By Blerina Ago, Tourism Expert, Active Albania
Vjosa – Home of the Wildlife
It is called the last wild river of Europe and is one of the natural wonders of Albania. It is home to over 1,100 species and authentic communities. The fish fauna of the Vjosa is characterised by high shares of species endemic to the Balkans. The lush vegetation makes this river a great place for adventure enthusiasts to explore and relax. There are many underground passages and unexplored caves throughout the length of the free flow.
In the spring, high water from melting snow creates the perfect stream for enthusiasts to explore the whole length of the river. The rapids are such that one does not need prior white water experience to navigate them with whitewater rafts.
I first met Vjosa during a rafting adventure many years ago. It is hard to describe my adrenaline and emotions but all I can tell is that the one-day trip changed my life forever. On my part, I engaged to change the place through adventure tourism, and help its transformation into an outdoor paradise that is today.
Threat & Opportunity
Vjosa river is in danger from the construction of 9 hydropower plants on Vjosa itself and on 31 of its tributaries. If this happens the natural environment would be destroyed and parts of the wild valley will be dry and some of the areas flooded. But also near the mouth of the Vjosa into the Adria, the Albanian government plans to build an airport inside a protected area and tourist resorts are foreseen to be built near Narta lagoon.
We are aiming to make the Vjosa Europe’s first Wild River National Park, to save the tributaries, the floodplains and the wildlife. Not only the wildlife would benefit from a National Park but also the people of the Vjosa valley. A recent opinion poll shows that 94 percent of Albanian people are in favour of establishing this wild river national park. Through sustainable tourism development, in the future thousands of tourists from all over Europe will come to visit this last wild river.
Act Now to Save Vjosa
One Norwegian visitor, 18 years ago when I started to promote adventure tourism and unspoiled parts of untamed Albania, jokingly told me to keep politicians out of the loop. “If they get to know that such a heavenly place exists they will all come here to build and to destroy the nature. So, stop promoting,” he urged. But I desperately want to promote this story before the wrong decisions of the politicians arrive. And you can help.
- Support the local activists. The team of EcoAlbania is running a campaign and has successfully managed to stop some of the dams in their tracks. Make your photo and post it using #VjosaNationalParkNow.
- Sign the petition, watch the video “Vjosa Forever” and share it with friends on social media using #VjosaNationalParkNow.
- Join an Active Albania trip with expert guides and support the growth of adventure tourism and of the local economy of the Vjosa community.
“This is a rare opportunity to really protect one of the last wild big rivers. This would be an asset for Europe but also a contribution to global conservation efforts.” Dr Kathy MacKinnon, Chair of IUCN World Commission on Protected Areas
“We call on the Albanian political leaders, to initiate the necessary steps to plan and designate the Vjosa National Park on the full length of the river in Albania including its tributaries, according to IUCN standards.” Awardees of the Right Livelihood Award
“The Vjosa River runs untamed from source to sea & local community groups in Albania are calling for it to be protected through the establishment of a new national park. Show your support…” Edward Norton
The Vjosa is the crown of the #BlueHeartofEurope and people across Albania want to protect it forever. They are asking to the government of Albania to create #VjosaNationalParkNow, which would be the very first wild river park in Europe. Let’s stand with them.” Leonardo DiCaprio
What Has Been Accomplished So Far?
January 2014: Vjosa River received its first spotlight in the international media
May 2014: First occasion when mayors and locals from the river had the first press conference on the banks of the Vjosa and called Prime Minister Rama to reject the dam plans and to establish a Vjosa National Park instead
June 2014: First biodiversity assessment of the Vjosa together with Albanian scientists and 70 students finding
May 2015: EU Parliamentarians demand protection for the Vjosa and the halt to all dam plans
April 2016: European Parliament calls on the Albanian government to control hydropower development; specifically, in pristine areas such as the Vjosa
December 2016: Local residents together with national and international NGOs filed a lawsuit against Poçem hydropower, a new dam project on the Vjosa
May 2017: Administrative court in Tirana decided in favour of EcoAlbania and local representatives to stop a dam project. The Turkish investor Ayen Enerji and the Environment Ministry appealed the court decision. Still pending.
October 2017: Albanian government decided to move ahead with dam construction on the Vjosa and gave the Turkish-Albanian consortium Ayen Eneji and Fusha company the concession to build the Kalivaç hydropower plant
October 2017: ‘Hands off Vjosa’ thousands attend concert in defense of Vjosa
October 2018: Hundreds attend concert to show their support for a free Vjosa
June 2019: New study finds the Vjosa an unsuitable candidate for hydropower plants – new plants would create a lose-lose situation
November 2019: International pressure to protect the Vjosa increases as celebrities such as Leonardo DiCaprio to get involved
February 2020: One of the largest science petitions in global freshwater ecology calls to stop Vjosa dam projects in Albania
September 2020: Albanian Environmental Ministry rejected the environmental impact assessment of the Turkish-Albanian investor consortium and the proposed Kalivaç Dam will not be built
February 2021: 20 Albanian environmental organizations under the direction of EcoAlbania submitted a detailed proposal for the creation of the Vjosa National Park to the Minister of Tourism and Environment Blendi Klosi. According to the 16-page proposal, the national park should meet IUCN standards and encompass the entire Vjosa River in Albania as well as the free-flowing tributaries.
March 2021: Patagonia released a new 6-minute film explaining the situation in Albania and calling upon Albanians and Europeans to get involved and support the protection of the river.
March 2021: IUCN presented their new study finding the “protection of the [Vjosa] must be ensured along the entire course of the river in order to achieve basic protection of the “continuity” of the river and sediment transport, as any potential disturbance along the riverbed may have upstream and downstream impacts.”
World Water Day 2021: ‘Vjosa National Park Now’ cloaking the foreground of globally recognized monuments in Paris, Berlin, Brussels, and Tirana, targeting the attention of European and Albanian politicians, urging them to declare the Vjosa in Albania Europe’s first Wild River National Park.
March 2021: European Parliament adopted the 2021 Albanian Progress Report in which they urge Albanians “to establish as soon as possible the Vjosa National Park, extending the whole length of the river…”
Voices From The Field – ATTA is providing this space for the benefit of our members for building awareness within our community. The views and opinions expressed in this column are not necessarily ATTA’s, nor do we endorse them by their publication.