Albania’s Vjosa River has officially become a National Park. After coordinated international efforts lasting more than a decade, last week Albania’s Council of Ministers ratified the decision which was announced by Environment Minister Mirela Kumbaro.
“We have today the decision to declare the Vjosa river the last wild river in Europe a national park,” Kumbaro announced in a press conference.
We have extended this protection area to 12,727 ha, which is the entire water surface, the river’s banks, and the land surface.Mirela Kumbaro, Environment Minister
But what does a ‘wild river’ mean? The Vjosa flows unencumbered by industrial developments or hydropower plants, all the way from its source near the Greek village of Vouvoussa (the ancient name of Vjosa), through Albania, to the Adriatic Sea. The Vjosa River Basin is home to around 1,100 species of flora and fauna, including 15 that are classed as threatened.
A campaign uniting EcoAlbania, River Watch, outdoor clothing giant Patagonia, and even Leonardo di Caprio, fought to protect the river and its basin from damaging civil or commercial infrastructure.
Success finally came in 2022, when the Albanian government moved to declare the river a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve and National Park. And earlier this year, they applied for the protections offered under the International Union for the Conservation of Nature Category II (National Park) designation.
Category II protections pertain to large natural areas that that “play a role in the connectivity of the landscape/seascape.” They are “set aside to protect large-scale ecological processes, along with the complement of species and ecosystems characteristic of the area.”
Although this designation should afford the river high-level and globally-recognised international protection, fears remain about the impact of a planned airport in the Vjosa-Narta Protected Landscape.
in 2021, the government contracted with a Swiss-based consortium to build a new 104-million-euro airport 150 kilometres from Tirana in the Vjosa-Narta Protected Landscape.
At the time, the European Commission criticized the airport plans, which they said were “in contradiction with national laws and international biodiversity protection conventions that Albania has ratified. This Protected Area is a candidate for the Emerald site network, which provides shelter to more than 62 species of birds listed in the EU Birds Directive. Vjosa River, as one of Europe’s last wild rivers, should receive proper protection status.”
Albania has been an official candidate for accession to the EU since 2014 and negotiations were opened in 2020. The future management structure for the park – which could become a model regionally and globally – will therefore surely be closely watched.