Petition to Save Valbona Valley NP from Hydropower

We call on Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama to rise to the challenge of mobilizing the government to stop the construction of hydropower plants inside Valbona Valley National Park, asking Mr. Rama to support locals’ request for a stop work order pending re-evaluation of the project’s feasibility and development of a work-out solution.

Edi Rama Yes You Can: Save Valbona!

The Valbona River needs YOUR HELP!

We call on Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama to rise to the challenge of mobilizing the government to stop the construction of hydropower plants inside Valbona Valley National Park, asking Mr. Rama to support locals’ request for a stop work order pending re-evaluation of the project’s feasibility and development of a work-out solution.

The Valbona river valley in northern Albania was virtually inaccessible until 10 years ago, surviving as a hidden natural gem now suspected to be one of the highest biodiversity hotspots of South East Europe, and one of the last small "wild rivers" in Europe. In 1996 it was declared a National Park (the second strictest possible level of legal protection in Europe) although without any staff, budget or management plan assigned to it. In 2005, some of the 1000 local inhabitants began, without any outside investment, to develop cultural and ecotourism. Thanks to their efforts, in 2016 Valbona was declared by National Geographic to be "One of the 9 best places in the world to enjoy the outdoors". The Valbona River is one of the most famous and loved rivers in Albania, the source of most legends and poetry. It also supports an ecosystem believed by many experts to be one of the richest biodiversity areas in the Balkans and beyond. This mysterious and beautiful remote river valley has yet to be studied extensively because of its historic isolation.

In 2009, in the wake of new road infrastructure plans, the government started issuing hydropower concessions, with 14 plants approved on just 30 km of the river, 8 of which are wholly inside the National Park. Local people were not informed, and public consultations were falsified. The environmental impact statements are cursory, providing no actual impact assessment at all. Construction of the first plant began in 2014, with an additional two much larger plants beginning in 2016. There is no information forthcoming from the government on the status of the remaining 11 plant concessions.

In 2015, a fully realized plan was completed by the government, working with stakeholders in a transparent and participatory manner, to combine Valbona with neighboring protected areas to create “The National Park of the Albanian Alps” which would be not only Albania’s largest National Park but – when considered with the neighboring protected areas of Montenegro and Kosova -- would contribute significantly to the largest protected area in the Balkans. This plan has been blocked since 2015 by the Albanian Ministry of Energy, who demand the zoning of the park be changed to include hydropower development regions. This is in spite of the fact that the Albanian law on protected areas now clearly states that hydropower is not allowed inside a National Park.

Today Valbona is being destroyed before we even know for sure what the valley contains. There is no doubt that Hydropower plant construction will irretrievably change the Valbona river ecosystem, having a direct negative impact on both the natural environment as well as the local population whose traditional culture and livelihood depend on the water. In 2017, villagers were already finding themselves without drinking water as springs and traditional sources of irrigation water dried up or were deviated by changes made to the watershed as the construction continues.

Hydropower destroys rivers. Not only is the flow and integrity of the river bed changed, but silt backs up, water and ambient temperatures rise, and surrounding humidity drops. Despite assurances from the developers that they will create “fish ladders” to allow species like our native mountain and marble trout to swim upstream to spawn, current international studies question the effectiveness of these measures even when properly constructed, and practical experience questions whether the organizational infrastructure exists to carefully monitor their ongoing effectiveness. The government currently supports no research staff within National Parks. The only watchdog function is ineffectively supplied by the regional and national “inspectorates,” tasked with insuring that construction proceeds with permits, and that environmental monitoring reports are filed every 3 months. Since 2016, locals have 3 times requested copies of these monitoring reports as public documents. To date no report has been forthcoming.

Locals have been fighting for 2 years against these plants. The plants bring no benefits to local people, and are planned to operate less than 2 months of a year, meaning they create very little power or profit, even for outside interests. To date the struggle against hydropower has been conducted entirely peacefully, while pursuing legal methods to stop the hydropowers. The struggle of the local people has been supported by the population and civil society throughout Albania and also internationally, as an excellent example of local people fighting for the respect and dignity of their communities.

Although it is widely recognized that tourism is the lifeblood of these remote mountain communities, with millions of euros of development aid being poured into projects, national and local government seem unwilling and unable to prioritize it. On the paper, the development plan recently published by the local municipality includes 8 objectives, all based on sustainable tourism. None of the objectives include energy production.

This case also raises grave concerns regarding the function of democracy in Albania. Public consultations have been falsified. The struggle has revealed grave irregularities in local administration. Opponents to the hydropower have been subjected to systematic and seemingly institutionally backed harassment. The Inspectorates allow the developers to work without legal permits. And the courts still continue to deny the locals' request to stop work in the light of irreversible damage being done to a National Park, in direct contravention of the law on protected areas. The struggle for Valbona not only tries to protect one of the most valuable natural areas of Europe, but is also a struggle to demand the function of democracy and justice reform in Albania.

The government and courts have the right – and responsibility – to stop the work pending resolution of legal suits filed by local people and NGO TOKA, and could order an investigation of the actual feasibility of the projects, offering a work out solution. Instead they allow abuses to continue at the damage of people and nature.

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