‘Historical Moment’ for Nature Announced as Europe’s First Wild River National Park in Albania | rivers

One of Europe’s last wild rivers, home to more than 1,000 species of flora and fauna, it has been declared a national park by the Albanian government, making the Vjosa the first of its kind on the continent.

The Vjosa River flows 270 km (168 miles) from the Pindos Mountains in Greece through narrow gorges, plains and forests in Albania to the Adriatic coast. Free of dams or other artificial barriers, it is rich in aquatic species and supports myriad wildlife including otters, the critically endangered Egyptian vulture and the critically endangered Balkan lynx, of which only 15 are estimated to remain in Albania.

The fragile ecosystem of the Vjosa has been threatened for years: at one point, up to 45 hydroelectric power plants were planned for the entire region.

The site of the abandoned Kalivaç dam project on the Vjosa River. The river’s new status will protect it from future development projects. Photo: Nick St.Oegger/The Guardian

But on Wednesday Vjosa was declared the first wild river national park in Europe after a campaign by environmental NGOs for almost a decade. Environmentalists called it a historic decision that put the tiny Balkan nation at the forefront of river conservation.

Map showing the course of the Vjosa River from Greece through Albania to the Adriatic Sea.

Albania’s Prime Minister Edi Rama announced the park at a ceremony at Tepelena Castle overlooking the river, attended by stakeholders and ministers. He described the emergence of the national park as a “truly historic moment” for nature as well as social and economic development.

“Today we are protecting the only wild river in Europe once and for all,” he said. “This is about to change a mindset. Protecting an area does not mean anchoring it in isolation from the economy.”

He said national parks attract 20% more tourists compared to non-protected areas.

Mirela Kumbaro Furxhi, Albania’s tourism and environment minister, said the creation of the park is part of the country’s development and ongoing emancipation three decades after communist rule.

“Vjosa is a symbol of human history and also a very important part of our country’s history,” she said. “Albania may not have the power to change the world, but it can create successful models for protecting biodiversity and natural resources, and we are proud to announce the creation of this first national park on one of Europe’s last wild rivers. “

The country, which attracted 7.5 million visitors last year, more than double its 2.8 million population, hopes to regenerate villages in the Vjosa region through ecotourism.

The Vjosa River near Qesarat, southern Albania.
The Vjosa River near Qesarat, southern Albania. Photo: Nick St.Oegger/The Guardian

A collaboration between the Albanian government, international experts, NGOs from the Save the Blue Heart of Europe campaign to protect the Balkan rivers, the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) and Patagonia, the outdoor clothing company and environmental organization, became the 12,727 Hectares (31,500 acres) of park is designed to ensure that the Vjosa and its unique ecosystems are protected. It has received IUCN Category II park status, a high level of protection similar to that of a wilderness. The categorization includes “large-scale ecological processes,” species and ecosystems critical to banning dams and gravel quarrying. It is scheduled to go into operation in 2024.

Boris Erg, Director of the IUCN European Office, commended the Albanian government for its leadership and ambition. “Today is a milestone for the people and biodiversity of Albania,” he said. “We invite other governments in the region and beyond to show similar ambitions and help meet the vital goal of protecting 30% of the planet by 2030.”

The park will cover the 118 miles of the Vjosa in Albania, three main tributaries and some land including areas prone to flooding. Phase II will add more tributaries. Unlike the IUCN Wilderness Protected Areas, which limit visitor numbers, it will allow for recreational tourism and some other activities such as local fishing, particularly for the 60,000 catchment area residents.

The Albanian government is starting a joint process with the Greek authorities to create the Aoos-Vjosa transboundary park with the aim of protecting the entire river in both countries, which in January agreed to sign a memorandum of understanding detailing the next measures are determined.

According to a 2020 EU study in 28 countries, Europe has the most barricaded river landscape in the world with barriers such as dams, weirs and fords estimated at more than a million. Such fragmentation of rivers impairs their ability to support life.

Ulrich Eichelmann, conservationist and founder of Riverwatch and part of the Save the Blue Heart of Europe campaign, said: “Most people in Central Europe have never seen a wild, living river free from the effects of human intervention. t be diverted or dammed or built with embankments and the biodiversity is low as a result. But here you have a wild flow full of complexity and without glitches.”

Ulrich Eichelmann, ecologist, activist and CEO of Riverwatch.
Riverwatch’s Ulrich Eichelmann said he hoped the Vjosa project would be a blueprint for protecting wild rivers elsewhere. Photo: Nick St.Oegger/The Guardian

Eichelmann said he hoped it would create a blueprint for wild rivers elsewhere.

Patagonia CEO Ryan Gellert said the collaboration demonstrates the power of collective action. “We hope it will inspire others to come together to protect the wild places we left behind in a meaningful way,” he said, adding that the park is proof that “the destruction of nature did not have to be the price of progress”. .

The company has committed $4.6 million (£3.8 million) to support the national park and wild rivers of the Balkans through the non-profit Holdfast Collective, which was formed in 2022 when it declared Earth its sole shareholder to protect.

The campaign to protect the Vjosa received a boost when Leonardo DiCaprio posted about it on Instagram in 2019, saying, “This is one of Europe’s last wild rivers: but for how long?”

NGOs said there was still work to be done to protect the remaining unprotected parts of the river, including the delta and source in Greece. Rama said an airport planned on the river delta will be realized but without any risks to nature.

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