Forest of Hope: Planting trees in Zhulat instead of HPPs

April 2, 2021, Zhulat, Gjirokastra. Today in the village of Zhulat in Gjirokastra, EcoAlbania planted 25 linden trees as part of the “Forest of Hope” initiative in the Vjosa Valley: an initiative undertaken for the reforestation of the Vjosa Valley. At the request of the community of the area and as a form of support the communities that are opposing the HPP projects in the Vjosa valley, this initiative comes exactly in the village of Zhulat.

Residents of Zhulat have risen up against the Taronina hydropower plant which affects the two tributaries of the Kardhiq River – protected area – Strict Nature Reserve and are concerned about the situation, unanimously against the construction of the HPP.

EcoAlbania has previously held a meeting with the local community of Zhulat where it offered its support in opposing HPPs on the Kardhiqi River. 

About the hydro-power projects in Kardhiqi river:

On the Kardhiq River basin are planned 8 HPPs. Yet only two of them are close to concretization. “HEC Taronina” is one of them, the trace of which directly affects the roots of Zhulit and Zhulatit, near the village of Zhulat. The company “Taronina Hydropo w er” is authorized by the order of MI E d a of 15.01.2019 to develop the project HEC Taronina. It took the company almost 1 year until February 2020 to appear on the ground to introduce the project to the locals. The consultation process could not be carried out as the company has encountered the most recent uprisings and revolts of Zhulat’s residents, who have been organized in protests and petitions addressed to the  elevant institutions. Local residents have received guarantees from the Municipality of Gjirokastra not to build HEC it however, about a year later, in February 2021, the company has reappeared in the area by starting field works for the diversion canal, without applying for permit and misinforming the community by claiming it was building a water supply for irrigation of agricultural lands. Even this effort has met with opposition of residents forcing the company to remove construction machinery from the area.

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The Vjosa, Europe’s largest wild river outside of Russia, faces its greatest danger yet, due to political uncertainty and opportunistic greed. Ahead of upcoming Albanian parliamentary elections, citizens, activists and conservationists are demanding political support for the establishment of Europe’s first wild river national park, thus protecting it forever.

As part of this action, today sees the launch of Vjosa Forever, a new documentary short film asking people everywhere to join the fight to preserve the future of the Vjosa. 

For more than 10 years, local activists, international groups, scientists and artists have fought against a ‘tsunami’ of planned hydropower projects in the Balkans. In September 2020, Albanian politicians publicly announced the establishment of a Vjosa wild river national park, which would protect the entire network of tributaries. However, since then, local citizens and activists have become increasingly alarmed that, behind closed doors, compromises are being made, and, in fact, the river is in imminent danger.

With national elections on 25 April 2021, Albanian and international nature conservation groups such as EcoAlbaniaRiverWatch and EuroNatur are calling on the public and political leaders to enshrine the future of the Vjosa and make this wild river national park a major priority for any winning party. Recent research shows that 94 percent of Albanian people are in favour of establishing this wild river national park. 

If successful, this will be Europe’s first wild river national park and unparalleled in Europe in terms of ecological importance and scale. The designation would protect over 300km of rivers and streams, host to over 1,100 species, many of which are considered threatened.

Vjosa would be the first wild river national park in Europe (c) Andrew Burr

The launch of Vjosa Forever follows the 2018 Blue Heart film and campaign which depicted the fight to protect the wild rivers of the Balkans – the ‘Blue Heart’ of Europe – from 3,400 proposed hydropower projects which would destroy the culture and ecology of this entire region. Within the Blue Heart, the Vjosa is the largest and most untamed river system.

The six-minute film, created by Patagonia, asks concerned citizens everywhere to show their support for a Vjosa wild river national park and bring international attention to the environmental disaster that could ensue if it remains unprotected.

Local communitues along the valley are against the HPP projects and in favor of the Vjosa national park. (c) Andrew Burr

Ryan Gellert, CEO, Patagonia Works, says: “Grassroots activism, supported by legal action, have worked to get this historic decision on the table. Now is the time for Albanian politicians to step up. They will be doing something that’s never been done before and protecting this last, pristine river system, forever.”

Ulrich Eichelmann, CEO, Riverwatch, says: “The Vjosa miraculously survived the decades of destruction in Europe; it´s a gift to all of us. And it is, therefore, not only an Albanian responsibility to protect it, but also a European responsibility. This wild river national park would be an immense achievement for conservation efforts in Europe, and, at an EU level, it will make a real and significant contribution to the EU Biodiversity Strategy and the EU Green Deal.

Besjana Guri, Communications Officer, EcoAlbania says: “This is a moment for all Albanian citizens to feel real pride.  Not only are we protecting our country, our culture and our future, but, in the Vjosa, we have something of precious beauty that is unparalleled in Europe.”  

Annette Spangenberg, Head of Project Unit, EuroNatur, says: “You will hardly find another river in Europe that deserves to be a national park more than the Vjosa. No other protection category will do this river justice. A weaker category that keeps the backdoor open for further hydropower projects cannot be the solution.” 


General information:

This is a joint press release by Patagonia, Riverwatch, EuroNatur, and EcoAlbania

The “Save the Blue Heart of Europe” campaign aims to protect rivers of high natural value in the Balkans, which are threatened by over 3,400 hydropower projects. The campaign is coordinated by the international NGOs Riverwatch and EuroNatur and is implemented jointly with partner organizations in the Balkan countries. The local partner in Albania is EcoAlbania. For more information

The “Save the Blue Heart of Europe” campaign is supported amongst others by the Manfred-Hermsen-Stiftung 

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Friends of Vjosa meeting in support of the Vjosa National Park Now campaign

Tirana, 19 February 2021. The next friends of Vjosa meeting took place at the “Tulla Culture  Center” in Tirana. Vjosa’s loyal friends were present at this meeting which will serve the “Save the Blue Heart of Europe” campaign’s team to raise the topic of Vjosa as an important issue during the central government election campaign.

Their concrete engagement will be in the action that will be organized by EcoAlbania in Tirana within the campaign “Vjosa National Park Now” as well as through media articles or questions addressed to the three leaders of the main political parties in the country. The purpose of these direct questions focused on the vision that leaders have for the protection and development of the Vjosa Valley, is to document their promises for the Vjosa. Promises that could be monitored after the election as a form of accountability by the future government.

Friends of Vjosa Meetings are periodic meetings (2-3 per year) organized by EcoAlbania with friends and supporters of the Vjosa River, who come from different walks of life but share the same purpose: the protection of the Vjosa River and the proclamation of the Vjosa National Park.

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Vjosa: Political game with the future of Europe´s last wild river

 ++ 94 % of Albanians in favour of establishing Vjosa National Park ++ IUCN confirms the potential of Vjosa River for becoming a National Park ++ Albanian Environmental Minister has opposing plans 

Tirana, Radolfzell, Vienna, December 17th, 2020. Today, EcoAlbania, Riverwatch and EuroNatur informed the public about the latest developments regarding the Vjosa.

On September 25th, Albania´s Prime Minister Edi Rama announced on Twitter: “Our government has declared the upper Vjosa a National Park. Our Ministry of Environment has officially refused to give permission for HPP projects in the lower Vjosa that will be integrated with the Park!

This message was highly welcomed by many stakeholders such as Members of European Parliament, the Energy Community, nature conservation organizations, and even the world-famous actor Leonardo DiCaprio. However, three months later, the Prime Minister´s announcement appears to be an empty promise. Last week, the National Agency of Protected Areas (NAPA) – an agency under the Minister for Tourism and Environment – presented their plans for the Vjosa. Not a word has been said about a national park and no protection status at all is foreseen for the most valuable stretches of the river, which are threatened by dam plans. “The reality contradicts the statement of our Prime Minister. Currently, it looks like the people of Albania are being cheated. The future of the Vjosa is also about the credibility of Edi Rama and his government”, says Olsi Nika Director of EcoAlbania.

Interestingly, the vast majority of Albanians back the Prime Minister’s announcement from September to establish a national park and to drop the dam plans. According to a public opinion poll conducted by IDRA Poll (a specialised company which carries out opinion-polls in Albania) in December, 94 percent of Albanians are in favor of a Vjosa National Park on the entire length of the river. The main motives for this widely shared opinion are “to protect the country´s natural beauties and the landscape” and to have “better opportunities for touristic developments” in the region.

At the same time, 78 percent of the respondents oppose the construction of dams on the Vjosa (14% neutral, 8% in favor of dams). “This is a clear message: the people of Albania want a national park and no dams on the Vjosa, and the government should listen to them”, concludes Olsi Nika from Eco Albania.

IUCN – potential for a National Park

The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), a global authority on protection of nature, recognizes the international importance of Vjosa River’s outstanding natural values. A draft study commissioned by IUCN shows the potential of the Vjosa River for becoming a National Park. The study is expected to be published in early 2021 and includes a vision and a road map for the proper designation of the Vjosa River. The proposed protection area also includes its middle section in Albania, which is key to the river’s integrity and long-term protection of this unique and exceptional transboundary river ecosystem.

94 percent of Albanians are in favour of a Vjosa National Park. © Piotr Bednarek/Wolne Rzeki

Prime Minister Rama´s words and the reality

However, every day it becomes more evident, that the Albanian government, particularly the Minister for Environment Blendi Klosi and the National Agency of Protected Areas (NAPA), is heading in the opposite direction. Contrary to the Prime Minister´s earlier announcement, there are no plans to create a national park along the Vjosa. Instead, only a “Protected Landscape” category is foreseen for the upper part of the Vjosa, while no protection at all is planned downstream from Tepelena (Memalija bridge). This plan is not only excluding the most valuable parts of the river system, but would also leave the area unprotected in which the Kalivaç and Poçem dams are foreseen.

The plans that were presented by NAPA last week are actually an attempt to keep the door open for the Kalivaç and Poçem hydropower projects. They are a slap in the face of everyone who is in favor of the Vjosa, a slap in the face of the Albanian people, scientists and those who trust in the promises of the Prime Minister,” says Ulrich Eichelmann, CEO of Riverwatch, who has been working on the Vjosa River protection campaign for years.

EuroNatur representative Annette Spangenberg adds: “Any other category for the Vjosa except the National Park is not appropriate as it underestimates the nature conservation values of this unique ecosystem. For this reason, the current process within NAPA has to stop. We call on Prime Minister Rama to keep his promise and to support the declaration of a National Park along the Vjosa. The current process undertaken by NAPA is hasty, non-transparent and incomplete. Therefore, Minister Klosi should stop it and start a new process that fully takes into consideration the natural values of the Vjosa which are outstanding and clearly of European importance.

The future of Europe´s unique river system could also become an issue in the Albanian federal elections on April 25th. “We want to know which party, which political leader supports the Vjosa National Park and who doesn’t. With the political will and international support, Europe’s 1st Wild River National Park could be inaugurated by the end of 2022”, the organizations conclude.

Background information

  • Recording of today’s online press conference available upon request.
  • The Vjosa is the last wild river in Europe. The Albanian government plans to build several dams, two of which are planned in its middle course. The alternative vision is the creation of the first Wild River National Park in Europe, which was previously introduced by organizations, part of the campaign to protect the Vjosa.
  • The “Save the Blue Heart of Europe” campaign aims to protect rivers of high natural value in the Balkans, which are threatened by over 3,400 hydropower projects. The campaign is coordinated by the international NGOs Riverwatch and EuroNatur and is implemented jointly with partner organizations in the Balkan countries. The local partner in Albania is EcoAlbania. For more information
  • This is a joint press release by Riverwatch, EuroNatur and EcoAlbania
  •  1. Contrary to the announcement of Albania´s Prime Minister Edi Rama, the Minister for Environment does not plan a national park and no protection status at all for the most valuable river stretches like this one near Poçem. © Gernot Kunz
  • 2. 94 percent of Albanians are in favour of a Vjosa National Park. © Piotr Bednarek/Wolne Rzeki
  • 3. The IUCN confirms that the Vjosa qualifies for designation as a national park. Will the Albanian government follow their recommendation? © Gregor Subic
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