A silver mine revives neglected Bosnian town

By Thomson Reuters Apr 16, 2024 | 3:08 AM

By Daria Sito-Sucic

VARES, Bosnia (Reuters) – After five years abroad, Anto Marcic has returned to his village near the town of Vares in Bosnia and Herzegovina and opened a transportation firm that is flattening a new mountain road connecting to neighboring settlements.

He is one of many who have returned to the area in the last two years after the development of a new silver, lead and barite mine, reviving an area once hit by war and economic decline.

“There is no place like home,” said Marcic, 25.

Vares is bucking the trend in the Balkans, which has long been hit by falling birthrates, political instability and mass emigration. It also offers hope to other communities in the mineral-rich region where resources like renewable energy remain largely untapped – although some in Vares have raised environmental concerns.

The town, which sits in a steep valley surrounded by forested hills, had been in decline for years. The ruins of an old steel mill at its entrance was long a sign of a more productive past. Its population shrank by two thirds after the Bosnian war in the 1990s.

Then U.K.-based Adriatic Metals began developing the mine seven years ago and after $250 million of investment started production last month, the first such mine to open in Europe in over a decade.

Now wooden cottages are being built by the river. Shops and bakeries have opened and restaurants are full on weekends. Adriatic Metals built a new road and renovated a railway to reduce the town’s isolation.

Unemployment has nearly halved and the kindergarten, which two years ago was slated for closure, now has a waiting list, said Mayor Zdravko Marosevic.

“Nothing is the same in Vares today compared to five-six years ago,” he said.

Marcic spotted an opportunity. After years in the United States and Germany, he suspended his dream of opening a cattle farm, bought a bulldozer and a truck and is working on a new road.

“The town is more lively, one can see that people are happier, more positive, socialise more. Before when you walked in downtown Vares around 4-5 p.m. there was nobody in the street,” he said.

The Rupice mine employs nearly 300 people directly and is expected to create $430 million of annual exports to Europe, said Adriatic Metals CEO Paul Cronin.

But not everyone is happy.

Environmental activists in the town of Kakanj, downstream of Vares, complain that it is destroying biodiversity and polluting drinking water. Prosecutors in the Zenica-Doboj canton have filed criminal complaints against the company for illegally cutting timber to build the road to the mine.

Cronin admitted the company made mistakes with tree cutting but denies responsibility for water pollution. He said the company conducts daily analyses.

“We will work with the Kakanj community to help them address community concerns,” he said.

(Reporting by Daria Sito-Sucic; editing by Edward McAllister and Angus MacSwan)