We have a lovely opportunity to present our next interview in the Q&A with the experts series, with a biodiversity expert from Albania – Mirjan Topi. Mirjan is an ecologist and a vocal environmental activist with years of experience in environmental conservation and biodiversity protection in his home country. He is actively involved in various conservation projects through CEPF (Critical Ecosystem Partnership Fund).
1. We’ve heard a lot about biodiversity loss in Albania over the last couple of decades, but little about the specific consequences for ecosystems, the economy, and the quality of life. Can you tell us the primary outcomes of biodiversity loss in Albania and how they affect Albanian citizens?
Biodiversity loss in Albania has occurred mainly due to the degradation and loss of natural habitats from three main causes: (i) habitat fragmentation, (ii) urbanization, and (iii) overexploitation of the resources. Nature and biodiversity provide all the means and services for people to live. We receive air, water, food, medicines, etc. from nature, which are affected directly by the degradation of the natural ecosystems and habitats.
Nevertheless, I would like to emphasize the importance of biodiversity as an attraction for nature tourism. Nature tourism is the fastest tourism growing in the world and has an elite character. For me, nature tourism is the main potential that Albania has to develop fast based on a sustainable economic model. Albania is the most diverse country in the Balkans and possibly in the whole of Europe when it comes to the amount of biodiversity per surface unit. Albania is the Land of Biodiversity and this should be the brand for the country. Degradation of nature and biodiversity decreases this great potential that the country has ever withstood.
2. What are the most significant threats to biodiversity and the biggest obstacles to environmental conservation in Albania?
Fragmentation of habitats continues to remain one of the main threats to biodiversity in Albania in the current and near future. There are huge investments plans such as hydropower plants, auto ways, airports, etc that would continue to fragment the natural ecosystems. Moreover, urbanization of high nature value areas, such as Protected Areas, etc stands as a very significant threat to biodiversity in Albania. Nowadays, Albania faces some of the highest impact threats to nature and biodiversity in the last 50 years. I may mention here the plans to build an international Airport within the Vjose-Narte Protected Area, which represents one of the most important wetlands in the whole Mediterranean holding up to 1% of the biogeographical region population for at least 4 species of birds. Furthermore, there are of course problems with the implementation of law and faint management of the areas of high natural values.
3. What is the current number of protected areas in Albania? Is their number growing or decreasing?
I would rather answer this question with the surface of Protected Areas in Albania. Before a recent reform that has occurred (last year) on the National Network of the Protected Areas, the surface of PA in the country represented 17% of the total countries surface. Nowadays, the surface has increased, reaching around 20%, as new Protected Areas were proclaimed, such as the Munella Mountain Nature Park (where Balkan Lynx is reproducing) and Vjosa River Nature Park.
However, many interventions happened within the existing PAs. Now within the surface of one PA, there are many “unprotected islands”, which means that inside the PA there are surfaces that do not hold anymore the status of the PA. One of the most evident cases is, for instance, the “island of the airport” in the Protected Area Vjose-Narte. Such an approach violates the ecological integrity of the whole ecosystem, as what happens in the “unprotected islands” affects the whole area around it.
4. How active is your country in international negotiations, i.e., the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), and what is the current situation with national action plans and their implementation?
Albania has signed all possible conventions, agreements, and treaties related to nature conservation that are relevant to Albania. Nevertheless, no serious attention has been paid by the country towards these international commitments. This can be seen in different ways. The easiest one can possibly be if reading the annual reports for some conventions that are submitted by Albania where you can, unfortunately, find some ridiculous mistakes. Anyways Albania is violating currently through more than one case the commitments towards the Bern Convention that has ratified in 1999. For instance, on its second ordinary meeting on 15-16 September 2021, the Bureau of the Standing Committee to the Bern Convention urged the government of Albania to rethink the investment plans in Vjose-Narte.
5. Solving these serious problems requires awareness and action of the entire community, so how can Albanian citizens get involved and contribute to biodiversity conservation?
Considering the context in Albania, it is hard for me to give some confident suggestions on this.
6. Can you tell us about some projects, initiatives, or discoveries that have moved biodiversity conservation forward in Albania in the previous decade?
There are quite some projects, but I would like to distinguish a few of them:
- Balkan Lynx Recovery Programe – Implemented by PPNEA, Euronatur, and other partners. Thanks to this project we have quite a good knowledge on the most endangered species of Albania: the Balkan Lynx and the home of the Balkan Lynx “Munella Mountain” has also been proclaimed as a Protected Area.
- Save the Last Wild River in Europe (Vjosa) – Implemented by EcoAlbania, RiverWatch, Euronatur etc. That has been an excellent initiative that manage to stop the construction of hydropower in Vjosa River and enabled the proclamation of Vjosa as Nature Park (Protected Area).
- “Land of Eagles and Castles” – Implemented by PPNEA, BSPB thanks to the CEPF funds. This project brought a revolution in Albania in the field of bird conservation and their habitats. Nowadays the number of people able to work in the field of ornithology in Albania is at least 10 times more that it used to be in the year 2013 when this project started.