The Rivers are Calling, and North is Rising

This Friday, 19 October 2018, a delegation of Tropojans will depart from Valbona for the long trek to Tamare.  At 3:00 on Saturday, 20 October 2018, people from Tropoja, Kelmend and Montenegro will meet for the first time ever to join forces to fight together against the wave of Hydropower construction that threatens our rivers.

As far as we know, the Cemi River in Kelmend is cleared for 14 hydropowers, Valbona River for 14, Shala River for 6 and the Curraj River for an additional 11.  These constructions threaten to turn every river valley in Northern Albania into industrial dustbowls, negating the possibility of declaring the 86,000ha National Park of the Albanian Alps promised by the Albanian Government in 2015.  This National Park, combined with neighboring protected areas in Kosova and Montenegro, will create the largest protected wilderness area in Europe, and could put the Balkans at the forefront of Europe not only in terms of nature protection, but as the preeminent eco-tourism destination of Europe.  The declaration of the park has been blocked since 2015 by the Albanian Ministry of Infrastructure and Energy, who demand the zoning of industrial development zones within the park, despite hydropowers being illegal within national parks under Albanian law.

For this reason, the communities of Tropoja, Kelmend and neighboring Montenegro are getting together to conceive a common response to a problem that belongs to us all: Never underestimate the power of a small group of people that really believe in the right cause!!!

The Battle for Valbona Continues

Today, 10 September 2018, locals – hanging on to the tatters of their patience and faith – filled the courthouse in Tropoja, only to hear yet more proof of the corruption rampant in the Tropoja judicial system.

In March 2018, 30 local people and NGO TOKA filed criminal charges against Dragobia Kryeplak Adem Metaliaj and Dragobia Energy Administrator Artila Ulaj, for validating a public consultation which included the signatures of dead people.  It is crucial to establish the validity of this public consultation as it was an integral part of the application process for the environmental permit for the Dragobia Energy hydropowers.  After dithering for 6 months, Tropoja court met today to hear the argument of the prosecutor who stated that although there was no question that the signatures were faked, he was nonetheless asking the court to throw out the charges on the basis that the period for complaint had expired.

Local people, still recovering from the actions of the local court on 31 July which effectively blocked the administrative appeals court decision to stop the construction, found themselves facing yet another confirmation of the complete breakdown of justice in Tropoja.  Falsified signatures must be reported within 5 years.  The criminal charges were filed 29 days before this deadline.  Despite lengthy and legally based arguments on the part of the accusers, the Tropoja court ruled to uphold the request of the prosecutor to throw out the charges.  Apparently, not only is the Tropoja court firmly in the pocket of hydropower developer Gener-2, they can’t even count.

But the scandal gets bigger, the closer you look.  The court-appointed officer charged with investigating the issue of falisified signatures is one Elton Hoxha, who happens to be the son of Skender Hoxha, the engineer in charge of the hydropower construction.

Locals were represented during the court by Avokati Altin Fushaxhia of the Open Society Foundation of Albania.  Together they will be moving to appeal the Tropoja court decision in Shkoder as soon as possible.  This appeal, however, will be the 11th legal action instigated by local people, and at this point it is hard for locals to believe that it will not meet the same fate as all their other legal actions – spinning around endlessly in the inefficient and counterproductive laissez-faire Albanian legal system which functions only to waste time, and allow the construction to continue.

At this point, it is hard for locals to see any choice, but to enforce the law themselves.

Tropoja Court Meets Secretly to Protect Hydropowers

Today, 1 August, TOKA president Catherine Bohne visited the office of the Bailiff in Tropoja, to make sure everything was in order for the planned execution of the 6 June Tirana Appeals Court decision to stop the construction works of Dragobia Energy Hydropower in Valbona Valley National Park.  On 24 July 2018, the Tropoja Bailiff requested the support of local police to enforce the stop work order on 2 August (ie, tomorrow).

The Bailiff wasn’t present, but his assistant said “Oh.  You didn’t get our envelope?”

TOKA president Catherine Bohne went to the post office, and retrieved the letter posted that morning, learning that Dragobia Energy ShPK and parent company Gener 2 had filed a lawsuit in Tropoja Courts, attacking the actions of the Bailiff, Mr. Eduard Mrishaj, and claiming that his execution of the Tirana Court’s decision was illegal.  The Tropoja court met on 31 July (ie, yesterday), without informing the parties to the original lawsuit, and approved an interim measure to stop the actions of the bailiff, pending final decision.  Basically, the court approved an injunction on behalf of the hydropowers against the people’s injunction.

What is the basis for claiming the illegality of a court employee enforcing a court decision?

In their suit filed in Tropoja courts, the companies claim that the judgment to stop the work was made as part of a lawsuit questioning the validity of the construction permit issued to Dragobia Energy in November 2017.  This permit expired in May 2018.  The companies claim that – since the construction permit is no longer valid – no lawsuit concerning it has any validity.

It is true that the construction permit expired in May 2018.  In fact, this means that the company has been working – illegally – without a valid construction permit for the past two months.  TOKA filed criminal charges against this, on 19 July 2018.

The company then argues that they have applied for a construction permit extension, but it has not been approved by KKT (the National Territorial Council), so it is not their fault that they do not have a valid permit.

However, in fact, KKT met on Thursday, 26 July, and awarded 28 new permits but did not award a construction permit to Dragobia Energy.

Therefore: 3 days AFTER KKT apparently decided not to grant a new construction permit to the company, 2 months after the expiration of the contested construction permit, and two months after a court decision to stop the construction works, the companies of Dragobia Energy and Gener 2 are arguing that despite their failure to win in court and despite their failure to obtain a valid permit, they have the right to continue constructing, because – more or less – “someone should have given them a permit but didn’t.”

In reviewing the published decision of the Tropoja court, we see that the judge has simply copy-pasted the arguments of the hydropower companies.  He does not refer to the counter-arguments of the bailiff, and the 27 local people and NGO TOKA, party to the original lawsuit, were neither informed of the suit, called to court, nor informed by the court of their decision.

The Tropoja court proposes giving a final decision by 31 January 2019.  Meaning that the hydropower companies should be left free to continue constructing illegally, without a valid permit, and in direct opposition to Tirana Administrative Appeals court, and in the face of Criminal Charges.

“Here we have a clear example of the kind of nonsense that Tropojan citizens have to deal with every day, every month, every year,” stated TOKA President Catherine Bohne.  “The Dragobia Energy and Gener 2 Hydropower plants are continuing construction in the face of numerous, documented illegalities.  Local people have worked fearlessly, and tirelessly to pursue justice, asking only the fair implementation of Albanian law.  And this is the answer they receive from their own courts:  We will just copy paste the arguments of the companies and uphold their right to continue destroying the Valbona River, never mind that they are now clearly breaking numerous laws, ignoring numerous criminal charges and directly ignoring the decision of Albanian courts.”

Locals and TOKA will move immediately to support the bailiff’s office who will presumably appeal this judgment in Shkoder’s appeals court.

“It is somewhat ironic that this news arrives only a day after courts decided to uphold the decision to cancel the Osum River Hydropowers, using the same arguments as we have used in Valbona,” says Catherine Bohne.  “It looks more and more like Valbona is the test case that will show whether justice reform, and the fair implementation of rule of law is working in Albania, or whether the country will choose to decide that a few rich businessmen should be allowed to do whatever they want, law or no law.”

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Sot date 1 Gusht, Kryetarja e shoqates TOKA, Catherine Bohne, shkoi tek zyra e permbaruesit ligjor ne Tropoje per t’u siguruar qe gjithcka ishte ne rregull me zbatimin e planifikuar te vendimit te Gjykates se Apelit ne Tirane per te ndaluar punimet e ndertimeve te Hec-eve nga Dragobia Energy ne Parkun Kombetar te Lugines se Valbones.

Me 24 Korrik 2018, permbaruesi i Tropojes kerkoi mbeshtetjen e policise lokale per te zbatuar ligjin per ndalimin e punimeve me 2 Gusht (dmth neser).

Permbaruesi nuk ishte i pranishem, por asistenti i tij tha: ” Po a nuk e keni marre zarfin qe ju kemi derguar?”

Kryetarja e TOKA, Catherine Bohne, shkoi tek zyra postare dhe mori letren e derguar ate mengjes, ku mesoj se Dragobia Energy Shpk dhe kompania Gener2 kishin dorezuar nje padi ne Gjykaten e Tropojes ku kundershtonin veprimet e permbaruesit zotit Eduard Mrishaj dhe ku pretendohej se zbatimi i tij i ardhur nga vendimi i Gjykates se Tiranes ishte i paligjshem.

Gjykata e Tropojes u mblodh me date 31 Korrik (dmth dje), pa dijenin e paleve per padine e vertete, dhe miratoi nje mase te perkohshme per te ndaluar veprimet e metejshme te permbaruesit, duke pezulluar vendimin perfundimtar.

Praktikisht, gjykata aprovoi nje urdher qe eshte ne favor te Hec-eve, por kunder kerkesave te banoreve.

Me cfare logjike pretendohet paligjshmeria e veprimit te nje punonjesi gjykate qe zbaton nje vendim te saj?

Ne padine e tyre te ngritur ne Gjykaten e Tropojes, kompanite pretendojne se vendimi per te ndaluar punimet eshte marre si pjese e padise qe vendos ne pikepyetje vlefshmerine e lejes se ndertimit te leshuar per Dragobia Energy ne Nentor te 2017-es.

Kjo leje skadoi ne Maj te 2018-es. Kompanite pretendojne se meqe leja e ndertimit nuk eshte me e vlefshme, atehere asnje padi ne lidhje me kete rast nuk eshte e vlefshme.

Eshte e vertete se leja e ndertimit skadoi ne Maj te 2018-es. Ne fakt, kjo do te thote se kompania ka qene duke punuar ilegalisht, pa nje leje ndertimi te vlefshme per dy muajt e fundit. Shoqata TOKA ngriti akuza penale kunder ketij rasti me date 19 Korrik 2018-te. Pas kesaj kompania argumentoi se ajo kishte aplikuar per nje shtyrje te lejes se ndertimit por qe nuk eshte miratuar nga KKT (Keshilli Kombetar i Territorit), pra nuk eshte faji i tyre qe ata nuk kane nje leje te vlefshme. Faktikisht, KKT u mblodh te enjten me 26 Korrik dhe leshoi 28 leje te reja por askund nuk permendej emri i Dragobia Energy.

Prandaj: 3 dite pasi KKT me sa duket vendosi qe te mos i jepte nje leje te re ndertimi kompanise, 2 muaj pas skadimit te lejes se kontestuar te ndertimit, dhe 2 muaj pas vendimit te gjykates per te ndaluar punimet e ndertimit, kompania e Dragobia Energy dhe Gener2 pohojne se pavaresisht deshtimit per te fituar ne gjykate si dhe per te marre nje leje te vlefshme, ata kane te drejten qe te vazhdojne ndertimet sepse, pak a shume, “dikush duhet t’jua kishte dhene lejen por nuk ka ndodhur keshtu.” Gjate rishikimit te vendimit te publikuar te Gjykates se Tropojes, ne verejme se gjykatesi thjesht i ka bere copy-paste argumenteve te kompanive te Hec-eve.

Ai nuk u referohet kunder-argumenteve te permbaruesit. Njekohesisht, 27 banoret lokal dhe Shoqata TOKA, palet e padise se vertete, as nuk jane informuar per padine, as thirrur ne gjykate dhe aq me pak te jene informuar nga gjykata per vendimin e marre.

Gjykata e Tropojes propozon dhenien e nje vendimi perfundimetar me 31 Janar 2019-te. Si rrjedhoje, kompanite e Hec-eve lihen te lira qe te vazhdojne ndertimin ilegal pa nje leje te vlefshme, dhe ne nje kundershtim te hapur me Gjykaten Administrative te Apelit ne Tirane, si dhe perballe akuzave penale te ngritura.

“Ketu ne kemi te bejme me nje shembull konkret te iracionalitetit me te cilin qytetaret e Tropojes perballen cdo dite, muaj dhe vit,” tha Kryetarja e TOKA, Catherine Bohne.

“Kompanite e Hec-eve, Dragobia Energy dhe Gener2, jane duke vazhduar ndertimet pavaresisht paligjshmerive te shumta te dokumentuara.

Banoret lokal kane punuar sypatrembur dhe pa pushim per te vene drejtesi, duke kerkuar vetem zbatimin e drejte te ligjit shqipetar.

Dhe kjo eshte pergjigjia qe marrin si shperblim nga gjykatat e tyre: Ne thjesht do t’ju bejme copy-paste argumenteve te kompanise dhe do te perkrahim te drejten e tyre per te vazhduar shkaterrimin e Lumit te Valbones, ska rendesi qe ata tani po shkelin haptas disa ligje me rralle, duke shperfillur disa akuza penale dhe njekohesisht vendimin e gjykatave shqipetare.” Banoret lokal dhe TOKA do t’i ofrojne mbeshtetje te menjehershme zyres se permbaruesit, i cili me shume gjasa do te apeloje kete vendim tek Gjykata e Apelit ne Shkoder.

“Si per ironi te fatit, ky lajm vjen nje dite pasi gjykata vendosi qe te perkrah vendimin per te anulluar ndertimin e Hec-eve ne Lumin e Osumit, duke perdorur te njejtat argumente sic i kemi perdorur edhe ne per kauzen e Valbones,” shprehet Catherine Bohne.

Cdo here e me shume duket sikur Valbona eshte nje rast prove qe do te tregoje nese reforma ne drejtesi dhe zbatimi i drejte i ligjit eshte duke funksionuar sic duhet ne shqiperi, apo nese njerzit do te zgjedhin qe disa biznesmen te pasur te bejne si t’ju doje qejfi, duke perdorur menyra te ligjshme apo te paligjshme.”

The Date is Set to Stop the Works!

As many of you are aware, on 6 June 2018 the Administrative Court of Appeals in Tirana upheld the request of TOKA & 27 locals to stop the works of Dragobia Energy Hydropower projects.  This request was included in our suit lodged against KKT (the National Territorial Council) for issuing a new construction permit in November 2017, in direct contravention of the new law on protected areas which states that hydropower is not permitted in a National Park.  Under Albanian law, the court should grant a stop work order in cases where “irreversible damage may be caused by construction, during the time required for the judicial process.”  Today, 26 July 2018,  we received the formal notice of Tropoja’s Bailiff’s request to the police to join him on 2 August, at noon, at the offices of Dragobia Energy on site in Valbona Valley National Park – IN ORDER TO EXECUTE THE COURT DECISION FORCIBLY, since the company has failed to comply with the court decision.  Their failure to voluntarily stop the works is in spite of the fact that they were formally notified of the decision by the Tropoja Bailiff on 5 July, and given 10 working days to voluntarily cease.   Since they actually filed an appeal against the decision on 6 June 2018, they clearly were aware of the decision but chose to continue working for almost 2 months.

In addition to this, the disputed construction permit actually expired on 22 May 2018, meaning that the company has additionally been working illegally without a permit for more than 2 months.  TOKA filed criminal charges against this additional illegality on the 19th of July.

We invite you to wonder, with us, why the national inspectorates and other bodies tasked with protecting the National Park have failed to fulfill their responsibilities in the face of these flagrantly illegal acts.

Court Decision to Halt Construction of HPP

You can down load the full text of the formal decision of the Administrative Court of Appeals, Tirana.  We’ll try to work on a translation, as the language is very very strong and . . . wonderful!

“Pranimin e kerkeses per marrjen e mases se sigurimit te padise duke urdheruar pezullimin e punimeve ne zbatim te aktit administrativ, vendimit te Keshillit Kombetar te Territorit Nr. 12 date 10.11.2017 “Per miratimin e shtyrjes se afatit te lejes se ndertimit per objektin: “Ndertim i Hidrocentralit “Dragobia”, Komuna Margegaj, Qarku Kukes”, deri ne perfundimin e gjykimit te ceshtjes.”

The Tide is Turning in the Fight to Save Valbona Valley NP

Last week (on 6 June, in an unpublicized closed-door hearing), a panel of 3 judges in the administrative appeals court of Tirana ruled to overturn the previous decision of the court, instead upholding the request of NGO TOKA and 27 inhabitants for a stop work injunction against the construction of the Dragobia Energy hydropower plants in Valbona Valley National Park.  The injunction was originally requested in January 2018, as part of a suit suing the National Territorial Council (KKT) of Albania over their decision in November 2017 to issue the projects with a new construction permit.  The plaintiffs argue that the new permit is clearly illegal, as the Law for Protected Areas was amended in June 2017 declaring hydro powers illegal in National Parks.  The projects’ initial construction permit expired in May 2017.  Under Albanian law, a stop work injunction should be granted in all cases where “irreversible environmental damage may occur during the period of the judicial process.”  It should remain in effect until the final resolution of the suit of TOKA & 27 vs. KKT, which could be some months or years depending on the appeals process.

At present, the plaintiffs are awaiting the court’s publication of the formal decision, at which time the injunction can be enforced.  Once the injunction is in effect, any continued construction on the part of the companies (Dragobia Energy or its parent owner Gener2) would constitute a criminal act in contempt of court, and any such constructions would be liable for removal at the companies’ expense.

VALBONA FLOWS IN SKANDERBEG SQUARE

On May 24, 2018, the Valbona River will flow to Tirana’s Skanderbeg Square, to “protest” against the hydropower constructions threatening 30km of its length. Under attack by a proposed 14 hydropower plants – three of which are already under construction – the Valbona River is one of Europe’s last remaining wild rivers and the heart of Northern Albania’s Valbona Valley National Park. The river protest is an appeal to decision-makers, and primarily to prime minister Edi Rama, to halt construction of hydropower plants in the National Park, to protect the river, the unique ecosystem it supports and the local community that lives within the park.

The concept of the river itself ‘flooding’ the square in protest is preceded by the countless protests organised in Valbona and Tirana to stop the construction of hydropower in the National Park. Also local community is involved in several legal struggles to protect the Park. It was only 10 years ago that the mountain villages in the park opened their isolated community to the world, and the Valbona Valley National Park is now considered to be one of the best outdoors destinations in Europe.

There is a lot at stake, and scientists confirm their concerns. A recent study revealed that 49 European freshwater species would either become extinct or lose 50 to 100% of their Balkan distribution due to cumulative hydropower projects in the region. The proliferation of hydropower should additionally consider climate change: South East Europe faced severe droughts last year, resulting in energy crises. Yet the number of small hydropower plants are constantly increasing, despite risks.

The project is coordinated by TOKA, the NGO leading the campaign against hydropower within the National Park, Catherine Bohne (acting president of the organisation), Andi Tepelena (representative of the independent cultural scene in Albania) and Adelina Stuparu. The project is made possible with financial support from Berlin-based Guerrilla Foundation, Lush UK, and many donors from the Netherlands who contribute financially to small grants administered by the XminY Foundation. Contemporary artist Klodian Dedja has designed a sound and visual installation that will transfer the river symbolically and holographically from the National Park into Skanderbeg Square, to the heart of Albania’s capital.

Come and experience Valbona river at Skandebeg Square! Stand for its protection!

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VALBONA DERGJET NE SHESHIN SKENDERBEJ!

Ne 24 Maj 2018, lumi Valbona do te rrjedhe ne Sheshin Skenderbej ne Tirane, per “te protestuar” kundra ndertimit te HEC-eve qe kercenojne 30 km pergjate tij. Nen sulmin e 14 HEC-eve te planifikuara – 3 prej te cilave jane tashme ne ndertim e siper – lumi Valbone eshte nder te fundit lumenj te eger te mbetur ne Europe, si dhe zemra e Parkut Kombetar te Lugines se Valbones ne veriun e Shqiperise. Protesta eshte nje apel ndaj vendimarresve, ne vecanti ndaj kryeministrit Edi Rama, per te ndalur ndertimin e HEC-eve ne Parkun Kombetar, per te mbrojtur lumin, dhe ekosistemin unik te tij, si dhe komunitetin e banoreve qe jeton aty.

Koncepti i lumit qe pushton sheshin ne shenje proteste eshte i pararendur nga protesta te panumerta te organizuara ne Valbone dhe Tirane per te ndalur HEC-et. Banoret vendas gjithashtu jane te perfshire ne nje sere betejash ligjore per te mbrojtur Parkun. Ishte vetem para 10 vjetesh qe fshatrat malore brenda Parkut u hapen ndaj botes, ndersa Parku Kombetar i Lugines se Valbones konsiderohet tashme si nje nga destinacionet outdoor kryesore ne Europe.

Ka shume elemente ne loje, dhe shkencetaret konfirmojne shqetesimet e tyre. Nje studim i fundit thote se 49 specie europiane qe jetojne ne uje te embel ose do te zhduken ose do te humbin me 50-100% shperndarjen e tyre ne Ballkan, si rezultat i aktivitetit te akumuluar te HEC-eve ne rajon. Shtimi i HEC-eve duhet te marre parasysh gjithashtu ndryshimin klimatik: Europa Jug-lindore u perball me nje sere thatesirash vitin e shkuar, qe rezultuan ne kriza energjitike. E me gjithe keto rreziqe, numri i HEC-eve te vogla po rritet ne menyre konstante.

Projekti i instalacionit koordinohet nga shoqata TOKA, ojf-ja qe po drejton fushaten kundra HEC-eve brenda Parkut Kombetar, nga Catherine Bohne (drejtoresha e organizates), Andi Tepelena (perfaqesues e skenes se pavarur kulturore ne Shqiperi) dhe Adelina Stuparu. Projekti eshte bere i mundur me mbeshtetjen financiare te Guerrilla Foundation te bazuar ne Berlin, Lush UK, dhe shume donatore te tjere nga Hollanda te cilet kontribojne financiarisht ne grantet e vogla te menaxhuara nga XminY Foundation. Artisti bashkekohor Klodian Dedja ka dizenjuar nje instalacion zanor dhe pamor i cili sjell simbolikisht Valbonen nga Parku Kombetar ne sheshin Skenderbej, ne zemren e kryeqytetit shqiptar.

Eja dhe prek lumin e Valbones ne sheshin Skenderbej! Qendro krahe mbrojtjes se tij!

We Won’t Stop – First Hearing in Gener2 vs TOKA

Gener 2 & Dragobia Energy vs. TOKA and Catherine Bohne “The American of Valbona”

First Hearing 2 May 2018

On 2nd May at midday, in the Gjykata e Rrethit Gjyqesor in Tirana (Civil Court), Judge Eneida Civici presided over the first procedural hearing in the case of Gener-2 and Dragobia Energy vs. NGO TOKA and Catherine Bohne, in which the companies are asking for an award of 20,000,000 Albanian lek to compensate for “damages done to their reputations” during the campaign against the hydropowers being constructed in Valbona Valley National Park.

Convinced more than ever in the cause, Ms. Bohne declared right after the first court hearing “TOKA, the locals and I will continue to fight.  Of course.  This lawsuit is a small threat, compared to the threat of destroying Valbona.  What does it matter if they take my house, dogs and sheep, compared to if they succeed in stealing the National Park belonging to all the Albanian People?”

The defendants argue that this is actually a case against freedom of speech.  With this level of public opposition, it is clear that the hydropowers are not viewed as a positive thing by most people, and it is completely unrealistic to think that people will not voice their fears and complaints, as publicly as they can.  As is the unalienable right of all Albanian people and activists.

Are the developers ready to sue hundreds and hundreds of citizens who have expressed their opposition against the hydropowers in the Valbona National Park through peaceful manifestations in the squares of Tropoja and Tirana or in online portals ? Don’t the actions of this company seem self-damaging and triggering indignation among the population? It seems yes, given the enourmous reactions of the supporters of Valbona National Park Valley.

This is not the fight of one family, this is the struggle of the whole Valbona Valley

In a country where the NGOs are often accused of lack of representation in the population, a consistent group of 50 inhabitants together with TOKA are currently in three  open judicial processes. What is more, in a small village such as Dragobia with around 230 inhabitans, an unprecedented case in Albania has been registered in late April this year.   As a result of the disappointment of the inhabitants, an emergency vote has taken place during which the people removed the old, Bashkia-appointed village head, Adem Metaliaj who in 2013 confirmed the public consultation approving the hydropowers.  This consultation is currently the subject of criminal charges for falsification of signatures in the Tropoja Prosecutor’s office.  The majority of villages voted to replace Mr. Metaliaj with Mr. Hysni Sokolaj, who pledged to “oppose the hydropowers and end the abuses being done in the name of the inhabitants and against their will.”

What is often claimed by hydropower supporters as the fight of only one family in Valbona with the aim of minimising the opposition, as a matter of fact is an unprecedented example of broad-based democracy, which is worth being taken as example everywhere in other communities where other exploitations are happening. What people are demanding is more representation, more democratic and transparent decision making, and that the voice of simple people is heard.

The case continues on 31 May at 12:00 with the first judicial hearing.

1st Community Forum Meeting & Sustainable Development Workshop

28 April 2018

TOKA offices, Bajram Curri

9:00 – 13:00

1st Community Forum Meeting & Sustainable Development Workshop

Visegrad Fund Project: A Voice for Tropoja

 

On Saturday, 28 April, 2018, thirteen participants gathered from around Tropoja representing 7 different villages to take part in our first monthly community forum and development workshop as sponsored by the Visegrad-funded project “Rural Community Development: A Voice for Tropoja.”  We were very happy to welcome the newly appointed project coordinator Ina Shkurti, an Albanian woman bringing considerable international experience in sustainable development to Tropoja, who led the meeting (with frequent interruptions from TOKA president and members, gracefully tolerated by Ms. Shkurti).

Within the design of the project, the ongoing monthly meetings should achieve two goals:  First, to continue the work of drafting a locally generated sustainable development plan as well as realizing immediate economic benefits to local communities, and second to “engage members of the Tropoja community to share ideas, vision and support each other on issues relevant for their sustainable development opportunities.”

We therefore divided the meeting into two sections.  First, for one hour we held the first “Forum” style meeting, in which participants were invited to present information deemed to be of value to their community.  Topics presented by those present included:  1) a proposal for a multifunctional festival to be held on 15 & 16 September in Valbona and Bajram Curri in collaboration with the Balkan Rivers Tour 2018 (TOKA),  2) a proposal from Kelmend region to work together to unite communities of Northern Albania in fighting hydropower, based on potential damage to archeological sites (Dardan Metaliaj),  3) an offer from German kayakers to provide training and 3 months of employment outside Albania for 2-3 Tropojans interested in learning how to guide for kayaking and rafting (TOKA)  4) a proposal to develop an asphalt road from Shkoder to Gjakova, first proposed in 1947, now being promoted by a group in Gjakova.  The idea is that the road would open the region to increased tourism.  (Gentjan Hajdarmataj),  5) an account was given of the recent success of participatory democracy in Dragobi, in which the community demanded the removal of the official Village Head (a representational office) and his replacement with a candidate of their choice (Dardan Metaliaj and Enerik Demiraj).

In each case, a working group was established in order to pursue and/or promote each issue independently.  Each issue was felt to be of potential interest or benefit to the Tropoja community.  Therefore a proposal was made that a monthly newsletter be produced, in order to share such news.  A working committee was also established for this.

After a quick coffee break (really!) the group re-convened to continue working on developing practical and easily realizable tools for improving economic wellbeing of community members.  A brief discussion of the concept of “Sustainable Development” resulted in the group accepting a definition that we should only interest ourselves in developments which improve the economic, social and environmental well-being of the region, accepting no developments which improve one aspect at the cost of another.

We then reviewed some of the tools available to Tropoja to easily develop economically:  The new version of website JourneytoValbona.com, the JourneytoValbona tourism center and shop, and a newly created interactive online map made by Ina Shkurti.

We decided each month to explore a new way of using the website JourneytoValbona.com to promote local sustainable business initiatives.  This month we looked at the possibility to create “itineraries” and offer them online.  The itinerary function means that even people without a specific business or product can design a “program” which can be offered to tourists, with the designer of the tour operating effectively as a local tourism provider, offering just one activity.  Maybe a new hiking itinerary.  Maybe a theme-based itinerary (like the “Tour i Turpshem” – Tour of Shame – in which visitors are invited to witness first-hand threats to local well-being like un-sustainable developments, which visitors could obviously help locals to fight).  Such itineraries could also include things like “have lunch in a local community, and experience local life.”   Interest in developing itineraries was extremely enthusiastic, so that we proposed sending TOKA volunteers out once a week to help locals collect data to build such itineraries.

We next looked at the interactive map created by Ina Shkurti, which offers the possibility to “pin” profiles and services to an online interactive map, already live online.  We reviewed what a profile should look like, what kind of information can and should be included, and then broke into small paired groups in which participants were given 10 minutes to interview each other, collecting information for profiles.  We then reconvened and the interviewers “presented” the profile of their partners.  Profiles were collected, to be typed and uploaded asap.  We agreed that before the next meeting participants would review their online profiles, and work during the next month to “flesh them out” with mor or better photographs, more individual information, and thoughts on how to diversify offerings, etc.   It was interesting to notice that people were encouraged in discussion when “that person wants to do exactly what I want to do,” without necessarily understanding yet how to diversify offerings so they support each other.  At the same time, it was easy to identify people with original, constructive ideas (one community offered the opportunity to “play games with other children” – perfect for visiting families!) therefore cross-pollination of ideas was strong.

Finally, in terms of thinking about how to define and develop a tangible product (ie, something that could be sold in a tourism shop), we used the practical example of a jar of “Gjell e Domate” (tomato sauce) made by a woman in Dojan.  The jar was placed on the table, and the group was invited to think about “how do I sell this?”  They quickly determined that the ‘product’ needed labelling with a range of information, that it needed packaging, marketing, a selling point and a cost-profit model.  We discussed how the profiles created in the previous activity could be used to promote the products.  Issues of sustainable supply were also discussed.  It was agreed that we would return to the next meeting with more products to offer in TOKA partner JourneytoValbona’s tourism shop with complete ideas for marketing and packaging.  A sustainable packaging solution was suggested, to use “recycled” glass jars from restaurants in Valbona Valley NP, rather than buying new jars.

In the last 45 minutes, we returned to the question of development plans.  What are they, who uses them?  The example of the Municipality of Tropoja development plan was discussed.  We then did a quick SWOT analysis of Dojan, reinforcing the concept introduction done in the March workshop, but encouraging people to be more specific.   It became apparent that people had not grasped the “opportunities” concept:  ie, that there are tools or resources available, which must however be activated or utilized through determined local initiative.  Ie, “littering and trash are a weakness of Dojan for developing tourism.”  One opportunity for resolving this is to activate the municipality to deal with proper waste management – eyes were rolled at the idea of the municipality doing anything, but the point was made that the municipality is actually an existing opportunity which could be mobilized.

It was agreed that participants would return to the next meeting with a more detailed SWOT style analysis of their communities, to compile information to include in a development vision.

As in the previous workshop, enthusiasm and participation were excellent.  Challenges remain time management and lack of pre-existing capacity.   The meeting was evenly split between women and men.  Most (although not all) of the participants were younger than 30 years old.  Once again, an ambitious plan for the day was not possible to realize completely, but then again, given the extent to which completely new concepts and working models are being presented, progress towards familiarity with new concepts was excellent.  In closing, participants were invited to comment on the meeting.  All expressed happiness and excitement with some requests for “more seriousness” (probably addressing the tendency of people to joke with each other which – while spending time – also indicates a good comfort level) and “better respect of schedules.”

TOKA is both excited and . . . hesitantly concerned, about the extent to which this meeting created an exponential level of new work (working groups to manage, itinerary development field trips, a newsletter).  All of this however simply argues that the area is ripe for development projects, and that locals are ready to “flutterojne” (fly) with just a little external support.