Can Albania’s nature still be saved?

A commentary by Annette Spangenberg on the disillusioning nature conservation situation in the Adriatic state

A protest banner against the Skavica dam hangs in a village in the Dibra Valley.

“No Skavica!” At least 35 villages are at risk of being submerged in the planned reservoir at the upper course of the Black Drin.

© Richard Burton

Albania’s prime minister Edi Rama–that’s right, the man who signed the Vjosa national park just over a year ago–is working at full speed to undo this conservation success. An airport in the Vjosa estuary? No problem! Diverting one of the most important Vjosa tributaries to the Albanian Riviera? Sure thing! And now the sad climax: at the end of February 2024, the Albanian parliament passed an amendment which reduces the fundamental purpose of all the country’s protected areas to absurdity.

From now on, large-scale infrastructure projects in national parks or nature reserves do not need an approval by the nature conservation authority. Instead, the responsibility lies with a committee chaired by prime minister Edi Rama. Pure coincidence? Certainly not! Looking more closely, anybody can make out an overarching plan behind the individual initiatives: in March 2023, former basketball professional Edi Rama announced his intention to transform Albania into a “tourism champion” by the end of the decade. It is reasonable to assume he does not have eco-friendly tourism in mind. Right now, plans of a luxury resort in the Divjaka-Karavasta national park, against which our Albanian partners had already protested years ago, are pulled out of the hat. From now on, the National Territorial Council headed by Edi Rama is entitled to rubber-stamp megaprojects such as luxury hotels, dams or airports in protected areas. The new law undermines the fundamental idea to preserve nature by legally defined standards and overrides all levers of legal action against its destruction.

Wild forests, rivers, mountainous and coastal regions have become more than ever fair game for large-scale investors, who are already queueing up. Amongst them Donald Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kusher. He confirmed his intention to realise large-scale real estate projects in Albania to the New York Times. A development of the last near-natural stretches of coast threatens, and more. On Albanian TV, US diplomat Richard Grenell who, according to media reports, is also involved, stated: "No one should ever apologize for wanting to make money.” Only too bad, though, that this moneymaking is at the expense of the common good and nature.

Protest by the residents of Kuç against the detour of the Shushica.

Protest by mayors and residents of the Shushica Valley against the diversion of the river to the Albanian Riviera.

© Kristi Lllozhi

Many EU government officials still view Edi Rama as a charismatic Mr Clean who advocates for democracy. Miles away from the truth–the trend instead points more and more to decisions being pooled around him! In view of the current trends, the question of Albania’s road into the European Union has to be firmly put. This is why, shortly after the passage of the new protection area bill, and together with our partners PPNEA and BirdLife International, we have written a letter to EU Commissioners Virginijus Sinkevičius and Olivér Vàrhelyi. Can Albania’s nature still be saved? We say: yes, giving up is no option! But it will most likely become even more difficult.

Transcript: Katharina Grund

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