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Feature 28 Apr 17

Croatian Islanders Fight to Preserve Golden Beach

After the government scrapped an unpopular concession given to company over Zlatni Rat beach, islanders on Brac say they will fight on to ensure such precious resources remain in the hands of the community.

Relja Dusek
Islanders protest on Zlatni rat. Photo: Frane and Roni Marinkovic

Islanders from Brac in Croatia told BIRN they will continue protesting until the country changes its maritime laws to put local municipalities, not counties, in charge of island beaches.

“The state proclaims a protected area but then the county awards a concession over it. They are stealing our land and resources through that law,” Josip Bacic, a member of the Bol Youth Initiative, claimed.

He spoke after Croatia’s ministry of the sea, transport, and infrastructure cancelled the nearby county’s award of a concession for the beach to a private company, following a public outcry.

Brac is one of the largest islands in the Adriatic, located in central Dalmatia, an hour from Split by boat. Supetar is the main town but Bol is best known among tourists for Zlatni Rat.

Often praised as the most beautiful beach in Croatia, its unusual shape continually changes thanks to the wind. Bol is also a top windsurfing destination in Europe.

Luring hundreds of thousand visitors each summer, Brac is an important island for Croatia’s economy, which depends in part on tourism.

So when the assembly of Split-Dalmatia County awarded a concession to run the beach to a little-known company from Zagreb, Super B, on April 18, Brac residents were outraged.

For 12 years, a municipal company had managed the beach that is of vital interest to the people living there.

The islanders first protested in Split in front of the county assembly on the same day that the decision was made.

On April 23, another protest was staged on Zlatni Rat, where hundreds of activists used towels to write the word “Occupied” on the beach.

Activists used towels to write the word “Occupied” on Zlatni rat. Photo: Frane and Roni Marinkovic

Public pressure was so strong that, on April 24, the maritime ministry’s experts’ commission scrapped the concession, saying that several laws had been violated.

These included a deadline for the submission of bids, which was not prescribed by the law, while information had not been made equally accessible to all participants. The decision should also not have been made without the prior consent of the ministry.

The same day, Super B announced it was withdrawing from Brac. “In future, we hope such important issues will be decided by experts, guided primarily by the proper criteria and not by political centres of power and without arguments,” it said.

“If the goal is to create a transparent, advanced and civilized society, an open, progressive and thorough approach to potential investors is the only possible way forward,” the company added, declining BIRN’s requests for further comment.

When the news broke, people on the island said they were delighted but cautious.

“We are happy but this is far from over. They my be trying to fool us. We should not forget that the local elections are just ahead, so we must be very careful,” Ivana Boskovic Ivicic, director of the Bol Centre for Culture, told BIRN.

“We were just preparing another protest when we heard that the company from Zagreb had given up the concession. It is great news but that was only our first demand. We want the maritime law changed to give concessions [on beaches] to municipalities rather than counties,” Boskovic Ivicic added.

Under current maritime law, the island and its beaches, which are categorized as a protected area, come under the jurisdiction of the county, while locals in Brac and on other islands want more decentralisation.

BIRN asked the the Ministry of Maritime Affairs to comment on this demand but it said its only duty was to safeguard maritime wellbeing, while the Ministry of Public Affairs had jurisdiction over matters of local government. However, this Ministry referred BIRN back to the Maritime Affairs Ministry.

Ivan Kopric, a law professor in Zagreb, told BIRN that the case was further proof of the lack of clarity in Croatia’s territorial organisation.

Although it was not their constitutional role, Kopric said the counties had established themselves as managers of resources like beaches that should be in the hands of locals.

“On the other hand, our municipalities and many towns are often so small that they are not able to handle local affairs, ensure legality and put such resources in the function of wider economic and social developments,” Kopric noted.

Josip Bacic told BIRN that the victory over Zlatni Rat was just a first step.

“Ports and beaches are only resources we have left on the island, so we have to take care of them. Fewer and fewer people live on the island, so if they take all our goods, no one will remain here,” Bacic said.

According to the latest data, from 2011, 1,661 people live in Bol, but since people have continued leaving, the real number now is probably much smaller.

Bacic explained that Brac is not the only island with such problems. Matters are similar on other Croatian islands as well.

He and his colleagues from the Youth Initiative, as well as many islanders, want the municipalities and towns to manage these vital resources alone.

“This same thing could happen again,” he warned, “so we want the government to change one article of the law and give the municipalities more power. They could do that immediately,” Bacic added.

Tihomir Marinkovic, mayor of Bol, told BIRN that the assembly of Split-Dalmatia County should never have opened a competition for the concession for one of the most beautiful beaches on the Adriatic coast.

He also argues that such a competition lacks the basic preconditions to work because there is no urban plan for the beach and its decoration.

Without an urban plan, it is unclear what kinds of changes are allowed on the beach, and around it.

Locals do not want too much new infrastructure, fearing it could ruin the beach’s natural beauty.

“The county chose a company from Zagreb because they promised to make the biggest investment. But the company didn’t have a serious plan, their offer was totally unrealistic,” Marinkovic said.

“We are sceptical about such companies because their only goal is to make money in the short term while we are trying to take care of that beach and town the whole year round,” he added.

Mirco Peric, director of the company that had managed Zlatni Rat for 12 years, agreed that a new urban plan was necessary before any other changes are made in future.

“This beach is unique. We need strict criteria about what can and cannot be done or built on Zlatni Rat. Once we know that, we can make a run for the concession,” Peric said, noting that the company employs 32 people from the island and has stable finances.

After Super B abandoned the concession, arguing that it could not carry out its activities against the resistance of the local community, Zlatni Rat would appear to be a finished story for them. For islanders, on the other hand, the battle has just started. They are dedicated to keeping the beach in the hands of the local community.

“We will fight for our children and grandchildren. This beach has to stay in public hands,” Marinkovic concluded.

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