National Park

Eco-Masterplan for Balkan Rivers: Drawing a Line in the Sand

Produced by the “Save the Blue Heart of Europe” campaign, this masterplan for the Balkan rivers defines river stretches of high ecological value in the region, including in Albania, and provides a spatial plan for their protection. It identifies “no-go” areas along important river stretches, where hydropower development would be damaging to extraordinary natural ecosystems.

The study provides prospective outcomes for the socio-economic development of the area, by comparing the increase of income and local welfare through hydropower installation on the one and the establishment of a National Natural Park on the other hand, over a period of 35 years, concluding that hydropower dams would have ‘a negative impact on the socio-economic, environmental and biological aspects of the area’, since they would cause a loss of employment in the agriculture-livestock sector and tourism – the area’s current mainstay.  

The analyses conclude that the Vjosa valley would benefit socio-economically by turning into a National Natural Park; as such, employment would be increased, while the generated income would reach the local communities. Especially solarpower, instead of hydropower, as a prospective energy source bears the potential of improving the infrastructure of the valley in line with the conservation of the valley’s assets.

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Assignment of protected status for the Vjosa River valley according to international (IUCN) protected area standards

The IUCN Guidelines for the Application of Protected Area Management Categories are the recognized international standard for the designation of protected areas. They form the basis for legislation and regulating activities surrounding protection and aid in the planning, creation and management of national parks and all other categories of protected area. This report was submitted in support of EcoAlbania’s application in 2021 for the creation of a National Park (IUCN category-II protected area) along the entire course of the Vjosa river.

In line with the Albanian government’s designation of the Vjosa river in January 2022 as a IUCN category-IV Nature Park, and not the National Park demanded by environmental organizations and almost 50,000 signatories to EcoAlbania’s “Make the Vjosa a National Park Now” petition, this report is useful in clarifying the threats currently faced by the river and explains the IUCN protected area category models still considered most appropriate for the creation of Europe’s first “Wild River National Park”.

The floodplains of the Vjosa provide some of the most magnificent riparian ecosystems in the Balkan region and the entire course of the river is home to countless endangered and endemic species. This unique natural state would be irreversibly destroyed by the construction of planned hydropower projects. This report confirms that the Vjosa River valley meets the IUCN definition of a protected area, currently faces the threat of destruction, and that the upper and middle sections would most appropriately be protected by a IUCN category-II designation. Current government plans to build an airport in the Narta protected area near the Vjosa delta would irreparably damage the lower section of the river, reinforcing the importance of the demand to designate the entire length of the river a National Park.

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Vjosa – Environmental groups submit proposal for Europe’s first Wild River National Park

Tirana, Vienna, February 10th, 2021. Today, 20 Albanian environmental organisations 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. Their cause is supported by the international organizations Riverwatch, EuroNatur, WWF Adria, Wetlands International Europe, International Rivers and The Nature Conservancy.

The group of NGO-s feel compelled to take this step since Albanian government representatives have been announcing the national park for months, but have not taken any steps towards its implementation. On the contrary: “According to our information, the Ministry of Environment is not planning to establish a national park, but only a landscape protected area and only for the upper reaches of the Vjosa. The ecologically most valuable section of the river – which is also the area where the hydropower plants are planned – is to remain completely unprotected. Therefore, we decided to act and submit a complete proposal. Now we will see what our government really wants: power plants or a national park,” says Olsi Nika from the NGO EcoAlbania.

We call on the Albanian government to act on their promise and create the Vjosa Wild River National Park © Gregor Subic

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 such as the Bënçe or the Shushica. In total, the proposed Vjosa National Park will cover about 45,000 hectares and protect about 300 kilometers of flowing waters. This would be unique in Europe and the Vjosa could become Europe’s first Wild River National Park. 

So far, 1,175 animal and plant species have been recorded along the Vjosa, including 119 species protected under Albanian law and 39 species that are listed in the IUCN International Red List of Threatened Species. In fact, the number of rare species is probably much higher, as large areas of the Vjosa and its tributaries have hardly been explored.

A National Park according to IUCN criteria is the most suitable protection category for the Vjosa, because it not only best guarantees the protection of this unique landscape, but also because it is aimed at developing nature-compatible ecotourism as well as environmental education.

“Everyone would benefit from the Vjosa National Park: the Vjosa itself, its animals and plants, as well as the people of the region. A national park would also give them an economic perspective that neither a landscape protected area nor any other category of protection can guarantee,” says Ulrich Eichelmann from the nature conservation organization Riverwatch.

According to an opinion poll, 94% of Albanians are in favour of a Vjosa National Park © Adrian Guri

According to an analysis by the environmental groups, it would take two years to plan the national park. During this time, the population should be included in the process and details such as the exact zoning must be clarified. In 2023, Europe’s first wild river National Park could be officially opened.

“We support the Albanian conservationists in their demand for a national park. This river deserves the highest protection category and no dams! Anything less than a national park would be inappropriate for the Vjosa. This last big wild river in Europe is of international importance. Now it’s the turn of the environment minister,”says Annette Spangenberg, head of projects at EuroNatur.

The Ministry of Tourism and Environment now needs to examine our proposal and ultimately, it could officially initiate the protection procedure.

Background information:

  • Download the proposal for the creation of a Vjosa National Park HERE
  • List of Albanian NGOs :
EcoAlbania – The center for Protection of the Natural Ecosystems in Albania
AOS – Albanian Ornithologist Society
EDEN – Environmental Center for Development Education and Networking
Milieukontakt Albania

ACEG – Albanian Center for Environmenal Governance 

PPNEA  – Protection and Preservation of Natural Environment in Albania (PPNEA)
ILIRIA Association for Environmental and Social Protection and Development
IEP – Institute for Environmental Policy
REC Albania – The Resource Environmental Center Albania 
Eco movement Group
URI – Urban Research Institute
EPER Center
Cesvi Association
Pro Permet Association
Vjosa Explorer center
All Green Centre – Center for Environmental Protection and Sustainable Development
PPNE – Vlorë– Protection and Preservation of Natural Environment Vlora
Res Publica
Seep – AL
Green Vision
  • 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
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Bern Convention: Macedonian government is urged to halt construction of hydropower plants in national park

At the meeting of the Standing Committee, Council of Europe Strasbourg: Ana Colovic-Lesoska (Eco-sense) presents the Mavrovo case © Aleksandra Bujaroska

At the meeting of the Standing Committee, Council of Europe Strasbourg: Ana Colovic-Lesoska (Eco-sense) presents the Mavrovo case © Aleksandra Bujaroska

Plans for 17 hydropower plants throughout Macedonia’s Mavrovo National Park must be immediately suspended, so the Standing Committee of the Bern Convention ruled at its annual meeting on December, 5-8. The Standing Committee emphasizes its special concerns with regard to the still ongoing developments of small hydropower plants within the park.

The governing body of the European wildlife treaty has already expressed concerns about the irreversible impact of hydropower facilities on the unique ecosystem of the park two years ago. In 2015, the Bern Convention Standing Committee urged the Macedonian government to halt any further hydropower development until all impacts are analyzed in the form of a strategic environmental impact assessment.

Streams like this would be destroyed by HP projects inside Mavrovo NP © Theresa Schiller

Streams like this would be destroyed by HP projects inside Mavrovo NP © Theresa Schiller

Such projects should not be allowed in protected areas. The recovery of the ecosystem is impossible when the water regime is inconsistent or riverbeds are left to dry”, explains Ana Colovic Lesoska from the complainant Eko-svest, member of CEE Bankwatch Network in Macedonia. The Standing Committee’s 2015 recommendation also called on Skopje to complete the process of reconfirming Mavrovo’s status as a national park.

Following several years of campaigning by Macedonian and international environmental groups, the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development and the World Bank dropped their funding for two large hydropower plants that had been planned in the park – Boskov Most and Lukovo Pole. Yet, according to a recent report by the government on implementation of the Standing Committee’s recommendation, a decision to formally suspend the two controversial projects is yet to be adopted. The report also suggests that, while the government does not intend to issue new concessions for smaller hydropower facilities within the national park, it also doesn’t take measures to stop the development of those projects for which concessions have already been approved.

The creeks' water is diverted through pipes, leaving the riverbed to dry. © Theresa Schiller

The creeks’ water is diverted through pipes, leaving the riverbed to dry. © Theresa Schiller

Given the Macedonian government’s foot dragging so far – it did not even send a single representative to last meeting – the Bern Convention’s Standing Committee now reiterate its call to suspend all hydropower development in the park. “Hydropower plants are inconsistent with biodiversity conservation and don’t belong in protected areas like the Mavrovo National Park“, says Theresa Schiller from EuroNatur.

The Standing Committee’s 2015 recommendation also called on Macedonian Government to complete the process of reconfirming Mavrovo’s status as a national park. But the draft Law on re-proclaiming the Mavrovo National Park prepared in 2015 first must be revised. “This law is in collision with the Bern Convention and the National Law on Nature. Instead of prioritising protection and promotion of biodiversity in Mavrovo, the law leaves the possibility for the construction of new hydropower plants on parks’ territory. The Government should amend the law in accordance with the guidelines and recommendations of the IUCN“, says Aleksandra Bujaroska from the Macedonian NGO “Front 21/42”.

Rare Balkan lynx needs protection in Mavrovo National Park
Additionally, during the meeting, the Committee decided to add the Balkan lynx to its list of strictly protected fauna species. A national symbol of Macedonia – the Balkan lynx – can only be found in its western part, mainly in Mavrovo National Park. The species is considered to be critically endangered, the estimated population in the wild consists of only about 30 mature individuals. Scientific data published earlier this year by the Macedonian Ecological Society (MES) showed that the rare cat species is successfully breeding in Mavrovo, hence further emphasizing the need for careful protection and proper management of the national park.

Background information

  • This is a joint Press Release by EuroNatur, Eko-svest, Front 21/42, Bankwatch and Riverwatch
  • The campaign “Save the Blue Heart of Europe” aims to protect the most valuable rivers in the Balkans. It is coordinated by the NGOs EuroNatur and Riverwatch and carried out jointly with partner organisations from the Balkan countries. In Macedonia with Eko-svest and Front 21/42.
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