Myself and my two hiking partners, Will and Skyler, had just walked for three weeks across the country, following the Vjosë River from its source high in the mountains bordering Greece, to where it empties into the Adriatic Sea. Heralded as the Queen of Rivers, she has just been declared Europe's first river national park.
Unlike other parts of the world such as the USA or Australia who boast many wild rivers, the majority of rivers in Europe have been straightened, dammed or modified in other ways to meet the energy and water demands of our populous nations. Hydropower has a major part to play in this; amidst our drive to cut down on fossil fuels, the world is witnessing a spree of dam construction projects to harness the energy of rivers and streams.
Far from the sources of pure, green energy they are portrayed as though, dams destroy ecosystems by interrupting water and sediment flows, depriving downstream habitats of much needed nutrients. Upstream, vast areas of land are flooded by reservoirs when water is held back, drowning whole ecosystems and displacing communities, too. Globally, it is estimated that 80 million people have been displaced by dam projects, a number that is only going to rise if we continue on our current trajectory.
The Vjosë however has so far avoided such alterations and remains one of Europe’s last wild rivers. Moreover, her waters support a great number of ecological and human communities alike, boasting one of the most biodiverse terrestrial regions on the continent.
Nowhere is this diversity higher than in the Nartë Delta, the mosaic of wetlands, salt marshes, pine forests and islands surrounding the Vjosë estuary, supporting over 1,400 species of vascular plants and 700 animal species. The International Union for Nature Conservation (IUCN) has also highlighted the importance of the delta’s wetlands for migrating birds in the Adriatic Flyway, a major migratory corridor between Africa and Europe which sees millions of birds pass through every year. Given the rate we are losing wetlands across the globe - an area the size of India has been lost in the last three decades - this area is a lifeline to many resident and transitory species.
Delta at sunset. Credit Katy Ellis.
The fight to protect the Vjosë against exploitation has been ongoing for decades, but it came to international attention again in 2021 when Shell began surveying parts of the river for oil. Determined to protect a national emblem of natural and cultural heritage, residents began to protest. Since then, thanks in part to international media attention and backing from Patagonia, the Albanian and Greek governments have signed an agreement to dedicate the Vjosë a transboundary national park - an incredible step for nature conservation in the Balkans.
However, the Nartë Delta is not included in the plans for the national park. Instead, works are underway to construct what will be the largest airport in South-East Europe, serving the city of Vlorë and nearby towns in an attempt to boost Albania’s tourism industry. Funded largely by a Swiss consortium under Mabco Constructions, the airport is set to accommodate 2 million visitors a year. Critically, a 3.5km long runway is planned right beside a current area of protection of the delta, likely resulting in many collisions between birds and planes. Not only will such collisions, pollution and noise from the airport construction and operation have devastating consequences for endangered bird populations, they pose significant safety hazards to human travellers and residents, too.
Simply put, the plan seems nonsensical.
“Vjosë is life.”
The first time we learnt about all of this was sat in a peaceful vineyard, chatting to local biologists over some beers late at night. It was 2 am, the stars were out, and cicadas were proclaiming their near-deafening chorus. It would be idyllic, if not for the discussion we were having.
Joni, Ledi, Melitjan and Tea are all part of PPNEA (Protection and Preservation of Natural Environment in Albania), an incredible NGO who work alongside local communities on a variety of conservation and environmental projects. Unlike many NGOs in Western Europe, they receive no monetary backing from the government; they rely purely on their own grit and dedication to deliver these projects.
They talked us through the socio-political background of the airport, as well as giving us some insight into the uphill battle of conserving nature in a country which has only just emerged from an intense communist dictatorship and civil war. Although two lawsuits against the illegal construction of the airport have been filed, both have been dismissed by the government. In the first case, the 1,400-word evidence document prepared by PPNEA was “read” by a single judge in a private session in just 7 minutes.
It was a huge shock. Admittedly, a large reason for us coming to Albania was selfish: we wanted to see some of what had been branded as some of Europe’s last wilderness. And we had – Albania is a hidden nugget of wild, its natural beauty unparalleled across Europe.
We were also curious, and wanted to document the views of the locals, scientists and activists surrounding the creation of the national park. What was immediately obvious whenever we asked anyone about the Vjosë was how proud they were of it; we met families who have for generations lived besides the river, depending on it for water and food to fuel their livelihoods, be they farmers, pastoralists or fishermen. Some even take their surnames from the river.
“Vjosë is life,” one lady told me as we sat sipping freshly brewed coffee in her café on the riverbanks. “That is the one thing you must know.”
Just as the river runs through the landscape, it runs through people’s blood and very identity.
Protest. Credit PPNEA.
So after three weeks of hiking along mountain passes and splashing through gorges, dancing in late night music festivals and drinking innumerable cups of çaj (chai) offered by incredibly hospitable locals, we finally reached the Adriatic coast. The scene was almost too perfect: we walked into the waves as the sky above us ran its course through oranges, pinks and purples to deepest ink.
After a couple of nights spent camping on the beach gathering our senses, we decided to go and investigate the airport construction. We had heard that, despite the concession not having yet been officially given, illegal works had started already. After wondering into town, we found a taxi driver who was willing to take us to Akerni, the village next door to the airport.
Of course, despite the ecological damage the airport will cause, many locals are in favour of the project. “The airport will be good,” said our driver. “There is a great lack of jobs in this area – think of the help it will give to the local economy.”
Similar sentiments were held by the Akerni residents we talked to. “Bars, hotels, taxis…think of all the infrastructure that comes with an airport, and all the opportunities that creates for us,” said the owner of a shop we wandered into. Their views came as no surprise to us; we had seen first-hand some of the level of economic deprivation felt by many rural communities in Albania.
Just a kilometre outside the village were gates guarding the entrance to the construction site. I asked one of the security guards if it was possible to have a look around the perimeter. “Of course,” he said proudly. “This will be the biggest airport in the whole of the Balkans – take a look!”
And that’s how we found ourselves sat on top of a concrete skeleton of a building, contemplating all that we had learned in the last few weeks. Before us lay a dry, barren landscape, bulldozed in preparation for the onslaught of cement, trucks and eventually aircraft. The land did not look like the vibrant, thriving network of marshes and wetlands it’s meant to be, but an ecologically dead no-man’s-land.
Horse above the Vjosë.
The grey area of conservation
Conserving this landscape and its wildlife is not a black or white debate. Aside from the greed, corruption and egos driving the construction of the Vlorë airport, as conservationists we are often faced with a moral conundrum: ameliorating human livelihoods, or preserving nature?
That’s not to say that the job opportunities brought by the airport will go to local residents; often companies will draft in outsourced employees to save on recruitment and training costs. Typically, it is those communities possessing the least who are left in the dust of development.
If the delta is harmed, the ecological integrity of the whole river network is destroyed, threatening the national park and all its ecosystems upstream. To us, protecting the Vjosë in its entirety seemed like an impossible uphill struggle.
But I guess we have less mettle than the conservationists of Albania. Their determination to protect their environment is a flame that apparently cannot be extinguished, irrespective of economic, political and social hardship faced.
Leaving Albania, I felt optimistic that the future of the Vjosë lies in their hands, their passion and their energy.
“Why stay, if conservation is so burdened here?” I asked Melitjan.
“Because,” he replied, “we actually have something to save.”
Our expedition was only possible through the extreme kindness and hospitality of the many people in Albania who helped us with logistics, gave us gems of local knowledge and fed, watered and housed us, often without sharing a common language. A heartfelt thanks to everyone.
Special thanks also to Ledi, Joni, Melitjan and Tea for welcoming us and giving their time to show us their work. Their dedication and energy are unmatched.
To read more and support the campaign to protect the Nartë Delta, see https://ppnea.org/save-vjosa-narta/?lang=en