March 4. 2024. 9:41

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Albania’s Vjosa River officially declared a National Park


Albania’s Vjosa River, subject to a years-long international campaign, has officially been declared a National Park after the decision was formalised by the Council of Ministers and announced by Environment Minister Mirela Kumbaro.

Europe’s last free-flowing river, which stretches from Greece, through Albania and to the Adriatic Sea, was the object of a campaign to declare it a national park and offer it the highest level of protection from developments and hydropower plants.

The campaign included EcoAlbania, River Watch, international brand Patagonia and Leonardo di Caprio, and it saw large signs stating “Vjosa National Park Now” displayed by major landmarks around the world in a bid to draw attention to the cause.

“We have today the decision to declare the Vjosa river the last wild river in Europe a national park. We have extended this protection area to 12,727 ha, which is the entire water surface, the river’s banks, and the land surface,” said Kumbaro in a press conference.

The Vjosa River Basin is the habitat for nearly 1,100 species of animals and plants, including 13 animal and two plant species that are threatened internationally.

In 2022, the Albanian government finally decided to work with international organisations and pledged to create a National Park, thus preserving the river. In February, they took steps to file a request for the river to be considered a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve.

“Relying on the expertise and support that UNESCO and the MAB program will offer us in the protection of the ecosystem of the Vjoses river and the sustainable use of its natural resources, the management of the Vjoses basin can become a success story and best practice all over Europe, and why not, maybe all over the world!”, Albanian Ambassador to the UN, Besiana Kadare wrote on Facebook at the time.

A roadmap and feasibility study for the park was put forward by a team of international and Albanian experts in January.

The documents submitted provide the technical proposal for the permanent protection of the river under IUCN Category II level standards. One month of public consultation will follow and in Spring 2023, it is expected that Phase 1 of the park will be declared.

Phase I will include the active channel of the river, plus some lands and river vegetation within the active channel, or at risk of flooding or erosion – over 400 kilometres in total length. Phase II will add areas that are flooded every 30 to 50 years and some private land, following consultation with stakeholders, a press release states.

It continues that a management structure for the park will also be developed which will serve as a model for other national parks in the region and create a new model of river protection globally.

However, there are concerns that plans for a new airport in the Vjosa-Narta Protected Landscape could impact the river and its biodiversity.

Back in 2021, the Commission expressed serious concerns about the impact of strategic investments on biodiversity.

“In April 2021, Albania signed the contract to build Vlora Airport within the Vjosa-Narta Protected Area, in contradiction with national laws and international biodiversity protection conventions that Albania has ratified. This Protected Area is a candidate for the Emerald site network, which provides shelter to more than 62 species of birds listed in the EU Birds Directive. Vjosa River, as one of Europe’s last wild rivers, should receive proper protection status,” it said at the time.

But on the topic of the official designation of the Vjosa National Park, lawyer Dorian Matlija who has worked on various legal challenges relating to hydrpower plants planned for the area, celebrated the news.

“Today, one of the longest campaigns of civil society (at least 10 years of war) was successfully accomplished,” he wrote on Facebook, adding that “Vjosa’s campaign was the model of success of quality, passion and professionalism, against the model of the crowd manipulator… Vjosa gathered the best. Way to go Vjosa!”

(Alice Taylor | Exit.al)