Originally published here.
Hydropower development in the Balkans has gained much traction, with foreign investors flooding in, waiting to take turns in securing concessions to build dams and small hydropower plants. After taking office as Prime Minister in 2013 Edi Rama declared that during his first six months in office, not one day passed without investors calling to state their interest in hydropower. And this can very well be seen in the situation on the ground; four years later, these developments are increasingly common, with shady pasts concessions being given construction permits by the current government, despite the fact that the industry has become less the lucrative, has been mired in corruption allegations, defying Albanian legislation and international agreements, and putting communities at risk.
Albanian Hydropower Investments: Context and Conflict
Over 300 hydropower projects are currently in different stages of planning and development in the small Southern European Country. The opposition of local communities is nothing new within these projects, and a recent assessment study has revealed the consequences: arrests, casualties, and even one murder attempt took place in Albania between 2012 and 2016, mostly as a result of small hydropower plant development. The conflicts usually involve vulnerable local communities that depend on the water sources to survive, and who also want to avoid a loss of landscape and sense of space. Without the government enforcing the legal requirement of public consultation with the communities affected, conflicts most often arise when machinery is brought to a project area, and construction works begin.
The Development of the Valbona Case
The Valbona National Park has is one of the newest cases in which construction has begun, similarly to other cases in Albania, but where locals have resorted not only to protests but also legal mechanisms to stop the development of hydropower plants on the Valbona river. In January 2016, the National Environmental Agency confirmed that the building of 14 plants was planned along the river, while 8 were to be located within the National Park itself. But while the local communities strongly oppose these developments, the government and judicial system have sided with the private developers. News related to the campaign aimed at keeping Valbona a wild river has been mostly silenced and shut down, especially by those channels that have a wider reach. In terms of the legality of the situation, whether these hydropower plants and dams can continue to be built in the Valbona Valley is directly linked to legislation concerning protected areas. In the past, although the law on protected areas said that ‘no industrial activity’ was to be permitted in national parks, when the concessions were initially given the developers argued that HPPs are not industrial, but ‘green’. This loophole has been present in legislation until June 2017 when the law was appealed to clearly state that the building of hydropower plants is not allowed within national parks.
Local Green Economy Versus Profit for One Private Company
From a socio-economic and ecological perspective, the area has outstanding potential to secure much needed sustainable development through eco-tourism businesses. The Valbona River lies at the heart of the National Park and of the local communities. Residents in the area have protested repeatedly against the construction of hydropower plants, and plead that while the area is isolated, and 79% of the population is unemployed, they have the chance to develop a green economy; like in other cases across the country, the untouched river is one of the few resources they have to ensure their subsistence. Small-scale local developments in the regional tourism sector, coupled with a general tourism growth in Albania have significantly increased the opportunities for locals to make a living in this way.
‘The people of Valbona have, for I don’t know how long, had no way to earn money. The profit from tourism is crucial here as it is from this that they can find a way to feed their children and families, to live and move forward. There’s no other way of earning money here, whereas Hydropower isn’t employing anybody. No one from Valbona is working there, just one night-watchman. Over 30 families in Valbona, and only one person is employed. Tourists come here for Valbona, and Valbona the way God made it.’ –Valbona Valley Resident
The government and entire Albanian justice system have so far refused to comply with the demands of the local community. The concessions for the construction work on the river were given out as early as 2009 by the Democratic Party. However, before coming to power, the current government promised to stop all such developments within Albania’s national parks. Existing legislation which theoretically protects national parks does clarify that all activities permitted in the park have to preserve its ecology and biodiversity. The building of an HPP would, therefore, violate the law, as it heavily impacts on the river, the river bank’s ecosystems, and beyond, given the number of explosions that the area has been subjected to in the building process. Unfortunately, like in so many other cases, not only were the electoral promises broken, but legal irregularities continued to take place in the context of the Valbona Valley:
‘The documentation for the development was approved as if 20 people were in favour. In fact, some of these people were not alive at the time; they used falsified signatures. Actually, 95% of the inhabitants of Dragobi and the rest of the valley are against the development of Hydropower as it would completely ruin the valley. From a National Park, as declared by the government in 1996, it would be destroyed and no longer a tourism zone, but an industrial zone. Please, government: justice. Decide as fast as you can to protect Valbona valley. When you affect the river, you affect the heart of the valley. If you removed the water supply, this rare beauty cannot exist. It is not only in the interest of this community to stop the development but also for the flora and fauna which would be lost by the removing of the river. Therefore, the valley has to be protected.’ – Valbona Valley Resident
The local communities and a local NGO then sued the government, precisely: the Ministry of Economy and Industry, the Ministry of Environment, the National Environmental Agency, the National Territorial Council, the Territorial Development Agency, and the Drin Buna River Basin Council. They accused the authorities of disregarding the law on protected areas, and allowing a significant construction project to take place, as well as for approving the environmental permission in the absence of consultations with the public, which is not only a violation of constitutional law but also in contradiction to the Aarhus Convention, ratified by the Albanian state in 2000. However, after 5 months and 14 hearings, the court denied the lawsuit the residents filed and dismissed the case. The defence was mostly carried out not by the government itself, who was the party being sued, but instead by the lawyers of the company that was given the concessions, who requested to be included in the lawsuit and then took the leading role in the court hearings.
Protests Followed the Decision of the Court
On the 10th and 11th of November, activists from Valbona and across the country staged two days of protests in response to the court’s decision, with events occurring around the Tropoja district where Valbona is located, as well as at the site of the construction work. Despite media presence, the situation was not reported, and people realised a media blackout had been imposed when links to an article that was initially published were being taken down within 24 hours. The coverage that was granted to the activists was primarily from abroad with only social media reporting within Albania. However, for the activists who seek to protect the Valbona river from hydropower, the first protests in Tropoja were just the beginning of a campaign aimed at raising awareness and gaining support for the cause.
On Saturday the 18th of November, another protest followed, organised by environmental activists, this time in the capital of Tirana. Despite being organized in only 3 days close to 200 people attended the protest, which was aimed at raising awareness and pushing for more visibility of the Valbona case. Residents in Valbona drove for over 10 hours to have their voices heard and to continue pleading for their case. During the protest, the government gave no response. Despite more media presence, only around 3-4 smaller news outlets reported on the situation and still none of the mainstream media outlets mentioned any news of the two-hour protest. In the absence of media coverage, many activists have resorted to social media platforms to raise awareness of the situation in Valbona, sharing the hashtag #mosmaprekvalbonen (don’t touch Valbona).
Activists regard these actions not only as a means of stopping the destruction of one project, in this case, in Valbona, but also as a struggle for democracy, human rights, environmental rights, and respect for the rule of law, all of which are currently being disregarded in the process of hydropower developments in Albania.
At the moment, the construction works in the Valbona National Park are continuing and pacing up. Activists are trying to stop the development of the hydropower plants before the river is deviated, and before steel towers to carry the high tension power cables are constructed, damaging over 20km of the valley beyond the point of no return. This leaves the campaign with only a short period of time to act and stop the process, perhaps at best a few months. On the 20th of November, an appeal to the court’s decision was filed, while additional lawsuits and criminal charges are about to be filed. The delays, however, could lead to severe consequences, affecting not only the environmental sustainability of the region but also the dignity and social and economic status of the local community. A new protest for Valbona is being planned for the 2nd of December 2017, when once again, Albanians will push forward public interest, the right to legal recourse, and the protection of natural heritage and livelihoods of the people who reside in the Northern Albanian Alps.