 BAM, and Achaz Von Oertzen with 500 BAM. The same data indicate that in the previous year, they had no employees or income. The primary activity of Lara Natural d.o.o. is freshwater aquaculture, as highlighted by the Government's working body in its 2021 report.
The company's address is Gabrijela Jurkića Street, no number, in Livno, and an interesting fact is that six more companies are located at the same address. The owners are the same. According to data from Akta.ba, none of these companies have employees. For "Lara-Natural" d.o.o., it is stated that they had no employees or income in the previous year.
REFERENCE TO AN EXPIRED WATER APPROVAL FROM 2013
The report highlights that the Ministry of Agriculture, Water Management, and Forestry issued a preliminary water approval on April 19, 2011, with a validity period of three years. However, it expired and was not transferred to the concessionaire, even though it was the responsibility of the Ministry of Economy. Despite this, in the request submitted by the company "Lara-Natural" for the approval of detailed research, which was granted, they claim to have water approval.
By the decision of August 26, 2019, the Ministry approved detailed research, and the research area partially extended beyond the previously determined exploration, exploitation, and concession areas.
"Through a series of previously mentioned acts, there are several different apex points and coordinates, and certain points extend beyond Canton 10, even beyond Bosnia and Herzegovina, reaching above Northern Ireland. According to the Geological Research Law, detailed research cannot be conducted if regional research has not been conducted in the exploration area or if mineral resources extend to the surface", the working body determined in its report.
What is crucial, and what the authorities also ignore, is that the working body emphasized in its report that "by checking the financial condition, it was found that the concession fee was never paid into the budget of Canton 10, although the concession contract (the first one, op.a.) was signed on October 1, 2012".
The working body identified several other shortcomings. In their report, they note that the Geological Research Law stipulates that exploration activities can be carried out by companies registered for such activities and possessing appropriate professional staff. However, in the case file, there is no documentation indicating that "Dže-Co" d.o.o. Livno meets these conditions.
Our interlocutors state that the first time (when the concession was granted to Dže-Co), the public discussion was held in secret, and the second time it did not happen at all. Residents claim that the concessionaire never installed a sign indicating the start of work, which, according to the law, they were obligated to do.
"It can be assumed that this company could not submit or obtain approval from the Ministry for the granted exploration works", highlighted the report.
The working body concluded that this concessionary matter, with incorporated approval procedures for exploration, was not conducted in accordance with regulations, with numerous errors, omissions, and unclear, insufficiently assessed, valued, elaborated, and argued positions expressed through various acts.
This report from the working body was adopted at the Government session on April 28, 2022. Despite this, the Government later decided to approve the proposed annexe to the contract and authorized the relevant ministry to sign the concession contract with "Lara-Natural", contrary to the adopted report. The Public Attorney's Office also provided a negative opinion on the proposed annexe to the concession contract with this company in a document dated December 6, 2021, stating that they believe concluding this contract in the proposed manner could have harmful consequences for the property of Canton 10.
The informal group of citizens "Protect the sources of Mandeka" has been warning for a long time about all the irregularities that occurred in the process of signing the concession contract and demanding that the authorities of Canton 10 start the process of terminating the concession contract for water exploitation.
Residents of five villages near the drilling site fear they will lose their only access to drinking water from the Pašinac, Vrtli, and Demirovac springs. They are also concerned that the Mandek stream will be destroyed due to the unprofessional and irresponsible conduct of the operations. Because of these concerns, they protested in August of last year, attempting to block the passage of heavy machinery with their bodies. They claim that the village asphalt cracked due to the passage of heavy machines, and four failures occurred on the Megdan - Krivića Gaj section, leading to ruptures.
According to their statements, damage occurred to the local stream, which was buried at two locations after unauthorized bulldozer crossings, resulting in the overflow of the stream from its bed.
They recall the situation from 2020 when the investor, to avoid them, sent a construction machine through the forest and down a steep slope, endangering the life of the driver in the process. They fear that this concession will ultimately be sold to a foreign investor.
A local resident and member of the informal citizen group "Protect the Mandek Springs", Mirko Krivić, points out that no environmental impact study, previous assessment of the environmental impact study, or environmental permit has ever been conducted. This was confirmed by the Federal Ministry of Environment and Tourism.
"They responded that the company Lara-Natural, nor the previous company, has ever approached the relevant ministry for these permits. These permits would determine whether the exploitation would endanger the source of drinking water on which households in surrounding villages depend", says Krivić.
Since the protest on August 26 of last year, during which special forces injured several residents in a scuffle, no one has appeared at the location where drilling was supposed to take place.
The informal citizen group filed criminal complaints with the Cantonal Prosecutor's Office in Livno on July 20 of this year against all individuals involved in any way in the concession for the exploration and exploitation of mineral resources for industrial purposes granted to the company Lara Natural.
The Livno Prosecutor's Office confirmed to Žurnal that the criminal complaint includes the current Minister of Economy, Dijana Puzigaća, former Minister Miloš Bauk, an official of the same ministry Mate Šiško, as well as the director and one of the founders of the company Lara-natural d.o.o. Livno, Josip Sužanj, and several other unknown individuals, on suspicion of committing the criminal offence of abuse of position.
"In the mentioned case, certain investigative actions are being carried out, the content of which we are unable to disclose as the disclosure of that content could endanger the investigation's goal", responded the Prosecutor's Office to our inquiry.
THE ASSISTANT MINISTER CONSIDERS IT A FICTITIOUS SCANDAL
The question of this concession has not been discussed before the Assembly of Canton 10 to this day. The response to our inquiry from the Ministry of Economy came from the Assistant Minister for Industry, Energy, and Mining, Mate Šiško, who our sources believe is heavily involved in the allocation of almost all concessions in Livno, including this one.
Mate Šiško denies everything and claims that there is no threat to the water source, stating that it is a fictitious scandal. According to him, this is not about using the waters of Mandek or the springs; instead, the goal is underground mineral water, which he questions whether it will be found in quality and quantities satisfying the market.
He further states that the first investor, the owner of the company "Dže-Co" d.o.o., had the support of residents and the wider community, conducted research, and later additional research conducted by an authorized company.
"He never had any objections or suspicions from residents or experts. Unfortunately, he couldn't find underground water and intended to give up. After that, his neighbour, a businessman from Berlin who is also from that area, contacted him and expressed interest in continuing the business", Šiško wrote in response to our inquiry. Elaborating on what, in his opinion, is behind all these attacks, he notes that the informal citizen group "Protect the Mandek Springs" has no evidence for their claims or expert opinions.
"It seems enough to say that the water will disappear, and there's a scandal", says Šiško.
According to him, the municipality's interest is to initiate a large ecological project with a multimillion-dollar investment that carries a lot with it. “Unfortunately, it seems that nothing will come of it because even the research cannot be carried out to determine if there is underground mineral water for exploitation. Water has not been found, but a scandal has been created. Therefore, there is no concession agreement; it is meaningless if there is no water for any reason, whether due to prohibitions or research".
We have written to the Minister of Economy, Dijana Puzigaća, several times, but she has not responded to our inquiry.
Žurnal also contacted one of the owners of the company "Lara-Natural" d.o.o. Livno, Stipo Marelja, via email, but he did not respond to our inquiry. It is worth noting that the company "Lara-Natural" d.o.o. issued a statement in September of last year, claiming that the information circulating in the public is completely untrue and manipulated.