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.