Saving Valbona, mystical heart of Albania – the dark side of hydro power. Catherine, Bajram Curri

The death of Valbona is the death of Albania– (community member, 2018 documentary)

Valbona is kind of the mystical heart of legend and poetry here. In mythology, each person has an ‘Ora’ – a sort of fairy protector. They live in the forests and on mountains. Villages also have an Ora. And, according to the poet Gjeorg Fishta, the Ora of Albania ‘lives ‘there, above Valbona’. There is also a sense ‘if it can happen in VALBONA, it will happen everywhere.’” – Catherine.

Valbona National Park sits in the North East of Albania, in Tropoja; until recently the most inaccessible area of Albania (in itself mostly cut off from the world until the late 90s). This gave protection, and the park is extremely rich in biodiversity, including plant species (70 rare/endangered), birds (including golden eagles), and large mammals such as brown bear, wolves, wild boar, roe deer, and chamois. Valbona is essentially a long valley with a river winding down the bottom, and steep mountains jutting straight up all around, including the highest in the entire Dinaric Alps, at 2694m. To the North, the Accursed Mountains mark the border with Montenegro, and to the West, the famous, stunning hiking pass from Valbona to Theth leads towards Shkoder, Albania’s most northern city. 

Now, the pass was covered in thick, unstable snow, so I ran from Shkoder along a wiggly road cutting into a mountain side above a shining pale blue gorge, which after a few days of getting smaller and smaller, ended at Koman ferry port. The small, concrete, port area had no place to camp, but I was adopted by the ferry lads/team at the faded restaurant (“treat it as your home!”). They shared beers and dinner (despite me having no cash so couldn’t pay), and the next morning I departed on the tiny 2.5 hour ferry journey up Koman lake, winding through the remote mountains.

Koman ferry

I was going to the road at the other end of the lake, but there were many stops in between, this boat being the only once-daily connection to ‘the outside’. Sometimes it would be to drop off a sack of cabbages to a waiting old man with a donkey, other times a few people would get off and follow the tiny only-just-visible paths that wound their way up and out of sight, into the thick dark trees and mountain side. 

It was the same ferry which Catherine had taken in 2009. I met Catherine in Bajram Curri, at her home with four lovely boisterous and excited dogs, one intimidated cat and three clompy horses, and Jordi, a Netherlands-er who is writing his Masters Dissertation on the social impacts of the hydropower plants. Before we get to the hydro, though, let’s set the scene. Catherine arrived from New York 11 years ago for a short adventure, but somehow never left. Why?

The best dogs

Meet Catherine

Catherine had owned a Brooklyn book shop for 10 years. A beautiful Turkish guy came to work for her who she was slightly in love with. His outrage at the air miles which she had accumulated, but never used, brought back a memory as a young girl on the ferry to Corfu, sliding past Albania and seeing only a wild, dark green, mysterious land with no lights. Back then, she had been filled with desire to explore this place, and being reminded now, booked a ticket. 

She headed for Valbona, which the one guidebook she could find said was buried in the wild Accursed Mountains, with no infrastructure, no phones or internet, and had only a few people living there. Deeply dangerous, it said, very inadvisable. But worse than NYC, she thought? She decided probably not. There was just one account online which said they’d been taken in by ‘Alfred’, so she decided to look out for him. 

She ended up living and working with Alfred for 8 years – together they opened a tourism business.

A roaming donkey ready to carry

I asked Catherine, what is so special about Valbona?  

“The nature and the beauty, of course. The people. But also something more. Almost everything seems to operate on a different logical axis.

Family comes first, then the chores you HAVE to do to survive (get firewood, harvest things etc), and then a distant third, work-for-money. Y’know, if you feel like it. If not, you can still survive.  

So many of the pressures of ‘modern life’ haven’t arrived here yet. As George Monbiot puts it (paraphrase) – while poverty may not make you happy, there are clear signs that wealth makes you UNHAPPY.  

There’s a lot of wisdom here about how to live. Honour – “besa” – still counts. This is the idea that there is no higher authority, and honour and trust are the only things which stand between us and chaos. Also, a culturally rooted belief in sustainability (we must leave things for future generations as we found them), and a true sense of the importance of communal health (that an individual is only as healthy and happy as their community).” 

This context and culture is now hanging in a critical moment, at risk of being destroyed by corrupt hydropower developments. Catherine and Alfred were the first to be concerned when, in winter 2013-14, bulldozers showed up in the middle of the National Park and started digging up the main river, with no warning.

Why are hydro power plants an issue – electricity and jobs for an undeveloped area seems good, right? 

Catherine explains that these ‘run of river’ schemes mean that water is diverted from the river bed, through a tunnel to a turbine, then returns to the river bed. Sounds OK in theory, right? But, she says “the truth is it’s not clear how much water can be diverted (…) and from experiences with other schemes, often all the water is taken” – at least for large periods of the time, as high and low flows vary wildly. 

Furthermore, the water here is diverted for up to 6km, and plants are ‘stacked’; so 14 plants are placed along 30km of river, meaning water goes through one tunnel and turbine, back to the river bed but straight to another tunnel, etc. Basically, the whole river will effectively disappear if the planned constructions are completed.  

“A dry river will obviously be a dead river”, she says, including all life dependent on it. 

The impacts of this, in addition to the death of all life depending on naturally flowing water? This river comes from snow melt and is freezing cold year round, so cools the surroundings. No natural river would mean a drop in humidity and rise in surrounding temperatures, which would affect ALL habitats in the park, Catherine explains. 

Local people rely on the river for irrigation (and as said, many still live solely from the land), as well as drinking water. Finally, the main income for the area is tourism, and the attractiveness of the National Park would be hugely impacted.

Goats in Koman

But the most shocking thing here isn’t even this – it is the methods and motives of the developers.

For the developer to get an environmental permit to start construction, there has to be a public consultation – but no one had known about this, so how could they have done? When EcoAlbania helped Catherine and other locals track down the information for these unknown hydro constructions, they found a document showing forged signatures from the community, including peoples names who were actually dead at the time. 

To even request the information in the first place was a battle.They hadn’t been informed so they didn’t know the company’s name to ask about. In one case, EcoAlbania in error requested the wrong information, discovering even MORE plans for construction. Together, they dug out plans showing 14 power plants planned in total along the river, none of which the local community knew about (apart from perhaps a few locals working for/bribed by the developers). 

By 2016 most of the community had realised there was nothing in these developments for them – no electricity, jobs, and only the destruction of their land and water. They started organising the ‘fight back’, and charity TOKA was born, also supported by WWF Adria.

What have they tried to do so far? 

The fightback has tried as many legal options as possible. However “corruption and dysfunction exists on every level”, Catherine explains, which the developers play to their gain. 

One minor example is that the local police “recently called in local people to ‘investigate’ the claim that the developer is working, which anyone can see for themselves – the valley is full of bulldozers!” Another is that the local prosecutors office has taken 2 years to investigate the charge that the developer is working without a construction permit – suspicious?

After they (Catherine and others motivated to stop the plants) tried to sue the developer for not having a permit and falsifying signatures, the developer found and used the ‘trick’ of making an absurd objection which the judge overrules, BUT means they can appeal this decision in the High Court. 

However, Catherine explains, “the High Court isn’t functioning in Albania – because of a corruption clean out there are no judges left”, and it could take 10 years to return to normal/work through the backed up cases. This kills the case dead.

It goes on, and on. We discussed more and more ridiculous intricacies, blatant law breaking, etc – far too much to describe here, and with (to date) no consequence for the developer. 

Brave is a word that gets batted around far too much. 

But here it barely does these locals justice. 

A report on the harassment of activists describes people being targeted through over-harsh punishments for minor changes, fines, imprisonment, formal charges, lawsuits, etc. Some people working for the state have either been fired or threatened with firing, if they or their family members continue to resist the hydropower. Catherine explained that employment opportunities are scarce, and most live from the land, don’t have jobs, and perhaps rely on one family member for an injection of cash, spread between the whole extended family. So, although it is possible to live without much money here, losing their job is a serious threat which affects many in the family (and family relationships are the most important thing in this culture). 

A documentary called ‘The Murder of Valbona’ was made in 2018 by Top Channel Albania, and films a physical attack by the security guards linked to Gener 2 (the main developer). 

The report goes on, describing people told to ‘remember how many people died in Tropoja in the 1990s and that was only politics’, who have been stalked by unknown persons, received anonymous phone calls, followed, and other generally threatening, awful stuff.

But, the most common occurrence is attacks on character – spreading rumours or false information in the community, in attempts to cause deep seated divisions. For example TOKA itself was accused of stealing money, meaning already stretched staff had to go to huge lengths to prove it’s not true, taking time and energy away from tackling the real issues. 

For a society traditionally organised through a social system based on honour and trust, do these tactics potentially erode the very identity of the local communities culture? Jordi is currently writing about this for his Masters degree – so we will see!

Hospitality towards guests is also a strong part of the culture – a restaurant brought me this meal for free when I asked if they took card (they didn’t) and didn’t have any cash

The most puzzling thing – these plants are so small that the amount of electricity produced would be tiny. What’s the point, for anyone?! 

“This has been a BIG question from the beginning, because they are so minimally profitable”, Catherine explains. 

Many of the plants that began being constructed years ago are now left unfinished with nothing happening – are they even intended to be finished?

Catherine explains a few theories – one is that construction is the easiest way to launder cash. It also could be that the initial concessions were taken solely for the purpose of selling them forward. They would make money by selling the concession on to some unaware person “who would eventually get left holding the ‘hot potato’” (apparently a common problem). 

It could also be down to ‘Unsolicited proposals’. This is when a developer brings the government a scheme something the government wouldn’t have been able to develop themselves (e.g. new technologies), and the government gives a cash bonus for it.  

She says, “In Albania, any idiot can present any idiotic idea to the government, and the government adopts it and gives the cash bonus.”

No one seems quite sure of the motives, but overall this precious area is being destroyed for unknown reasons, benefitting few people, and massively impacting many others. Local culture is being threatened by divisions, corruption and false information. Individuals are being sued, losing jobs, physically assaulted, and threatened.

Northern Albania

But, they are making a difference.

Catherine outlined four achievements:

  1. “Changed the public perception of hydropower. Four years ago, people still thought hydropower = progress. Now, hydropower is like a byword for government corruption and collusion with oligarch business men.
  2. Changed perception of National Parks and protected areas. Before, people thought protected areas were some government scheme to take control of their land – now they believe that they are for the people and should be protected.
  3. A lot of other hydro projects around Albania have been cancelled – including 20+ last year.  People say that they don’t want ‘another Valbona mess and scandal’.
  4. Amassed a stunning, exhaustively-documented catalogue of the complete dysfunction of the Albanian justice system.  Our new hope is that we can use this to turn the whole thing into a Human Rights issue.” 

She says that taking this information to an international level will have to be the next step, as they’ve “exhausted the Albanian legal system”. There is hope!

“It’s not going to be easy. But what is the alternative? Suicide by consent. Suicide by silence.  So we will continue. Things, quite literally, MUST change.”

And what is a more positive vision for this community? 

The most amazing thing about this case is the positive alternative which the community has already come together to create – through the Tropoja Community development plan 2019-2021.

It begins with the quote: “People say we are poor, but we are not! We have this land, the beauty and riches of its nature. We are rich in minerals and agricultural possibilities. We have chestnuts, blueberries, apples, plums. And we could offer the best tourism in Albania.”  

Tourism is the great economic hope of Tropoja – the plan says ‘almost every household offers something which is of potential interest to tourists.’

Maybe it’s a glimpse of traditional life through hospitality, guiding in local areas using their intimate knowledge of the land, selling homemade products or produce, providing transportation, or renting horses.

The main challenge is to connect what already exists to visitors, to organise things so that they are discoverable. One vision is to have a central shop and tourism centre, which TOKA and Catherine are already working on.

There is much to be hopeful about, and the report also shows evidence that the traditional social structure is being preserved. The plan says, ‘we asked questions about both personal and community needs, but 90% of respondents answered only in terms of community needs’.

What is Catherine’s view? 

“I hope that the local people manage to hold on to what they already know (which was previously preserved through the isolation of the area, but is now at risk), and become empowered to translate it. Everyone who comes here sees how precious it is.” 

“I believe that Tropoja, rather than feeling like a place left behind, could easily be leading in all kinds of ways – sustainable living, quality of life, eco tourism… the possibilities are huge.”

Finally, I ask Catherine, what keeps you motivated – what inspires you to keep going?

“That’s kind of like asking ‘Why don’t you just sit there and let someone saw off your legs at the knee with a rusty hacksaw?’ 

Allowing this kind of cavalier destruction and waste to go forward around us, be done to the people we live with – the people we are – is suicide.  Everything happening on a global scale is telling us daily the truth of this. We have to change. 

Contemplating massive change is scary of course – but for me it beats the hell out of sitting here passively, watching everything go to hell around you.  And every time they attack us, with threats, or lawsuits, or smearing us in the media, I think “Yay!” we must be getting somewhere.”  

Check out TOKA’s website, Facebook and Twitter, and the Murder of Valbona documentary here.

Pigeons in Shkoder

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