Biodiversity, Development & Aid, Environment, Europe, Headlines

ALBANIA: Preserving a Beauty Called Biodiversity

Vesna Peric Zimonjic

VELIPOJA, Jul 16 2007 (IPS) - It takes a short walk from the famous Velipoja beach in Shkodra town on the Adriatic coast to put behind the stresses of modern life, and the beach attractions themselves.

The walk takes you to the Buna River Delta Reservation, a marshy confluence of the 44 km waterway that flows from Shkodra Lake into the Adriatic.

The silence of the cool forest is broken only by twittering birds and the whispers of rare visitors heading for bird watching towers or exploring the banks of the Buna. The bird watchers will see loggerhead turtles, pygmy cormorants, Adriatic pelicans and rare Levant sparrow hawks, among many others.

Parts of this large nature reserve are home also to boar, foxes and jackals.

This reservation is one of several in Albania. Forty-five years of isolation under communist rule did mean some protection to wildlife and biodiversity. Post-communist development over the last 17 years has brought new challenges, and the reserves are now a vital preservation move.

"We have seen the pollution costs of development," Xhemail Mato, head of the Association for Environmental Protection told IPS. "This country was dubbed the first in Europe for its biodiversity not so long ago. However, things have changed since 1990. Now, a lot has to be done to preserve the good nature."

Studies by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and the United Nations Environmental Programme (UNEP) show that Albania suffers from one of the highest rates of biodiversity loss in Europe. Deforestation, soil erosion, uncontrolled land use and pollution are rapidly destroying precious resources.

"Some 30 percent of Albania&#39s forests have been destroyed since 1990," Mato said. "Destruction is faster than the process of raising awareness among people."

The battle for preserving the richness of biodiversity and natural resources is now on. Environmentalists are fighting to raise awareness among people and the "wild developers" out to exploit natural resources without concern for consequences.

Albania has ratified most international protocols on environmental issues, but it lacks the mechanism to implement them.

"Non-governmental organisations (NGOs) that work to raise awareness are often viewed as enemies," Mato said. "However, we did have some important success. It was the action to prevent adoption of the law that would allow genetically modified organisms (GMOs) freely to enter the country. We are very proud of that."

Albania still has naturally grown food of excellent quality. Neat fields of wheat, maize or sunflower are spread out in the lowlands of central and northern Albania.

Homegrown quality vegetables are the pride of the nation. Sheep and cows can be seen in green fields along the roads that connect capital Tirana with the central town Berat and northern town Shkodra. Hens and ducks can be seen in the backyards of modest farmers&#39 homes, well fed by home-grown corn.

"Albania wants to develop tourism, and this is its last development chance," Mato said. "In order to achieve that, it counts on its good nature. We have to develop eco-awareness here in order to accomplish that goal."

Among the most interesting spots for tourism development are the five lagoons along the Adriatic and Ionian coast. They once spread over more than 70,000 hectares. But more than 15,000 hectares were drained in the 1960s to reclaim fertile soil and to eradicate malaria.

One of them, the Karavasta Lagoon in the south, is considered of particular importance. It has been placed under a special management and protection programme now to save its unique biodiversity of plants, birds and animals.

Another two, Narta and Orikumi, are also under environmentalists&#39 watch. Efforts to halt illegal sand digging, illegal construction and waste dumping are under way.

Tree planting has started around Orikumi, but Narta is facing problems. Oil-drilling has begun here, preventing further environment protection projects.

Despite such setbacks, considerable progress is afoot across Albania. "All the projects for environment protection need to have measurable impact on biodiversity," says Arian Gace, national coordinator for the Global Environmental Facility (GEF), an NGO that helps developing nations fund programmes to protect nature. "Programmes for biodiversity protection should also be coupled in time with investment for the improvement of life of people."

Gace is critical of the funding that came to Albania for years, driven by romantic views on nature among both international organisations and local NGOs.

"The system needs to be changed," he said. "Organisations boasted that &#39money went for wolves&#39 or &#39money went to pelicans&#39, but no one said there were no roads to reach the wolves or pelicans. One has to keep in mind the human dimension of projects in order to have success."

Albania is not making its efforts alone. It is cooperating with neighbour Montenegro. The two share the large Shkodra Lake and Buna delta.

The neighbours are involved in a joint project for sustainable development through a broader engagement of people from local fishing villages, and employment of the young in the tourism industry. This also means saving the unique biodiversity of the shared delta.

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