(foto: Valeria Pagani)

The low sun on the horizon breaks on the white streams created by the flow of the Vjosa. The rhythmic sound of the croaking of frogs accompanies the rustle of the water on the smooth white pebbles, while on the horizon the enormous river bed stretches for more than 2 kilometers in its width. No human signs around in this unique landscape. “The last wild river”, as the Vjosa is romantically called. Threatened for years by the construction of more than 30 hydroelectric plants, of which 8 along the main course and 23 along the tributaries, it now seems to be able to breathe a sigh of relief. On 13 June 2022 the Albanian government signed a memorandum for the establishment of the Vjosa Park Kombetar, the Vjosa National Park. Nothing is yet certain about its extent and size, but it is certainly a first step towards greater protection of this precious ecosystem.

(photo: Valeria Pagani)

(photo: Valeria Pagani)

Within 45 days of the signing of this agreement, a working group will be set up which, by the beginning of 2023, will have to submit a complete proposal for the creation of the National Park to the Albanian Ministry of Tourism and the Environment. This proposal should include, among other things, the boundaries of the park itself, the subdivision into areas of greater and lesser protection and the opportunities for ecotourism. The partner with whom the government signed the agreement is unusual: the handshake took place between Mirela KumbaroAlbanian Minister of Tourism and the Environment, e Ryan Gellert, CEO of Patagonia, the private sportswear company that since 1985 has devolved 1% of its sales to environmental protection. Probably the Schipetaro government has sensed the potential of collaborating with a stable and highly visible lender.

“The government will have to tackle many complex issues for the creation of a national park according to the standards of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) and for a river that flows for 200 kilometers through the country.” – says Ryan Gellert of Patagonia – “We are committed to providing financial support in identifying and convening international and local experts for the implementation of the proposal. But the operational costs to protect the park in the future have not yet been defined.”

The Vjosa race begins in the Pindus mountains, in Greece, and then enters the Albanian territory, where it winds for 192 kilometers until it flows into the Adriatic Sea. What makes this river unique on European soil is its integrity and its very rich ecological value: the main course and almost all of its tributaries have remained almost totally undisturbed and free to flow, creating a river network unparalleled in Europe.

In addition to the high naturalistic value, a quality dear to scientists from all over the world, the integrity of the Vjosa is at the center of the concerns of the inhabitants of the valley. Also and above all for them the construction of the dams seemed a nightmare ready to become reality. In Kalivac, a 47-meter-high power plant and a reservoir that would have submerged an area of ​​17 square kilometers was planned since 1997. Construction actually started in 2007 and stopped several times, so much so that today a part of the plant has been built that still does not compromise the natural flow of the river. In the nearby village of Qesarat, Artan Zeqaj, owner of the restaurant on the road to Kalivac, has fought for years together with environmental organizations against the construction of the dam. After leaving his homeland due to lack of work, he returned to stay. “If the dam were built, my business would go under water, as would school and road.” – Artan says in a faint voice – “If the national park were created, however, the Vjosa would acquire its real value. There would be great opportunities to develop tourist activities and to create jobs for our children, so that they will never have to leave. somewhere else.”

In recent years, the echo of the intact naturalness of this river has gone beyond the local and national scale. A coalition of environmental organizations, including Euronatur, Riverwatch and Ecoalbania, had already launched the “Save the blue earth of Europe” campaign in 2013, with the aim of protecting the rivers of the Balkan area from the hydroelectric boom.

After a series of mobilizations focused on the Albanian watercourse, in 2021 he promoted another great initiative. The word “Vjosa National Park Now” has appeared in large letters in some of the most iconic places in the world: on the sunny beaches of San Francisco and on the rocky walls of the Grand Canyon, at the foot of the Eiffel Tower, the Brandenburg Gate, the Cathedral of Milan and also at Milson Point, the square of land in front of the futuristic Sydney Opera House.

Now, however, even if the first agreement has been signed and although the will to create the National Park is unique, the visions of government and environmental organizations on the future of Vjosa seem to differ slightly. “It is as if the Vjosa were the trunk of a tree and its tributaries are the branches. We aim to protect the whole tree and create the first Wild River National Park in Europe.” – tells a Green & Blue Ulrich EichelmannCEO of RiverWatch. What is not clear is whether the government is also aligned with this perspective. Mirela Kumbaro, Minister of Tourism and the Environment, during the interview does not mention the adjective “wild” and focuses on development opportunities for the inhabitants of the valley.

“Vjosa is not an independent ecosystem, isolated from the human soul. It makes no sense without the people who live there. Certainly we will not allow industrial projects that damage the ecosystem, flora and fauna, but we do not want a park that will be limited in the development of economic activities that will allow people to stay on their land. ” The two visions can certainly go hand in hand and be integrated with each other, but for this it takes will and mutual respect. It will also take time before the national park becomes official and in the meantime the first criticalities are already visible on the horizon. Recently the Albanian government approved the construction of an international airport in the Narta Lagoon, where the Vjosa flows into the Adriatic Sea, while in the Permet area, along the middle course of the river, the Shell company has started the search for oil sources and natural gas. Will the government be able to ensure the protection and integrity of the precious river and at the same time propose a development model based on the recurring concept of sustainability?

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