Welcome to The Undark Podcast. In this episode, join Matthew Algeo and this month’s host Lacy Roberts as they detail local efforts to restore the landscape and bring new economic opportunity to a unique area in western Bosnia.
Below is the full transcript of the podcast, lightly edited for clarity. You can also subscribe to The Undark Podcast at Apple Podcasts, TuneIn, or Spotify.
Mato Gotovac: The best-case scenario is that young people don’t want to leave this place. They want to stay here and work here. Scenario in where there are jobs to be offered for them to stay. And worst case, of course … I don’t want even to think about it!
Matthew Algeo: It’s been a rough hundred years or so for Bosnia and Herzegovina. After the global depression of the late 1920s and 1930s came the Second World War, then more than 40 years of single-party rule under a Socialist government, then the Bosnian War of the 1990s. The region is still struggling to get on its feet. But in one town in western Bosnia — a town called Livno — there are glimmers of hope, economic and environmental. This is a story about sheep, and cheese, and birds, and people — especially people. Unlike so many others who have fled the region seeking opportunities abroad, these people have chosen to stay home and try to make life better — for themselves and their environment.
Lacy Roberts: This is the Undark podcast. I’m your host, Lacy Roberts. Dairy farmers on the plains of Livno in Western Bosnia once produced some of the finest artisanal cheese in Europe, made from the milk of the region’s fabled Pramenka sheep. But that all declined with the Bosnian war, the long and ugly conflict that started in 1992. Now, 26 years after the war ended, Livno’s farmers are once again making cheese the traditional way, with their herds of sheep grazing on the wide-open plains. The return of the grazing sheep is in turn restoring the region’s natural wetlands after a long period of neglect — due, largely, to the war. And the restored wetlands are attracting migratory birds back to the plains. And that’s bringing tourists — and their cash — to the region. Reporter Matthew Algeo went to Livno and prepared this report.
Matthew Algeo: The Dinaric Alps run almost all the way down the Balkan peninsula. These mountain ranges stretch from the top of Italy all the way down to Albania. Between these ranges are long, narrow valleys. Livno is a small city that sits in one of these valleys. In the local language the valley is known as Livanjsko polje — literally, Livno field.
Mato Gotovac: Next what you can see is Dinara Mountain, all this is Dinara. This peak is Kamešnica. The other one is Troglov.
Matthew Algeo: It’s a hazy early autumn afternoon, and Mato Gotovac points out the mountains that surround the polje. We’re on the front porch of his house just outside Livno. The sun sets behind the mountains on the other side of the valley. The sky is a bright red-orange. Livanjsko polje is only about 5 to 10 kilometers wide, but it’s more than 60 kilometers long. It doesn’t look that big from Mato’s porch. But the city of Philadelphia could fit in this valley. It reminds me of a smaller-scale version of America’s Mountain West, a Balkan-sized Montana. Mato has lived on the polje most of his life. He’s worked with the World Wildlife Fund and the German NGO EuroNatur on many environmental projects here.
Mato Gotovac: You have, from sand dunes, peat land from — which looks like you are in Finland. You have the birch forest, you have the meadows — you have 50 different type of the meadows depending on how elevated it is from the seasonal flooding.
Matthew Algeo: In geologic terms, Livanjsko polje is a karst field. The land is made of limestone, which is a soft, porous rock. There aren’t any surface water outflows from the valley, so snowmelt and rain flood the polje every spring, creating a massive temporary lake. Then the water slowly drains down through the limestone. It gets carried away to Croatia through a network of underground rivers and lakes. Mato says the polje’s like a giant block of ice that the water can eat away at, constantly creating new channels underground.
Mato Gotovac: So the water, rain, which is rich in CO2, is making interaction, chemical, with the calcium inside of the limestone and beginning to, what’s the word … dissolve it! So the limestone is practically dissolved in rainwater and the water is, rain, or river, are slowly, through the thousands and thousands of years, making small holes then making little bigger holes so then these holes are joining together and you get the cave and so on and so on.
Matthew Algeo: There are holes in the ground all over the polje. Geologists call them estavelles. They act as springs or sinkholes, depending on the season and the water level in the valley — or underneath it. When the polje’s temporary lake drains away each summer, what’s left behind are marshy wetlands perfect for birds, and grassy fields perfect for livestock grazing. Fish and flora thrive here too, as well as many wild animals, including wolves and wild horses. It’s an incredibly diverse ecosystem, right here in Mato’s front yard. Several bird species breed on the polje, including the corn crake, the lesser-spotted eagle, and the great bittern. As the largest wetland in Bosnia, Livanjsko polje is an important stop for birds migrating along the Adriatic flyway between Northern Europe and Africa.
Mato Gotovac: Well it’s a large pit stop for all these poor birds on the flyway. It’s a nice pit stop where they can, I mean, in most of the cases, they know they will not be disturbed in resting and feeding and even maybe somebody will stay on the spring migration to stay here. Why not. I mean, hundred years ago we had cranes here, mating here. Maybe we will have again.
Matthew Algeo: But the last few decades have been hard on the polje. Livno’s only about 30 kilometers — some 20 miles — from the Croatian border, and in the 1990s it was on the frontlines of the Bosnian War. Before the war started in 1992, Livno’s population was about 40,000. By one estimate, it’s now about half that number. Many family farms were abandoned during the war. With fewer farmers, there were fewer sheep. And without the grazing sheep, the polje began to become overgrown with bushes and trees, slowly strangling one of Europe’s most diverse ecosystems. Ashley Lyons is a conservation scientist with the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds.
Ashley Lyons: In lots of instances where you lose your domestic herbivores from grazing — so that might be cattle, it might be sheep, it might be ponies — what you end up with is the grass becoming dominant in the habitat, so you lose those wildflowers that give that diversity to semi-natural grasslands and you start to get shrub encroaches and then eventually trees and eventually what once was a semi-natural grassland becomes a woodland, so it becomes a completely different habitat. So the role of domestic grazers in this instance is to suspend those successional processes to try and prevent that grassland from becoming a woodland.
[Ambient sound of herding sheep]
Matthew Algeo: It’s a late summer day on the polje. The sky is perfectly blue. And Jozo Baković is trying to get his 200 sheep out of the sun and into the shade of some oak trees. Jozo is a short, bald man with Popeye arms. These are Pramenka sheep. They’re a hardy breed that can grow thick wool — good for Bosnia’s rugged winters. The males can weigh up to 150 pounds, hence Jozo’s Popeye arms, since he has to pick them up occasionally. Many of these sheep are marked with a bright green dot painted on their backsides. That indicates the sheep is producing milk. And this milk, as well as milk from his five cows, is what Jozo Baković uses to make cheese. With help from my interpreter Ana Marija Pervan, he tells me it’s something his family has been doing for generations.
Jozo Baković: (Speaking Croatian)
Matthew Algeo: Jozo tells me he learned to make cheese from his grandmother and his father, as well as uncles and cousins who were famous cheesemakers in Livno. Traditional Livno cheese is made from a combination of unpasteurized sheep and cow’s milk: 70 percent sheep, 30 percent cow. After the Second World War, business was good for Livno’s cheesemakers. Livno was then located in socialist Yugoslavia and the domestic market was growing. Yugoslavia’s population was more than 23 million by 1991. Fancy restaurants on the Croatian coast bought a lot of Livno cheese. But after the Bosnian War, the domestic market shrank. Before the war, some 30,000 sheep and 15,000 cows grazed the polje. By 2006, those numbers had dropped to 8,000 and 4,000. With so few sheep and cows, and a shrinking population, the tradition of making cheese was nearly dead. Then, about 15 years ago, Jozo Baković decided to do something to revive traditional cheesemaking in Livno. He also wanted to help keep the pojle’s prime grazeland from turning into a forest. So he founded a co-op for cheesemakers. He named it Cincar, after one of the mountains that towers over the valley.
Jozo Baković: (Speaking Croatian)
Jozo says the cheesemakers needed to band together to do three things: promote their product; get funding for modern equipment; and, even more importantly, get approval to sell their cheese abroad, especially in the E.U.
[Metal clanging sound]
Jozo makes his cheese inside a small cottage on his farm. There are four rooms. Each is as spotless as an operating room. A lot of the equipment was purchased with help from the Czech Republic’s development agency. Jozo shows me a big stainless steel vat called a lacto-freeze. It’s where the raw milk is refrigerated until it’s ready to be curdled. Jozo explains how it works.
Jozo Baković (Translated from Croatian): It swirls milk and it cools it down.
Matthew Algeo: The Cincar co-op now includes at least 10 small dairy farms. With more help from the Czech government, the co-op recently opened a shop in the center of Livno, where the farmers can sell their cheese.
Jozo Baković (Translated from Croatian): It matures here and then it comes here to be washed.
Matthew Algeo: After many years of navigating Bosnia’s complicated bureaucracy, the Cincar co-op recently achieved a major milestone. Their cheese received a “protected designation of origin” or P.D.O. That means only cheese made from the milk of sheep and cows from Livanjsko polje can be labeled “Livno cheese.” The co-op is still waiting for final approval to sell their cheese in the E.U., but Jozo says he’s confident that will happen — eventually. Meanwhile, the co-op’s sheep and cows have helped preserve the polje’s fragile ecosystem. The animals eat the vegetation that might otherwise overrun the polje. And that keeps the land open, preserving fields and wetlands. And that’s good for the polje’s avian population.
[sound of walking on dirt and climbing]
Matthew Algeo: A few miles north of Jozo’s pasture, I’m climbing a birdwatching stand. With me are Goran and Biljana Topić. They’re a husband-and-wife team of birdwatchers who work for Bosnia’s ornithological society Naše Ptice — literally “Our Birds.” Naše Ptice built this stand. In the spring it overlooks the polje’s massive temporary lake. But on this June day, the lake has all but disappeared underground. There’s only a small flock of heron lollygagging in a pond. Biljana points out a hole in the ground — an estavelle.
Biljana Topić: And because the view is really nice. And even now you can see this water. And this, let’s say, stone thing, is estevella. But you can see small water, like small brook water. That is coming to it and just disappearing. It is not filling the hole. Water is disappearing. So it is sinking. And now this acts as a sinkhole. But at the other part of the year, it acts like a spring.
Matthew Algeo: With Biljana translating, Goran rattles off some statistics: Of the 350 bird species reported in Bosnia and Herzegovina, he tells me 265 — 75 percent — have been spotted in Livanjsko polje.
Goran Topić (speaking Croatian, translated by Biljana Topić): During the autumn migration, there are let’s say 60,000 to 80,000 individuals of various bird species in the polje. You can see it on some days. And spring migration is even more massive and you can see more than 100,000 bird individuals.
Matthew Algeo: What makes the polje so attractive to so many birds is its remarkable variety of habitats, all in a relatively small area.
Goran Topić (speaking Croatian, translated by Biljana Topić): There is a huge water surface, Buško Lake, at the south. Then there are some big well-preserved marshland or swamp. And then huge grasslands but also big forest areas.
[sound of walking on dirt]
Matthew Algeo (on tape): Do you want me to follow you?
Biljana Topić: Yeah.
Matthew Algeo (on tape): Okay.
Matthew Algeo: After climbing down from the birdstand, Goran and Biljana take me on a tour of the polje. There’s always plenty for birdwatchers to see here. We stop at a gravel pit, so they can show me a colony of bee-eaters. These birds have dug holes into the side of the pit to build their nests.
Biljana Topić: You can see them, they are really colorful, they are like tropical birds. They have yellow and red and blue.
[sound of walking on dirt]
Goran Topić (speaking Croatian, translated by Biljana Topić): And this bird is kind of rare in the rest of Europe.
Matthew Algeo: The bee-eaters are stunning, but Goran and Biljana tell me they’re unpopular. That’s because many Bosnians are amateur beekeepers who sell honey to make a little extra money. Naturally, they’re suspicious of a bird called the bee-eater. And while the birds do eat honey bees, they also eat wasps and other insects. But Biljana still wishes the bird had a better name.
Biljana Topić: It is a really big bird with — it’s colorful, nice, interesting, charismatic bird and I think that it is shame for such a nice bird to have that evil name.
Goran Topić: (Speaking Croatian)
Biljana Topić: Yeah, maybe something like Rainbow Bird or something like that.
Matthew Algeo: In late August I met up with Goran and Biljana again. The autumn bird migration is just getting started, but already there is exciting news: A northern bald ibis with a tracking device attached to its back has just been detected nearby — the first recorded appearance of this species in the polje. The bird’s name is Clover, and Goran and Biljana are hoping to be the first to actually see him.
Biljana Topić: And we hope that we will find it today. And one hour ago we had a GPS signal from right here. No, here was two hours ago and one hour ago was like, very close to here. But now the latest one is from somewhere in the middle of the polje and it seems that the bird is moving, flying, and towards Croatia or Italy, which is good. We would like to see it but it’s better for the bird and for the science and for everybody except the two of us [laughs] and the bird will join the flock and it will be safe.
Matthew Algeo: Clover was just passing through. By the next day, he had flown across the border to Croatia. As Goran is quick to point out though, the polje’s bird count had now officially increased to 267. It’s hard to find data to confirm that birds are returning to the polje, mainly because accurate bird counts were impossible until recent years, not only because of the war, but also because of a lack of ornithologists. Goran says there are several species that were spotted on the polje before the war that have still not been spotted since. But with the increase in traditional cheesemaking and livestock grazing in recent years, there are hopes that the numbers will trend in the right direction.
Matthew Algeo: Birdwatchers are an obsessive breed, and before the global pandemic they’d started discovering Livanjsko polje’s avian riches. Visitors from across Europe, especially the U.K., were coming to the polje in small but growing numbers, eager to add to their life lists. And local entrepreneurs were eager to capitalize.
[sound of paddles in water]
Matthew Algeo: The Sturba is a lazy, shallow river that meanders across the polje before disappearing underground. It’s perfect for canoeing. Maria and Ante Perković are giving me a tour of the polje in one of their canoes. They own a company that offers guided canoe trips and birdwatching tours on the polje.
Ante Perković: We started with four canoes.
Maria Perković: Yeah, we started with only four canoes and we had like one cheap binocular. But now we have a lot of equipment. We’re always trying to make it better.
Matthew Algeo: Maria and Ante named their company Stur.ba. That’s a play on the river Sturba’s name and Bosnia’s internet domain extension, .ba. They started the company in the spring of 2020. Their timing was unfortunate.
Maria Perković: We didn’t start at the right time because everything started at the very beginning of this pandemic. But we are hoping that in the future when — without the restrictions and without these problems on the borders, that we will have more guests for birdwatching.
Matthew Algeo: Tourism in Bosnia is still in its infancy. In 2019, the last full year before Covid, Bosnia welcomed fewer than 2 million tourists. Neighboring Croatia welcomed more than 19 million. The upside of that is, the potential for growth here is huge. Especially, Maria says, from birdwatching.
Maria Perković: Here, for example, we have a lot of species that are really, like, regular here. We can see them often, that can’t be seen in England, for example, so that’s what attracts people here.
Matthew Algeo: Livno is located less than a 90-minute drive from the Croatian coast, so it’s in a good position to capitalize on tourism. But the region still faces many challenges. Bosnia’s official unemployment rate is between 15 and 20 percent. And the country still lacks infrastructure. Managing growth is another issue. And, as Mato Gotovac pointed out to me on his front porch, there’s still not even a comprehensive plan for protecting Livanjsko polje.
Mato Gotovac: All that is part of water management. You cannot do water management if you don’t know what you are managing with, to know how you will manage it you need to know where is that water. Because most of the water which fell down here in this area is underground. Not in the river, not in the lakes. It’s mostly underground.
Matthew Algeo: Mato says there’s not even a decent map that shows where the underground water flows.
Mato Gotovac: Only one complete research was done by tracers, so either by dyes or radioactive isotopes …
Matthew Algeo: So they would put a dye in the water and follow where it went?
Mato Gotovac: In the sinkhole. You put a dye in the sinkhole and you go on the other side of the mountain and check all the springs — where does it go up. Only one done, in 1961,’62, or before. Since then, no. Why we are not concerned or care to know how much water and where is that water for the future — I’m not sure.
[Marching band sound]
Matthew Algeo: To celebrate Livno’s City Day, every September 28th at 7 o’clock in the morning, the local high school marching band marches through the city. But if current trends are any indication, many of the kids in this marching band will leave Livno soon after they graduate. This is the most pressing issue, because cheesemaking and birdwatching won’t save Livanjsko polje if the people keep leaving. Even cheesemaker Jozo Baković, who has dedicated so much of his life to revitalizing the polje, was unable to convince his own children to stay.
Jozo Baković (translated from Croatian): Young people are going to Germany. My two sons went to Germany. We will start speaking German. [Laughs] All of us. There will be no more Croatian.
Matthew Algeo: But there is hope. The people who call Livno home — the people who choose to stay — are determined to find ways to make it possible for others to stay as well. Maria Perković told me one of the reasons she and Ante founded Stur.ba was so they could stay on the polje.
Maria Perković: Like maybe six years ago we were planning to leave for Germany or somewhere because we didn’t have a stable job, let’s say, so that was one of the possibilities and then we stayed here we started with this, so now that’s off the list, we’re not planning it anymore. But now we are trying to show people that there are possibilities here, that you can live here, that you can make some money here, that you can, I don’t know, take advantage of the nature here to develop something new, to make a progress, to show the world that we have so many great things.
Lacy Roberts: Hey, Matt. Thanks so much for your reporting.
Matthew Algeo: You’re welcome, Lacy.
Lacy Roberts: So tell me what drew you to look at the Livno region?
Matthew Algeo: Well, I’ve been in Sarajevo for about three years now. And, I had a friend about a year ago, went to Livno and went bird watching there and told me about it. And I hadn’t really heard anything about the bird watching there. And I thought that was interesting. And then I started looking at the story more and more and kind of, you know, peeling back the layers and then finding all these, all these connections, you know, between the bird watching and the, and the polje and the cheese and the sheep and the people and tourism and depopulation. It was one of those stories that had a lot of other stories attached to it. And I thought that was really interesting. I also was interested because, you know, most of the stories that come out of Bosnia, tend to be about the war, and, and, and about, the, you know, Srebrenica and the genocide and the ethnic conflict here, which of course is an important story. But I thought this was kind of cool. It was a different story. It was kind of a, you know, the war is a little, is a little piece of it, of course, because of the damage that the war did to the polje. But really, I thought this was a story about the people in Livno who are, who are really trying to make a difference there. And, uh, and really improve the quality of life in that part of the country. And I thought that was a story that was really worth telling.
Lacy Roberts: It really is. And you know, the story that you tell is just such a fascinating example of the way that the land is shaped by people and by agriculture. Um, could you just tell me a little bit more about the history of the region and you know, how long have people there been grazing sheep?
Matthew Algeo: Yeah, it’s, it’s really kind of interesting that cheesemaking and, and shepherding the, the Pramenka sheep, uh, that’s been going on really for centuries in, in this part of the world, in this part of the Balkans. But it really wasn’t until the late 19th century that cheesemaking in Livno was formalized. And that was because in 1878, all the world powers got together and basically decided who was gonna rule what parts of the world and Austro-Hungary was given charge, so to speak, over Bosnia. The Austro-Hungarians came in and they wanted to develop Bosnia — and Livno in particular. And so they sent a guy to Livno, and he went to Livno in 1900, and he brought with him a method of making cheese. It was similar to Gruyere, Roquefort but he used the milk from these sheep, the Pramenka sheep, to make a unique cheese in Livno. And he ended up staying almost 25 years in Livno, working at the agricultural school there. And he became kind of a local hero. He’s still, you know, fondly remembered. So it’s interesting. It’s really the result of imperialism that the cheesemaking industry was institutionalized, I guess you could say, in Livno, and, that’s what, that’s what really, you know, made all this possible. So it’s kind of a very interesting connection to the past.
Lacy Roberts: And I have to ask, how was the cheese?
Matthew Algeo: I am not a cheese expert, uh, by any means. Uh, it’s very sharp. It actually reminds me a little of cheddar cheese. Um, but it’s very flavorful. I mean, you really taste it in the back of your tongue and it has tiny little holes all over it. And, uh, Jozo was very keen for me to see that, to make sure real Livno cheese will always have these tiny little holes that come through the process of making it, that are kind of a, a little trademark of Livno cheese.
Lacy Roberts: So cool. In your piece, you talk about how the polje has been really understudied. There isn’t even a map of the underground water flows, which are so important to the ecosystem there. What do you attribute that to? And is there hope that there will be more research done?
Matthew Algeo: Well, you know, of course, um, you know, in the 20th century, the, uh, Bosnia suffered through the two world wars and then, and then their own war. And then in, in the intervening years between World War II and the Balkan Wars of the 90s, there was a Socialist government in place, largely led by Josip Tito, and the government was more concerned with economic policy and economic development, and much less concerned about environmental policy and environmental development. So that’s the main reason that the polje really wasn’t studied for almost, you know, 50 years basically, there were no systematic studies done in the polje. And, um, then to make things a little worse, the, uh, Dayton Accord of 1995, which ended the Bosnia war, set up a very complicated government structure in Bosnia. In fact, some people say it’s the most complicated governmental system, uh, in the world. The country’s divided into two entities in a district and one of the entities has cantons and then there are municipalities. And so there are all these different levels of government and each one has its own bureaucracy and has its own departments and that sort of thing. So when you try to make an environmental policy, you really have to get the approval of several departments of the environment. And that can be very difficult. Corruption’s another problem. There’s a lot of corruption in Bosnia, the, um, Transparency International ranks it 110th out of 180 countries and estimates 20 percent of public service users paid a bribe in the previous 12 months in Bosnia. So that could be a problem too for implementing environmental policies. And also, I think trying to integrate into the European Union will be a big step for Bosnia if they can get into the European Union, uh, that will make it easier to, to, to get funding for environmental studies and environmental programs. And it will also streamline the bureaucratic process in Bosnia. So I think that’s kind of the light at the end of the tunnel for this story.
Lacy Roberts: Well, thank you so much, Matt, for taking us to the polje and teaching us about this place that so few of us have probably heard about. Such an interesting story. Thank you so much.
Matthew Algeo: It was my pleasure. It was a lot of fun. The people I met there are just so nice and they are trying hard to make that a better place.
Lacy Roberts: Matthew Algeo is a freelance reporter based in Sarajevo. Our theme music was produced by the Undark Team with additional music in today’s episode from Blue Dot Sessions. I’m Lacy Roberts. See you next time.