Saving Lake Nula: Postindustrial Natures and Environmentalist Imaginaries in Postwar Bosnia Herzegovina

Larisa Kurtovic and Yanna Jovic

This ethnographic photo essay with an accompanying presentation is based on a collaborative research project between Yanna Jovic, a 4th year student of Conflict Studies and Human Rights at the University of Ottawa and Larisa Kurtovic, Assistant Professor of Anthropology at University of Ottawa. 
In 2018, an activist campaign in the central-Bosnian town of Vareš successfully challenged the EU-sponsored ¡Vamos! Program’s plan to test underwater mining equipment in a nearby lake “Nula” that formed out of the pit of the now-defunct coalmine “Smreka.” ¡Vamos! and its local partners claimed that this project might bring back jobs to this deindustrialized and depopulated part of Bosnia-Herzegovina. But the project’s opponents focused on potential environmental hazards this kind of testing, pointing to the murky ethics of bringing experimental technology to a poor country with weak environmental regulations. Both groups sought to position themselves in relation to the town’s history and present-day predicaments. Vareš was once infamous for its high levels of pollution caused by the local steelworks and the iron mine, but those activities came to a halt with the start of the 1992-1995 Bosnian War. During this time, the natural environment began to recover, and in some cases, overtake the industrial ruins of the steelworks itself. The newly-formed lake became a recreational area, enjoyed by swimmers, fishermen, and picnickers. Hence, this reclaimed nature became central to the hoped-for economic revitalization of the region via ecological and rural tourism.
This photo essay seeks to capture the history of this lake and its unexpected transformation from a postindustrial ruin into a recreational, green landscape–a proverbial zone of “nature.” We nest the site of the pit mine lake into a long history of mining, extraction and industrial production, while simultaneously asking: What happens when postindustrial natures become a site of environmentalist concern? And how does the postindustrial reality shape environmental imagination?