For years, life in Breza in Bosnia has revolved around its coal mine, but the global shift from fossil fuels to renewables threatens the industry that was once the pride of Communist Yugoslavia.
Armel Jekalovic and other miners, once hailed as local heroes who brought in stable incomes, now fear theirs will be the last generation to make a living from Bosnia’s coalfields.
“This situation around the energy transition worries us,” said Jekalovic, 36, who oversees mine operations northwest of Sarajevo.
“Production is steadily declining, as is the number of employees. People do not feel safe and are looking for an alternative.
The recent COP26 agreement in Glasgow saw nations pledge to “gradually reduce” the use of coal, one of the world’s major sources of pollution.
Experts predict that none of Bosnia’s 11 remaining coal mines will remain operational for decades to come as ecological pressure increases and the country seeks to clean up as it courted EU membership.
The Breza mine employs 1,100 people, supporting more than 70% of the 14,000 inhabitants living in this region of central Bosnia, according to Jekalovic.
But the specter of green reforms is not the only challenge facing the industry’s workforce.
Minors often find it difficult to move on and retire due to the inability of their employers to contribute to their pensions for years.
The unpaid contributions alone represent half of the industry’s 500 million euro debt, spurring protests that have done little to improve the situation.
“The miner was once respected, he was an icon,” says Jekalovic, whose father and grandfather were both minors.
In front of the Breza mine, a statue of Alija Sirotanovic – a working-class legend whose portrait adorned Yugoslavian banknotes of the 1980s – is a throwback to a time when mining helped to forge the backbone of the Yugoslav economy.
Yugoslavian strongman Josip Broz Tito reportedly asked him what he and his comrades needed – “even bigger shovels,” he replied.
It is estimated that 2.6 billion tonnes of exploitable coal reserves could provide the poor Balkan country with energy independence for more than a century, experts say.
But Bosnia, which hopes to one day join the European Union, has pledged to switch to renewable energy sources by 2050.
Strengthening its green credentials is seen by observers as one of the many steps the government will need to take to become a viable candidate for EU membership.
Bosnia has repeatedly pledged to reduce its dependence on fossil fuels, including adopting the Sofia Declaration which pledged to strive to become “climate-friendly societies in accordance with the Paris Agreement”.
“The coal industry will likely be extinct in the next 10 to 20 years. It’s reality. It does not depend on politics, it is purely economic, “Denis Zisko, analyst at the Center for Ecology and Energy, told AFP.
Like other green energy advocates, Zisko argues that market forces will lead to the demise of the coal industry, especially in Bosnia where it is heavily subsidized to offer “unrealistically low” prices to consumers.
But Edin Delic, professor at the Faculty of Mines and Geology of Tuzla, believes that the country is committing “recklessly” to make a transition on an unsustainable schedule.
Bosnia’s carbon emissions are tiny compared to larger countries, with its mines producing just 13 million tonnes of coal per year, compared to China’s 11 million tonnes every day.
The sector is also an important pillar of the economy, directly employing over 17,000 people and many more in related industries.
“Bosnia is a small player on this scene but can suffer very heavy economic consequences”, explains Delic.
‘In the cold’
Dependence on coal could fuel other problems for the Balkan nation.
Two-thirds of the electricity produced in Bosnia is generated by a handful of, mostly aging, communist-era coal-fired power plants.
Plans to upgrade a power plant in northeastern Bosnia have been called into question following the withdrawal of US conglomerate GE as companies reconsidered their investments in coal.
For those who have dedicated their lives to mining, leaving work will not be easy.
Miners are well aware that “decarbonization is the global choice,” says Sinan Huskic, president of a leading union in Bosnia.
“We are ready for a serious and organized response. We will not let ourselves be neglected, ”he adds.