Natural wonder: celebrating Albania’s magnificent but endangered wilderness

21 July 2017

For the past four years photographer Nick St. Oegger, originally from California, has been exploring Albania, taking in its gorgeous landscapes and learning about the complex history of this country in the western Balkans. Having first settled in Shkodër, the largest northern city, located on the border of Albania and Montenegro, more recently the photographer has ventured south, which by comparison the photographer says, “feels more Mediterranean and has a strong Greek influence, with many Orthodox churches and Greek-speaking minority villages”. Using Europe’s last wild river, the Vjosa, as a guide, the photographer soon discovered that the pure and wild landscapes he passed, as well as the river itself, were under threat from a proposed hydropower dam project. His series Kuçedra, named after a dragon from Albanian folklore, shows the urgency of preserving this unspoiled region.

I discovered the story by chance while visiting my parents in the USA. I was having my hair cut by an Albanian and came across a small article detailing the threat to the river. The Vjosa flows through a valley near the village of Zhepë, close to the frontier with Greece. The river flows unobstructed for 270 km to the Adriatic Sea and many of its tributaries are in good condition, making this the last pristine system of wild rivers in Europe. Despite promises to turn the Vjosa into a national park, eight hydropower projects have been proposed along it by the Albanian government.

Two tributary rivers, the Drinos and Bënça, join the Vjosa near the town of Tepelenë. Construction is already underway on the Bënça for a pipeline that would divert the river underground to a nearby hydropower station, while a stalled project in nearby Kalivaç has recently been opened to bids.

The nature in Albania has been a huge inspiration for me; it’s so pure and wild, so I decided it was really important to raise awareness about the Vjosa. Damming the Vjosa would damage this last example of a pristine river ecosystem in Europe, as well as alter the course of life for people living on its banks due to flooding, loss of agricultural lands and deterring tourists from visiting the area. Skander is the caretaker of a Bektashi Teke (mosque) near Permët. The Bektashi order is a Sufi mystical sect of Islam, once popular throughout the wider Ottoman Empire, and now especially prominent in the Vjosa valley.

Yanni is a scrap metal collector in Përmet. Economic hardship is common along the Vjosa, where subsistence farming is still the mainstay for many.

Përmet is a cultural hub in southern Albania, well regarded for its traditional music, art and slow food practices. The Vjosa is integral to the growing tourism industry in the area, bringing in visitors interested in rafting and extended kayaking excursions. Locals worry about the trend towards hydropower eventually having ramifications for businesses, which are reliant on the natural flow of the river.

This is the start of a trekking route, leading through Second World War-era barracks on the outskirts of Përmet. Ecotourism has slowly started to take root in the area, drawing those eager to hike, raft and fish.

Dona and her husband Robert own a small ecotourism company just outside Përmet. They offer camping on their farm, as well as guided alpine and rafting tours. While tourism has been growing on the river, they worry about dams ruining the flow of the river and affecting their livelihood.

“There’s nothing for young people in Përmet,” Kris, whose father owns a restaurant in the city, told me regarding a lack of opportunities in the area. Many young adults have moved to the capital, Tirana, or abroad, where opportunities for work and education are greater. Most families have one or two children who live abroad and send back part of their earnings.

The village of Kuta has been on the frontline of protests against hydropower projects on the Vjosa. Construction of a proposed dam in nearby Poçem would flood most of the agricultural area that villagers rely on for their own sustenance. Opportunities are severely limited in the village, and the poor-quality road that links it to the main highway hinders commerce with other areas.

Romina Mustafaraj, 25, was appointed the government representative for Kuta. She has tried to lobby for improvements to infrastructure in the area, including the critical main road that links the village to the national highway, but says the government has seemed to show little interest in these improvements, instead expecting locals to simply move out of the village.

Scientists from Germany and Austria raft down the Vjosa near Kuta, collecting plants, water and animal samples to build a case for blocking the construction of the Poçem dam.

“Without our land, we have nothing.” Ylli’s family is one of many in Kuta whose land has been threatened with flooding by dam construction. Under the proposed compensation scheme, her family would only receive €50 ($58) per square metre of land. This is complicated by the fact that land redistribution after the fall of communism was chaotic, and most people in the village don’t hold the proper titles and documentation for their land, which the compensation would be based on.

Ylli’s family plot, where they grow most of the food they survive on and raise sheep, cows and goats. The surrounding flood plain will be the site of a large reservoir if construction of the nearby Poçem hydropower project goes ahead. The fertile plain is the only resource the village has for production of any kind, so losing it would cause a large exodus of the local population.

The Vjosa flowing near Memaliaj, where the landscape opens up into agricultural plains.

A roadside café near Poçem where a hydropower project, currently tied up in court, would completely alter the landscape through flooding.

This bridge is a popular fishing area in the Vjosa delta near Novoselë. Damming the river would have severe consequences for migratory fish, including the endangered European eel and other species that have already become extinct in Central Europe.

This was taken near Gjirokastër. In May 2017, a court upheld a lawsuit blocking construction of the Poçem dam near Kuta, citing an improper environmental assessment. While locals initially celebrated the decision, the government was quick to file an appeal as well as simultaneously opening bidding on a stalled project a few kilometres away from Poçem. The fight for the Vjosa appears far from over.

Text and image: Nick St. Oegger