We're staying here! Conservation pioneers in the Balkans

“For me, the ultimate beacon of hope is meeting people who want to make a difference, who don't give up even though working to build a liveable future can be hard and frustrating. These allies do exist, you just have to find them", says Sandra Wigger, Project Manager for cultural landscape protection at EuroNatur. We present two of these people.

The bee ambassador

Beekeeper at work

100% organic! Shqipe Shala only uses real beeswax for her hives. Commercial wax is out of the question.

© Liridon Shala

When beekeeper Shqipe Shala's alarm clock goes off, it’s four in the morning and the sky above the Shar Mountains is still dark. Shqipe has to be with her bees before the sun rises. Ahead of her lies an hour's drive into the mountains. Luckily, she’s a confident driver, because the roads here are not good - in parts they’re so dangerous that the 35-year-old has to drive at walking pace. But although the work is hard, Shqipe Shala loves what she does. “I am a devoted beekeeper, so there is nothing that cannot be achieved. Even as a child, I was fascinated by bees and I still am today. My husband Liridon and I have invested a lot. We laid the paths to our hives in the mountains ourselves. That took a lot of money, energy and courage. It is why we are virtually the only beekeepers in the Prizren region.” 

Shqipe Shala's apiary is one of the pilot projects demonstrating a responsible approach to nature that are receiving support from EuroNatur. And while Shqipe can talk confidently about her work today, this was never something she could simply take for granted. It took her a while to establish herself as a businesswoman in the patriarchal environment of rural Kosovo. At first, she was met with suspicion and criticism - and comments along the lines of: what we men couldn't do, you certainly can't do as a woman. “When we laid the first path in the middle of the wilderness, for example, they said I could go down the mountain, but I probably wouldn't come back. But, sceptical as the men were back then, they trust me now, and even ask me for advice,” says Shqipe with a smile. She’s done it! Shqipe now owns 200 beehives, her apiary Bletaria Etniki supplies the region with honey that is soon to be officially certified organic, and she also cultivates some strawberry fields where the bees find pollen in spring. Shqipe Shala’s other pioneering achievement in predominantly Muslim Kosovo is that she is the managing director of Bletaria Etniki - and employs her husband. She’s especially pleased that the example she has set has also encouraged other women to earn their own money.

New hope thanks to EuroNatur

Map with the Shar Mountains, the neighboring countries and the Green Belt.
© Kerstin Sauer

In fact, Shqipe deserves to have received some form of recognition from the state. After all, she’s helping to counter the increasing rural exodus from Kosovo, and to protect nature. But that's far from being the case. “A few years ago, I applied for financial support. Officials then came to my house and, in all seriousness, wanted to inspect my beehives there. I tried to make them understand that I couldn’t have that many hives in my garden, and that they were spread around the local area. I offered to show them everything. But the officials insisted that this was not allowed. Then they put me on their blacklist. There was no point in applying for a grant after that.” Today Shqipe can laugh about the experience, but at the time she felt intimidated and frustrated by the lack of appreciation. She found new hope only when she met Sandra Wigger from EuroNatur. “Sandra and the EuroNatur partners in Kosovo recognised my potential and helped me to develop it,” recalls Shqipe. “The support from EuroNatur is - apart from my family - the only significant support I have received.”

I have received specialist and financial support from EuroNatur, but also encouragement on a human level.

Shqipe Shala Shqipe Shala, beekeeper in Kosovo
beekeeepers in front of beehives

Collaboration builds strength! Shqipe Shala shares her experiences with other beekeepers constantly.

© EuroNatur
honey and other products of bees

The whole variety of honey...

© Liridon Shala

“I have gained confidence that my work as a beekeeper is worth something. Also, from then on, I was able to network with other beekeepers - in Kosovo, but also in Albania, North Macedonia and as far away as Germany. Together we discuss problems, develop possible solutions and encourage each other. My husband and I are now making our business sustainable. With the help of EuroNatur, we are finally able to invest in nature conservation.” Among other things, Shqipe and Liridon Shala have planted over 200 sweet chestnut seedlings. Their blossom will soon be providing bee pasture as well attracting a variety of beetles, butterflies and birds. Shqipe and Liridon are making new hives using last year's beeswax rather than ready-made commercial wax. That means a lot of work, but it is species-appropriate and therefore best for the bees. Meanwhile, Shqipe is even being visited by  Kosovan environmentalists who want to find out more about her method of beekeeping. She learned a lot on a study trip to the Rhön organised by EuroNatur, and now readily passes on this knowledge. 

At five in the morning, Shqipe Shala has already put on her beekeeper's suit. She meticulously checks the hives for parasites. It’s already far too warm for the time of year, and that worries her. There’s nothing she can do to stop the sun from luring her protégés outside. Another frost now will be a real danger. But Shqipe isn’t daunted by problems like that. The nature, the flowers, the fresh air of the Shar Mountains - all of those things give her a constant sense of hope, and spur her on to help protect this beauty. In the afternoon she’ll be giving one of her workshops for children. “At first, they are still very afraid of being stung. But when I explain to them how a beehive works, and how honey is produced, they see bees differently. Without bees, half our fruits and flowers would not exist. It makes me happy to see the children, especially when I see that through my workshops I can help the bees to have a good image,” says Shqipe Shala. She has already distributed information leaflets for the forthcoming season to all the schools in the area.

The herb tamer

Woman in Albania harvests herbal plants

The cultivation and the harvest of medicinal plants around the villages on the edge of the Korab-Koritnik Nature Park is to be established.


Four hours' drive to the southwest, and across the border into Albania, young farmer Danjel Bica has a similar vision: he wants the people in the villages on the edge of the Korab-Koritnik Nature Park to live in harmony with nature instead of exploiting it. Gentian, sage, and primrose grow in the mountains of the Dibër region, along with many other plant species known for their healing properties. As a result, the plants have become rare in other parts of Europe. Globally, demand for medicinal herbs is high. This has been further boosted by the Coronavirus pandemic, which has seen people increasingly looking for alternative therapies - and natural cosmetics are booming too. It’s a development which could spell danger if no one is paying attention to where and how the plants are being gathered. In rural areas of Albania in particular, the cultivation and sale of medicinal herbs is an important source of income for many families. Even in the communist era, Albania supplied the world with herbs. At that time, about 100,000 people generated 50 million dollars’ worth of foreign currency every year for Enver Hoxha's regime. Today, the figure remains at 17 million dollars, according to a study by Harvard University's Center for International Development. Before the political turnaround of the 1990s, the gathering of medicinal plants was carried out under the supervision of the state. The government decided what plants could be gathered as well as in what quantities.

Today things are different, as Danjel Bica - a farmer himself and also founder of the Young Environmental Experts Association (SHERM for short) - explains. “People gather more than nature can supply, and more than they can sell. They harvest them before the plants have flowered or before the fruits are ripe. It is this kind of exploitation that we want to stop. We train farmers to grow medicinal herbs in their own fields instead of gathering them wild in the Korab-Koritnik Nature Park. We teach them how to cultivate the plants and support them with the technical equipment they need. Before farmers grow the medicinal plants, we make sure there are buyers for them.” Like Shqipe Shala, Danjel Bica has also received support from EuroNatur for his pilot project, and is pleased with its success. His idea has been welcomed with open arms by the farmers.

We have now established three farms that grow and successfully sell medicinal plants.

Danjel Bica Danjel Bica, farmer and managing director of NGO SHERM in Albania
smelling test of tea

Great quality! The smell test is part of Danjel Bica's daily routine.

in the living room of herbal farmers

Danjel Bica has already been able to persuade many farmers to join him. One of them is Ramadan Mehmethi from Trepçe and his wife. The couple has trained their five daughters in cultivation techniques for medicinal plants.


Valuable inspiration came from a study trip to Agroproduct - a company in neighbouring Kosovo that is a leader in the cultivation, gathering and processing of medicinal plants. The company has set up around 40 collection points nationwide, and contracted around 370 gatherers. Among the things the men and women learn are when, where, how and in what quantities they can harvest sage, primrose and other medicinal plants so as not to do any harm. The entire product range is certified organic according to EU standards. “After the Kosovo war, I decided to start a company to help people use what nature gives them,” explains Halit Avdijaj, director of Agroproduct. The farmers from Dibër have learned a lot on this study tour, and have already put their newly acquired knowledge into practice. “With the support of EuroNatur, we have gained valuable experience. We are now using this knowledge in a follow-up project funded by the EU, under which we are supporting young people aged 18 to 35. Our goal is to establish six more farms for cultivating medicinal plants in the Dibër region,” says Danjel Bica, as he takes a sip of his favourite tea made from mountain herbs - his conscience clear because the herbs were picked from a field right next door and not in the Korab-Koritnik Nature Park.

Katharina Grund, the author of this item, is thrilled about the many medicinal benefits of tea. She had previously tasted mountain tea (Albanian: Çaj Mali) of the genus Sideritis - which has been known as remedy for colds, respiratory symptoms, and other ailments since the classical period - did find its flavour to be rather peculiar.