++The Standing Committee of the Bern Convention expresses concern about the possible reduction of the network of national Protected Areas and delays in the preparation of the River Basin Management Plan++
Tirana, December 8, 2021. Three environmentally sensitive issues received attention at the meeting of the Standing Committee of the Bern Convention held on November 29–December 3, 2021 in Strasbourg: the protection status of the Vjosa River; the airport project in the Vjosa-Narta Protected Area; and the process of reviewing the boundaries of the network of Protected Areas. The Committee decided to keep the issue of the Vjosa River open as well as to conduct an assessment of the situation on the field in 2022 in relation to Vlora International Airport.
While the Albanian government is close to finalizing the declaration of the Vjosa River area as a Nature Park (Category IV), the Standing Committee asked the Albanian authorities to explain why the proposal of EcoAlbania and the International Union of Protected Areas (IUCN), based on extensive studies, to declare the Vjosa River a National Park (Category II) has not been considered. “With the support of 20 other organizations and based on the proposals of the IUCN, we submitted an official proposal to the Ministry of Tourism and Environment on February 2021 and to date we have not received any official response regarding this proposal. Although we are aware of the process initiated by the Ministry of Tourism and Environment to declare the Vjosa River a Natural Park, we continue to strongly support the proposal to give the Vjosa River and its tributaries the highest protection status, that of a National Park”, said Olsi Nika, Executive Director of EcoAlbania.
The Standing Committee reiterated its deep concern over the plans to urbanize the Vjosa-Narta Protected Area, including the construction of an airport, and urged the government to reconsider those plans. The Committee highlighted that the natural values of the Vjosa-Narta Protected Area are evident and a strong protection regime is needed. The construction of Vlora International Airport and the plans for urbanization of the Vjosa-Narta Protected Area have been opposed by a broad coalition of about 50 national and international organizations.
The Vlora International Airport project will now be under the scrutiny of the Bern Convention. The Committee decided to establish a group of independent international experts to conduct a field assessment by 2022. The field assessment mission will see in detail the situation of the airport, which is under construction despite the fact that no Strategic Environmental Assessment for the Vjosa-Narta area has been completed. “The field visit of a special mission of the Bern Convention is an expression of the extraordinary concern of national and international organizations regarding the urbanization of the Vjosa-Narta area and the irreversible negative consequences of Vlora Airport in the biological diversity of Albania. We call on the government to protect the Protected Areas and to give up their intention to turn them on construction sites”, said Taulant Bino, President of the Ornithological Association of Albania (AOS).
Finally, the Committee also expressed concern about the possible reduction of the national network of Protected Areas. Among other things, he called on the Albanian authorities to cooperate with both local actors and the international community, such as the IUCN and the Energy Community Treaty, when taking decisions that could affect the long-term sustainability of nature conservation in Albania.