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Published on : Monday, June 20, 2022
The Albanian government is betting that a new national park will not only preserve a pristine, free-flowing river but also boost tourism to the country.
That’s both a victory and a concern for NGOs, which have campaigned heavily to block the building of dams but now worry that plans to attract tourists could undermine fragile ecosystems.
In a ceremony on Monday, Environment and Tourism Minister Mirela Kumbaro Furxhi signed a memorandum of understanding with U.S. outdoor wear company Patagonia pledging to build a national park that will protect the 300-kilometer-long course of the Vjosa River and its tributaries.
If it goes ahead, the park would be the first of its kind in Europe.
The concept of a wild river national park which protects not only the main waterway, but also its tributaries, is unique, said Ulrich Eichelmann, CEO of the NGO Riverwatch.
At the Vjosa, we are witnessing a new model of protection for other rivers in Europe, which are threatened by dam projects and other forms of pressure.
At Monday’s event, Rama framed the project as part of a government goal to put 30 percent of the country’s territory under protected status by 2030; that’s in line with EU goals, a bloc Albania hopes to join.
But he warned that protecting the river shouldn’t come at the expense of economic development in the valley.
Unlike the southern Albanian coast, the Vjosa River valley didn’t suffer from uncontrolled urban development after the fall of the communist dictatorship in 1991, meaning the area remains relatively untouched.
About two hours south of Tirana, where the river’s crystal blue waters flow into the Adriatic Sea, lies a nesting ground for threatened birds and a home for rare plant species.
It’s an ecosystem that scientists have been keen to study. Franziska Walther, a researcher at Berlin’s Humboldt University, said the wildness of the Vjosa means it is one of the few places where she can carry out her research on natural river systems.
The surprising thing about the Vjosa River is that always when I’m here, the river looks a little bit different, she said on a recent afternoon spent kayaking the river collecting samples to study the water’s chemistry.
Because it’s free flowing … it is always in a different shape.
Protecting that unique ecosystem means granting the river “the highest level of protection,” which excludes building dams and requires regulating other economic activities like gravel extraction, said Sovinc.
Many locals welcome the idea of a national park.
Sitting in the shade outside a café on the main road, Qemal Malaj, the mayor of the small town of Brataj, said he joined forces with a group of a dozen other mayors to petition the government to beef up protections for the river and block the planned construction of four dams along the Shushicë River, a tributary of the Vjosa.
Long way to go
For NGOs that have spent years at loggerheads with the government, Monday’s pledge is not the end of the road.
Artan Zeqaj, a 50-year-old businessman who runs a restaurant in the town of Qesarat, has protested hydropower projects that he says would have flooded his village and the agricultural land on the riverbanks.
Sitting in his restaurant, he said he is skeptical the national park will see the light of day.
The government’s plans to boost tourism are also creating new tensions, including over the construction of an international airport near the protected area of the Narta Lagoon on the Adriatic Sea, which is home to flamingos.
The airport is an unavoidable trade-off, according to Albania’s Environment and Tourism Minister Mirela Kumbaro Furxhi.
Nika predicted EcoAlbania is very likely to sit again on the bench of the plaintiffs in court in response to those plans.
[The lagoon] is one of the best parts of the national park in terms of conservation, so that concession will definitely be challenged.