Last spring, Dorian Nasi, one of the rangers of the Regional Administration of Protected Areas who was conducting daily monitoring on the narrow natural paths of the Divjakë -Karavasta National Park, noticed the unusual presence of cars loaded with construction materials, which were moving along the coast south of the lagoon. Without delay, he immediately alerted the administration and within an hour, a team of four rangers were rushed in pursuit of the suspicious activity.
“Near the New Sector, no more than one kilometer from the lagoon, we noticed a pile of white soil…”,Doriani says. ” We approached and noticed the presence of a newly opened canal, tens of meters long, which had been filled with stones and concrete. It was obvious that it was about laying the foundations of a construction, till unknown to us. What surprised us, even more, was the high intensity with which they had worked… We had been in the same place, 48 hours ago, where everything seemed undisturbed, but everything had changed within this very short time”, -concludes, not a little surprised, Dorian, the ranger.
The trucks were parked carelessly in one of the many lots, on the side of a new road, newly paved with “fresh” gravel, clearly widened over one of the old existing paths. The intruders, some of whom introduced themselves as Spanish engineers, numbered a little over ten. Astrit Xhebrahimi, the administrator of the “Agro Fish Hoti” company, undertook the execution of the works on behalf of the company. He did not hand over any document or any concrete work permit but informed the rangers that it was about the construction of a solar greenhouse complex, the right which he had received from the Ministry of Agriculture.
“We found the violation and immediately compiled a report, which we passed to two inspectorates, the local one (IVMT) near the Municipality of Divjaka and the National Inspectorate for the Protection of Territory (IKMT)”, Dorian explains.
The territory on which the construction site was built belongs to the network of Protected Areas of Albania, part of the Divjaka-Karavasta National Park, one of the most important wetlands for waterbirds in the country and at the same time, a delicate natural ecosystem, extremely endangered in nowadays. The entire territory of the Park is of international importance as it is classified as an Important Bird and Biodiversity Area (IBA).
But none of the above attributes prevented the “Agro Fish Hoti” company, which without any document, environmental permit, or construction permit, rushed to set up the construction site in this protected and so controlled area. The company had even widened, violently, the access road, about 800 m long, throwing inert on its back, as if it owned it.
Thanks to the exposure, the inspectorate near the municipality was set in motion, announcing a fine for the company, but only in the amount of 50,000 ALL.
Only after the fine, the company requested the right to carry out the works (albeit already started). Within 24 hours, the municipality gave them the right, based on the request “for the construction of a solar greenhouse with discontinuous foundations”. But there was another problem here. If we stick to the phrase “with discontinuous foundations”, it contradicted the development of real works in the field, where the rangers had discovered the opposite: the continuation of the foundations. In fact, a number of other violations were confirmed in the report document they prepared on the ground, such as concrete pouring, filling with inert material; gravel road widening. In a word, the situation required the company to obtain a Building Permit before starting work.
The procedure for obtaining the permit, as well as the type of permit suitable for the work, are detailed in the Law “On Planning and Development of the Territory”.
But the municipality ignored everything, encouraging the continuation of the works, through the approval of another type of document, the so-called Preliminary Declaration for the Execution of Work, which was based on the project written on paper and not on what was implemented on the ground. In these circumstances, the proper document for the continuation of the work should have been the Construction Permit, not the Preliminary Declaration of Works.
The planning legislation (2020 amendments, Article 52) also specified the violations. Thus, since it was an intrusion into a protected area, the fine should be in accordance with the clause set out in the legislation. The 2020 changes required the imposition of a fine of 5,000,000 ALL. Even more, according to this legislation, the permits or preliminary declarations of the work, given by the local government, in this case, by the Municipality of Divjaka, approved within the Protected Areas, were absolutely invalid acts, if they had not been received, in advance, the act of confirmation by the National Council of the Territory (KKT). According to the legislation, the violation of this rule by the local authorities is punished with a fine of 2,000,000 ALL.
Meanwhile, the National Inspectorate of Territory Protection (NITP), although notified of the illegal activity, contented itself with the exchange of written communications with the Municipality of Divjaka and did not inspect the company on the ground.
What is even more painful, nine days after laying the foundations and concrete, the National Agency of Protected Areas (NAPA) notified the administration on the ground to allow the company to continue the activity. With this attitude, the Agency reflected marked irresponsibility towards a company that, not only had acted contrary to the law within a protected area but had also ignored the authority responsible for the protection of this territory.
On what grounds had NAPA allowed the activity of the company, without being aware of the land lease contract or the business plan?! The company had signed a contract for the development of a 99-year activity and NAPA did not yet consider this a final occupation of the land!
How many years does it take for the occupation to be called final? Maybe, centuries?!
TThe story began two years ago, in the heart of the pandemic period, when in June 2020, the “Agro Fish Hoti” company was declared the winner in a process where it competed alone, for the lease of state-owned agricultural land, of an area of 440,170 m2, for a period of 99 years. The Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development had opened the process of public competition for the lease of land, located in Cadastral Area 2085, of the Administrative Unit Karavasta e Re” (Divjakë Municipality), a part of which fell within the National Park. For its part, the Ministry, in the role of the land lessor, had refused to communicate, in advance, with the National Administration of Protected Areas, although the notification constituted a legal obligation.
The exclusivity of the administration of protected areas for the protection of national parks is being completely undermined, not only by the pressure of the interests of other authorities within the government but also by the degradation of the administration, especially of the usurping leadership, within its ranks.
A few kilometers away in Gradishte, the farmer EdmiraToska is facing the opposite: the loss of agricultural land; of the 140 hectares she had at her disposal, now only 40 are left.
The Toska family started the cattle business with 3 cows and then added 13 and reached a peak of over 120 head in 2012. They cultivated barley, alfalfa, and wheat on a piece of land for which the state, initially after the 90s, was not interested; a total of 141 hectares in four plots, until one day, the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development, “grabbed” 100 hectares.
“They took us out by force”, says Edmira. “The Ministry gave the land to the businessmen who came from Tirana. They planted it with rice, but failed and left. They kept it unused for four years and then turned it into a marsh. It remains the same even today.” – she explains, not without regret.
During the warm season, Ermira and her remaining herd moved three or four villages away, in search of additional new pastures, which she rents. She says that this is not an easy expedition, as, firstly, the expenses have increased and secondly, the lands are not fertile, as they have a high salinity.
“I have 21 heads left, in total. I sold cows to buy food and oil; diesel to run the tractor. No profit to speak of, but at least I keep the herd alive! The last time I sold the oldest cow I had…”, she says in tears.
The hope of awakening optimism seems an impossible mission to Edmira, since, as she explains, the government is supporting “the powerful”, “giving wings to those who fly higher, while the poor, those who fall down, are trampled… “.
Immersed in the daily routine, where the struggle for survival grabs all her energies, Edmira does not have access to official records and data, but surprisingly, her statements confirm exactly what the datasets of these data prove.
The plots of the cadastral area 2085, exactly where Edmira Toska together with her herd, migrated during the warm season in search of new pastures, have already become an indicator of success for the Albanian Investment Development Agency (AIDA), a state agency that promotes and attracts so-called Strategic Investments in favor of large investors. In the last seven years (2016-2022), the government has transferred a total of (publicly announced), about 1583.8 ha of state land for the support of these investors, only from Cadastral Zone 2085, part of which falls within the protected territory of the Divjakë-Karavasta National Park.
The first 200 ha were granted in 2016, for the establishment of a factory that would produce high-density wood panels from cutting reeds, found in abundance along water channels on the side of wetland plots. In 2018, another 800 ha were given rent-free, for a period of 99 years, to another investor, considered strategic, for the establishment of a pomegranate, goji berry, avocado and finger plantation. Then, the strategic investor of 800 ha of pomegranate and avocado, captured another 131 ha within the cadastral area 2085, for the establishment of an agro-tourism complex. Finally, in July (2022), the Council of Ministers detached another 27 plots, with a total area of 261.3 ha of state land, from Cadastral Zone 2085, to make them available to strategic investors. It is not yet known what kind of investments will be made there.
Inside the Park, “Agro Fish Hoti” was expanding its activity.
Converted under another name: “Agro Natura 2022” (but under the same Tax Number), unlike farmer Edmira Toska in Gradishte, the company was overcoming obstacles thanks to the “help” of the authorities.
Although the rangers found other violations, the National Environment Agency (NEA), an institution that protects and guarantees the sustainability of resources, “relieved” the company, approving documents that enabled the continuation and further deepening of the works. In addition to greenhouses, the company requested the construction of an agricultural warehouse, new service facilities, and the construction of two water tanks. Specifically, in the Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) document, the opinion of NAPA as the authority responsible for the administration of protected areas was missing. The Agency was hiding behind the opinions of other institutions, which had the administration and preservation of the integrity of the protected areas, outside the scope of their activity.
NAPA did not respond to a request to document its opinion on these extensions. Can the natural integrity of protected areas be guaranteed if the dedication and contribution of the rangers are ignored?!
Edmira, the farmer who grew up in Gradishte and that for twenty-five years successfully bred 120 cows, was evicted, while the other, with no agricultural tradition, who had just arrived, was supported until lawlessness! It is not difficult to understand the danger that such conflictual decision-making can cause on the ground…
But further inside, in the heart of the Park, other “surprises” were reserved.
In the last three years, the number of waterfowl in the Divjakë-Karavasta National Park has suffered a significant decline. For every three birds counted in 2021, one less was counted in 2022, while the number of birds counted in 2022 has fallen by two, for every three of them, two years ago (2020).
According to the preliminary data, referred to recently, thanks to the scientific project on “Strengthening the Capacities of Monitoring and Improving Ecosystem Administration in the Divjakë-Karavasta National Park”, a 3-year collaboration between the Regional Administration of Protected Areas, Fier District and the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA), the fish biomass in Karavasta Lagoon is on the verge of an ecological disaster.
Applying a methodology, tested and evaluated internationally (through the marking of the upper feathers of the mullets), it was concluded that their stock in the lagoon does not exceed 3.5 kg/ha.
“We realized that the current stock of mullets is much smaller than what has been published in the studies so far, while a figure four times higher is publicly estimated”, – says one of the experts of the project, Spase Shumka.
The result is an unpleasant surprise, as it also warns about something else: the encroachment on the food chain, especially for the symbol of the Park: the Dalmatian Pelican, whose nesting during the last year, marked a terrible decline, similar to ’97, when civil unrest broke out in the country and chaos prevailed.
Although with an active dynamic, due to the impact of the discharge of two rivers (Seman in the south and Shkumbin in the north), since 1984, the Karavasta Lagoon, a closed water system, has not undergone major changes, either in depth, salinization or temperature, says the assessment.
So, what has caused the decline in fish production?!
“Fishing in the lagoon is uncontrolled. In addition to an extremely high number of licensed fishermen (over 200 licenses issued by the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development), others fish illegally”, Shumka states. “The time has come for the local administration of protected areas to take responsibility and leadership for the sustainable management and monitoring of resources within the area they protect,” he concludes.
But another decline takes degradation to a new level. It has to do with the emmigration of people, which reduces the labor force, endangering the progress of the so-called Strategic Investments.
Shpëtim Oseku, the administrator and one of the shareholders of the company “Agro Iliria”, which benefited from 800 ha of state land on the southern border of the Park, says that so far he has planted only 100 ha, while he has entered the fifth year of investment.
“I have no labor force! Who will do the service? I’m afraid to invest”, he says. I was forced to take workers from Bangladesh. They came at 10 in the evening and left the next day at 4 in the morning… They were organized. They have Albania as a springboard”, – he details.
Moved to the heart of Myzeqe several years now, to manage his pomegranate investment, businessman Oseku has acquired technical knowledge, which has been added to his natural intuition. He says that agriculture in Albania will go bankrupt and the greenhouses will be destroyed, as the country has remained empty. According to him, the Ministry (of Agriculture) is making a mistake, subsidizing only the collection centers, where the produce of the villagers is collected, but not the farmers. He says that it is precisely these centers that are leaving the peasant poor, arguing that the administrators of the centers should be employed by the villagers, live off the income of the villagers, and not buy the product from the villagers to sell to others.
Three kilometers further, near the eastern shores of the lagoon, in the sandy lands of Vérëz, Behar Çaushaj, a local farmer from Zharnec of Divjaka, said that his economy was collapsing, year after year. But the biggest difficulty lies in finding workers.
“One is reduced to such a plight here that is forced to hire whoever has remained, cause the best workers have left,” he said. “I will also leave, I will go to my children who are immigrants in Italy”, –
It was, almost, unnecessary that words should serve to understand more quickly the misery that the eye could easily see… The farmer Behar Caushaj, who, for thirty-one years had planted potatoes and cabbages, now stood alone, beside the new crop harvest of potatoes, the piles of which were sheltered behind him, under a plastic sheet in the middle of the field, in the hope that he would sell them above cost.
“I will keep them here; to sell or not to sell! I can’t send them to warehouses. It doesn’t work for me. I am obliged to collect them here. Over there in the greenhouses, I planted 1.5 acres of lettuce for export, but it was not sold. Last year it was sold, while this year there was no export. If it continues like this, I will leave the land, – he reacted. “There is no future,” he concluded, closing his sad story.
In the adjacent plot, Lul Noreci, another potato farmer, who transformed the first floor of the house into a warehouse to store agricultural products, did not make it long, but cut it short: -“When the youth leaves a place, the labor arm is gone! Then, what will that country be built with, what the hell?! Old people are also trying to leave here. Only this has remained to happen!”.
But in Remas, where the state plots of cadastral area 2085 lie, the phenomenon of leaving is affecting not only the workforce but also pupils, and children.
The data provided by the General Directorate of Pre-University Education (GDPE) show an unstoppable decline. During the last decade, the number of students has fallen by half. Meanwhile, the departures have followed an unchanged pace even after the drafting of the territorial planning documents. In 2018, the non-urbanized Cadastral Area 2085 underwent special planning through the drafting of the Detailed Area Plan of National Importance (PAPNI). Half of the 9-year schools were closed that year due to a lack of pupils.
Since 2016, when the Council of Ministers “gave away” the first plots (hundreds of hectares for €1, for 99 years) to strategic investors, within the free lands of cadastral area 2085, the number of students of pre-university education in Remas, has decreased by a third. For every three students in 2016, one of them left permanently in 2022. But the negative trend is more pronounced in preschool education, where for every three children in 2016, two of them left in 2022. While the 2021-2022 school year marks the biggest drop in children in kindergartens.
School abandoning constitutes a national pandemic.
Last decade, the Ministry (of Education and Sports) issued two guidelines to control the progress of pre-university education, but without succeeding in curbing the dropout of pupils. In an effort to discipline the chaos, the authorities were forced to reduce the number of pupils in order to keep the classes still active.
But the latest guidance, of July 2021, reduced them even more, especially in rural areas. Thus, high school classes, which in 2010 were not allowed to drop below 35 pupils, from now on, were allowed to be formed with only 10 of them.
But the permanent exodus is not the last act of social and environmental degradation taking place in one of the richest resource areas in Albania. As in any abandonment, the departed try to grab what they can, or at least, leave nothing behind that can bring them back.
Altin Kulla, a villager from Karavasta e Re, who wishes to be introduced by his pseudonym rather than his real name, confesses that the villagers, before leaving, are selling their lands. He shows that to the west of the pomegranates, next to the fence of the plot, a company from Tirana bought 9 ha. He goes on to explain in detail the negotiation and sales process, the available offer, and the price. According to Altin, the sale started in June (2021), and initially, about 200 ha were given to investors who came from Tirana, and declared that they would build photovoltaic panels for the production of electricity. But Altin explains that the grant was then limited, while the price per 1000 m2 increased, from €2,000 to €2,500 and up to €3,000. He claims that until now two or three other companies have come, but they have encountered difficulties due to the fragmentation of the plots, which do not have continuity of ownership, which has led to the failure to reach agreements between the parties. Altin clarifies that initially, at the moment of signing the contract, the villagers receive 20% of the value, while the property is blocked in the cadastre, until the moment when the payment is made in full.
Last month, Albania and the “Energy Community” agreed that by 2030, our country will cover half of the final gross consumption of energy from renewable sources. Albania was the only one in the Ministerial Council of the nine participating countries of the “Energy Community” that took on such a high target of 52%, while Serbia, with a territory three times larger, did not exceed 40%.
Of course, the establishment of this objective promotes the development of the electricity market from renewable sources, but the question is, how sustainable such development will be? On the other hand, such a flagging figure risks increasing an unnecessary and at the same time unbearable pressure against the hundreds of hectares of wetland habitats located around the shores of the Karavasta Lagoon, but also beyond, through the construction of photovoltaic plants, the capacities of which consume considerable space.
“Why don’t they subsidize the worker’s salary, but subsidize energy?! The state has not done any study in this area. To tell us, let’s say, what is best to plant in this type of land, with this sun, what can be cultivated?”, – exclaims Shpëtim Oseku, the administrator of the pomegranate farm, who is more concerned about the drop in labor than the drop in production.
“German students come here and do internships, but none from our university. We have an agricultural university. There are three hundred lecturers there and not a single agronomist has come here yet”, he accuses.
Dorian Nasi, the guard who first noticed the entry of machinery into the Park’s territory last spring, will be the most recent person to leave in the days to come. He also decided to leave. After fourteen years of work, he is leaving the place where he was born and raised, but above all, he is giving up the hope that something good can return.
No one can say for sure what the future may hold in Cadastral Area 2085, near the lagoon. What is clearly seen today is that there is no one left, at least to protect it.