Vjosa: The Blue Heart of Europe

The Vjosa River in Albania the last of Europe’s great wild rivers, known for its rich biodiversity, rare fish species and deep canyons. In some areas, it reaches over two kilometers in width. It’s an ideal habitat for migratory birds and spawning fish, but the nourishment its biodiversity provides to the local community is endangered due to hydroelectric projects in the basin.

“Our whole life revolves around the river and we are fascinated by the fishermen here,” said Irma Tako, convivium leader for Slow Food Permet. “The fishermen work using only classic fishing lines. They fish only for their pleasure and love of nature.” The number of fishers along the river is usually very low, perhaps no more than three or four people at any one time.

Some of the rare fish species that populate the river are buze trashe, the endemic gobio fish, barbus, European eel and the European chub. “We don’t dry the fish, we don’t have any processing. It would actually be good for our economy, but we don’t process the fish in any way. Hopefully we’ll be able to learn some new techniques from Slow Food.”

The problems the local community faces is sadly not an uncommon one: the construction of hydroelectric power plants leads naturally to the disturbance of the ecosystem and reduces the available habitat for wildlife. Three such hydroelectric stations have already been built by private companies in projects sponsored by the Albanian government. Their installation has already provoked environmental consequences, particularly on the natural hot springs, whose underwater sources were diverted by dam construction. Fortunately, after restorative engineering work in autumn 2016, the water level was finally restored and underground streams started flowing again. Nonetheless, it is all too clear how easily nature’s balance can be unsettled.

Another problem threatening the area’s biodiversity is illegal fishing, and indeed, the fact that law designed to tackle it are not enforced. The Slow Food convivium in Permet is working towards the creation of a local fishermens’ association which would embark on an awareness-raising mission around the country and beyond, with the ultimate goal of having the Vjosa river officially designated as a protected area, or national park.

However, the Albanian state so far seems determined to take the opposite path, and is in the midst of negotiations which could see the creation of further hydroelectric plants. Slow Food urges the Albanian government to explore other avenues of energy generation, as the ecological value of the biodiversity in the Vjosa river is incalculable and irreplaceable. As Time magazine observed, it is ironic that “the last free flowing river in Europe could be destroyed in the scramble to benefit economically from efforts to slow climate change through renewable energy.”

Irma Tako remains optimistic. “We hope that we will be able to safeguard the river.” At the end of the discussion they offered the audience a taste of the raki made from muscat grapes grown along the banks of the Vjosa. “These grapes could be another casualty if we don’t save the river, as their natural irrigation will be destroyed. It’s not just animals, it’s the products we make from the plants, too.”

1http://time.com/4430986/albania-vjosa-river-dam-hydropower/

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