8 April 2019 – Shekulli Interview – English language version

Thank you Erjon Dervishi for the article published in Shekulli this week!  It’s a pleasure and honor to have our voice heard in such a respected Albanian journal.  For our foreign friends, below is the English version of the interview.
1. How do you see the river situation in Albania?
I think Albania is incredibly lucky to have so many beautiful, untouched rivers, and that the history of people living with these rivers is also precious and fascinating.  I think there’s an interesting story that could be written about how much of Kanun customary law has to do with people working together to manage shared water resources.  This is really amazing, and a model of community responsibility and successful, sustainable management.  Albania should be proud of this!  Being American, I grew up being taught over and over again just how easy it is to destroy nature, and how quickly it can happen.  I don’t know if this American story gets told outside the country, but we talk a lot about how Europeans arrived in what is now the US and within 100 years destroyed so many things – passenger pigeons are the classic example.  And native americans of course.  The story of my country is one of people arriving, see all this natural richness like what Albania – incredibly – still has, and then just becoming very very greedy and destroying a lot of it very quickly.  It breaks my heart that Albania has this huge opportunity to learn from those mistakes the rest of us made.  I mean Albania could be at the FRONT of Europe, a leader in nature preservation and sustainable management.  Instead it seems like we are in a very dangerous phase where it is a race between private greed vs rule of law.
2. Do you believe that Albania need to make any change in her legislation regarding the river and field protections?
As far as I can see, a lot of good legislation is already in place, and the EU accession process is helping this.  We actually transcribed a lot of the water framework directive, but it simply isn’t being IMPLEMENTED.  There were supposed to be  6 river basin manamgement plans in place by 2012 I think, but only two have been done, and they aren’t being implemented.  Also, the biggest problem I see is the failure to date to meaningfully enforce our laws on public participation and our Aarhus convention committments.  This would fix a lot, I think.  But I would also like to see thought given to creating something like the the American “Wild and Scenic Rivers Act” which allows even sections of rivers to be protected, permanently.  Once a river is given this status, it can’t be retracted, or modified, or negotiated EVER.  This is something very powerful, and would be good to have here.  Because I think a lot of us fear that even when we win one battle, it just comes back later (like the way that HPP concessions just get re-tendered a few years after one project is cancelled).  I think having to continually fight to protect Albania’s natural treasures is exhausting, and counter productive.  All this good energy could be put to better use.
3. What about the situation in North Albania. Does Valbona can bring the attention of EU?
When we were in Brussels in March, we asked the EU to work through the Delegation to encourage the government to involve local people more.  Help bring the government to the table with local people.  I think you can see how powerful this is when you see what just happened in Kurbnesh a few days ago, and by the way I salute the Min. of Infrastructure and Energy for taking this step, reversing so much of their previous administration’s intractable position.  We also asked that they help focus things like the Natura 2000 process – necessary for candidate status – on assessing biodiversity in crucial threatened areas like Valbona, Gashi and Kelmend.  It is insane to me that these areas are being destroyed (or proposed to destroy) without even studying what exists there!
4. Are you able to tell us which are the main obstacles that Albania need to improve in order to protect the Nature?
Short term greed, and confusing rampant capitalism with democracy.  They are not the same thing.  In fact they are in many ways polar opposites, as capitalism by definition needs to consume – whether it’s resources or labor – to create concentrated wealth.  Democracy ought to be ensuring the greatest good for the greatest number.  There’s nothing wrong with long-term, sustainable development, to create shared wealth.  In 2017 I sat in a meeting with Bashkim Ulaj of Gener 2 where he was almost shaking – with rage I assume – and he said “Who are you to question me?  I am progress!  I am development.”  Which I think he truly believes.   But I saw something recently where they are proud of having employed over 900 people throughout there company.  But there are 20,000 people in Tropoja alone.  And as nice as that is for even 900 people, I look at the children of Tropoja, the young people – and I think “YOU are progress.  You are the future.”  And what will we leave for them, if our rivers are in tunnels underground, the land is dry, the forests are gone and there’s nothing left to use?
5. Do you believe that Hydropower and Incenerators are killing the river in Albania?
I believe they could.  The hydropowers can be removed however.  This is happening all over Europe now.  100s of dams have been removed in France, in Sweden, etc.  In some ways what worries me more – the bigger danger – is the lack of imagination, to have faith in a better Albania.  I’d love to see a coherent national plan where all Albanians work together to imagine Albania as the paradise it could so easily be.  We have EU and other aid donors panting to support sustainable projects.  It could happen.  If we can only dare to dream a better future.  Albania has resources that European countries would give their teeth to be able to bring back.  But they can’t it’s been destroyed.  There are no wild rivers left in developed Europe.  Europe is legislating to create the kind of collaborative community managment that Albanians have deep in your culture.  We could do it.