Empowering resistance

One of the largest European reservoirs could soon be built in northeast Albania – a sad record. The Skavica project would dam the last free-flowing part of the Black Drin. Tens of thousands of people will have to be relocated for the dam project or virtually put into complete isolation. Two young teachers are mobilising the residents.

Two women sit on a meadow and look down at the river. Two women sit on a meadow and look down at the river.

A deceptive idyll: the lower course of the Black Drin has already been dammed. The upper-course reservoir is to become many times larger. At least 35 villages would drown in it.

© Richard Burton

Residents against a ruthless dam project in Albania

An overwhelming biodiversity and a majority of the rich history of the Dibra region will also be lost–a fertile valley which has distinguished itself as a centre of green tourism and organic farming. Fertile fields, fruit trees with mirabelles, cherries and plums, hedges teeming with birds and insects, species-rich meadows–all would be drowned in the Skavica reservoir. This prospect has transformed the teachers Majlinda Hoxha and Kimete Mazari into activists. For years, they have been pouring all their energy into achieving one goal: they want to mobilize the people in the Dibra valley to stand up for their rights, believe in their own effectiveness and fight against the dam project.

 

  • No “clean and green” energy production!

    Hydropower is anything but green. The large-scale dam project Skavica is showing this once again: Amongst those affected would be the seriously endangered Balkan lynx, several species of fish only found in the Balkans, traditionally worked farmland, meadows and pastures, and valuable floodplain forests of alders and willows home to the globally endangered turtle dove, otter and kingfisher. Flooding the presumably largest floodplain forest in Albania would destroy a giant carbon sink. The emissions of the Skavica reservoir, on the other hand, would be huge.

A farmer is looking over his fields in the Dibra valley
© Richard Burton

“The people are afraid”

At protests, Majlinda Hoxha passes her megaphone to the women and men, encouraging them to speak out. But this is not so easy. The activist is getting advice on protest actions, but exceedingly few people want to appear in public. “Almost everyone is against the hydropower project, but hardly anyone says so aloud. The people are afraid.” The opportunity of being heard seems slighter than the danger of losing one’s job or being punished in other ways. Some report problems after posting critical comments on social media. Everywhere, people are working for the government and reporting unwelcome activities. “A man who is very ill took part in the latest protest. Someone asked him: ‘Why are you here? Shall I make sure that your social welfare benefits are discontinued?’ On hearing this, the man left. That’s our day-to-day life!”, reports Majlinda Hoxha.

She has no interest in the role of strong leader. “I am one of you, together, we consider what we can do. I am establishing connections to other organisations able to help us fight for our aims. It is not my task to speak in your name and stand up for your rights. Everyone should become involved!”, she emphasizes over and over again. The people in the Dibra valley respect Majlinda Hoxha–not only because she is taking action against Skavica, but also because commitment to the region is already a family tradition of hers. Her two uncles Ali and Muhamet Hoxha were among those who established the Black Drin Association. “The people aren’t wondering what my real motives are and how much money I make by getting involved here. That is not a matter of course, for they are feeling either forgotten or exploited, especially by the government. Dibra is one of the poorest regions in Albania. Winning people’s trust is hard work,” says Majlinda Hoxha.

It is so good to have an international organisation on our side with EuroNatur. Feeling less powerless is the greatest gift.

Majlinda Hoxha, founder/activist of the organization GARD, fights against the Skavica dam project on the Black Drin. Majlinda Hoxha, GARD

Supplanting powerlessness by hope

By now, she has formed the coalition Group of Rural Activists of Dibra (GARD). In view of their seemingly all-powerful opponent, this allying is especially important. The hydropower plant Skavica is to be built in cooperation with US infrastructure giant Bechtel. The Albanian parliament passed a special act in 2021 commissioning the US company to plan and build Skavica. There was no public call for tenders for this project. The government is thus violating its own national law. That is why EuroNatur has assisted Albanian NGOs Black Drin Association and Albanian Helsinki Committee in filing a constitutional complaint against the hydropower plant Skavica. “It is difficult to make the people in Dibra understand that it is important to call on the courts. They don’t trust the Albanian legal system. They say we have a dictatorship, our opinion won’t be heard, anyway. We try to supplant this feeling of powerlessness by hope,” describes Majlinda Hoxha. The first success of the constitutional complaint has been all the more important. Even if the court has only recognized one of three particulars of the complaint, it is a decisive one: the public should have been heard before awarding the project. Now, there is a court order to make up for public consultations and hold them now. This opportunity must be seized!

Four women making hay in the Dibra Valley in Albania.
© Richard Burton

Let’s leave that to the women!

“We can talk about how best to produce energy in the region. But a government decision over and above the local residents’ heads is not okay. I am concerned with the foundations of a respectful cooperation between the government and the people – not only regarding Skavica, but in Albania in general,” Kimete Mazari adds. Just as Majlinda Hoxha, she is from Dibra and a trained teacher, but has been working nearly around the clock for some years now to strengthen civil society in her home region. In spite of having had multiple opportunities, she has not left Albania–as so many others have done. “My husband has played a decisive role: He encouraged me right from the beginning to be myself and to fight for what is important to me. I choose the more difficult path, so that others may have it a little easier later, but of course I’m wondering from time to time: what the hell are you doing here?”, she recounts.

These days, Kimete Mazari receives many phone calls and inquiries about news concerning Skavica. “This is a good sign,” she says, “because it means that people trust me. They share information, concerns, and thoughts with me, and want to cooperate with me.” It was not always like this, she remembers. “When I was first out and about in the villages of the Dibra valley three years ago, most men ranted that the fight against Skavica was not for women. Then one man spoke up and said: ‘Yes, perhaps that’s men’s business, but we can’t speak English, we don’t know how to write a project proposal, or organise activities. So let’s leave that to the women!’ It was a long road until they accepted me.”

We need to combine the experience of the older people with the power of the young people. The young will change the country!

Kimete Mazari from the local action group Integrimi in front of blossoming fruit trees. Kimete Mazari, Lokale Aktionsgruppe Integrimi

Young people are attentive listeners

“The fight against Skavica is arduous and a fight against shadows,” Majlinda Hoxha also knows, and has especially the lack of transparency in mind. “At the moment, there are strangers in the Dibra valley registering uninhabited property. We suspect that they are looking for relocation places for those affected by the dam project. They are not thinking about what these people are supposed to do there after relocation. When Skavica comes, they will lose their roots, their history, simply everything!” As yet, no date has been fixed for the public hearings by the government. To prepare the residents in the best possible way, however, Kimete Mazari, Majlinda Hoxha and the Albanian NGO North Green Association, supported by EuroNatur, have already organised a workshop. Last December, selected local residents were trained in Tirana to speak up with strong arguments against the Skavica reservoir, for nature, and for the interests of the local communities. They will bring their newly gained knowledge into the Dibra valley now and share it in further workshops.

“We urgently need to involve the young people. They will change the country,” Kimete Mazari is certain. Working with young people keeps her outlook positive even in dark times. “I feel I can do something for my country’s future. The best mix to achieve our goals is to combine the experience of the older people with the power of the young people,” says Kimete. In March, she organised a cross-generational campaign day. Grandmothers explained the effects of regional medicinal plants, biologists talked about the ecology of these plants, recipes for dishes made from locally sourced produce were swapped. “We wanted to make palpable what treasures will disappear in the Skavica reservoir if we do not succeed in stopping the project. Young people are attentive listeners. If we communicate information about Skavica to them, they will talk about it among their families and friends. That’s worth a fortune,” says Kimete Mazari. What is troubling her is that the young, too, are increasingly leaving Albania. One of the main reasons she sees for this is that they do not feel heard. “Albanian civil society is dwindling. This is alarming, because it is the necessary antipole to the government. We encourage young people to remain here, to voice their opinions, and to fight injustice.” EuroNatur will continue to support Kimete Mazari and Majlinda Hoxha in this important work.

Katharina Grund

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