Patagonia Provides a Voice for the Vjosa
Following years of ambiguity on the subject, Albanian officials have finally declared the Vjosa River and its tributaries a future national park. This has been made possible with support from California-based Patagonia, a brand renowned for their on-going commitment to 1% for the Planet. Working in partnership with the Albanian government, Patagonia will be drafting a sustainable plan to protect Europe’s last wild river. Other than its pristine, natural beauty, the river is integral to managing flood mitigation, is responsible for water purification processes, and promotes biodiversity in the region.
Photography: Gregor Subic
The Vjosa first started getting worldwide attention following the 2018 film Blue Heart. The documentary also doubled as a campaign to protect the wild rivers of the Balkans -the “Blue Heart” of Europe - from 3,400 proposed hydropower projects that would destroy the culture and ecology of the entire region. Within the Blue Heart, the Vjosa is the largest and most untamed river system.
In addition to the outdoor apparel giant, organisations such as EcoAlbania, Riverwatch and EuroNatur are collaborating to assemble and fund a panel of qualified experts that will devise a blueprint for the park. Ulrich Eichelmann, who is a filmmaker and CEO of RiverWatch, has explained that hydropower plants have been threatening the Vjosa for some time.
“The river and its tributaries flow freely from the Pindus Mountains in Greece to the Adriatic coast in Albania without any artificial obstacles. For [over ten] years, the entire river system has been under attack by dam projects, which, if constructed, would destroy this natural environment, flooding some parts of the valley while leaving others dry” - Eichelmann stated.
The news comes as welcomed relief for Vjosa Valley inhabitants, whose entire culture depends on the 270 km (170 mile) water source. It is an asset to Albanian heritage and has significance to all of Europe as a natural laboratory in terms of potamology, or the study of rivers. From a social and economic point of view, it provides excellent opportunities for future developments, such as tourism. Besjana Guri, who is a social worker and communication officer for EcoAlbania, has explained that the river has played a crucial role in the lives of Albanians for thousands of years.
“It’s an emotional relation between the people. People have named their baby girls Vjosa; they sing about the river. According to an opinion poll that was conducted in December 2020, 94% of Albanian people [were] in favor of a national park” - Guri stated.
Minister for Tourism and Environment Mirela Kumbaro and Patagonia CEO Ryan Gellert sign a Memorandum of Understanding to work together to create Vjosa National Park.
Photography by: Nick St.Oegger
Not only will a national park protect the river, but it will also boost the socio-economic framework of a country which traditionally does not receive large numbers of tourists. Guri explained that the energy of a national park will strengthen the local community.
“If Albania has the first wild river national park in Europe, there’s an opportunity to develop ecotourism and the local economy. In recent years, many young people have been leaving because they can’t find work and don’t see a future here. If we manage to protect biodiversity and in turn help the community, it could be the most sustainable development for Albania” - she stated.
Patagonia’s involvement in the project cannot be understated. Their influence has helped to push the concept of a national park from a mere dream into reality. Despite political leaders like Prime Minister Edi Rama announcing their intent to prevent dam projects from being developed, there had been very little done on a bureaucratic level. Before Patagonia joined the local organisations that opposed the dam projects, the Albanian government had plans to build eight hydropower stations along the Vjosa and its tributaries. Currently, there is already one half-built hydropower station at Kalivaç; what will become of that is still to be determined.
What is important now is that the Vjosa has finally found respite. Not just the river itself, but the thousand-plus species that consider the region home. Of those species, thirteen are facing extinction, including the Balkan lynx. It is believed the cat has a total estimated population of about 120, with as few as fifteen of them remaining in Albania.
Prime Minister Edi Rama, Minister for Tourism and Environment Mirela Kumbaro, Patagonia CEO Ryan Gellert and US Ambassador to the Republic of Albania Yuri Kim come together to celebrate the signing of a Memorandum of Understanding between the Albanian Ministry for Tourism and Environment and Patagonia, to work together to create Vjosa National Park.
Photography by: Elton Baxhaku
Dr. Kathy MacKinnon, who is chair of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, has stated that it is necessary to protect not just the upland areas, but also the whole river ecosystem, the watershed, the tributaries, and especially the flood plains.
“What is exceptional here is that you have this unspoiled wilderness area with a whole range of ecosystems - multiple different habitat types - all the way from the source to the sea. This is clearly a unique and exceptional area in Europe and should be recognized as such. This would not only be an asset for Europe but also a contribution to global conservation efforts” - MacKinnon stated.
It will be years before the national park is revealed to the public. The road ahead is long and not without obstructions. As of today, the Vjosa is currently defined as a “protected zone” in regards to hydropower dam projects. It is still too early to have a concrete idea of how big the national park will be, but it is certainly to be Albania’s biggest. However, with Patagonia, EcoAlbania, Riverwatch, and EuroNatur at the helm, the one-of-a-kind space is guaranteed to be a source of inspiration for conservationists and nature lovers across the planet.
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Text: Elliott Wright
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