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Save the Blue Heart of Europe

Vivid green, crystal-clearwaters, wild countryside: these are the sensations that strike you the very first moments you drive through the Southern part of Albania. And among this pristine nature flows a true queen, the Vjosariver. But this artery of the Balkans is now being threatened by damconstruction and a long series of hydro-power plants which would destroy one of the last free flowing rivers in Europe and a unique ecosystem. Joining their beliefs and efforts, a handful of individuals from different countries and horizons have led the final stage of the ‘Save the Blue Heart of Europe’ campaign this last spring to strive to protect this gem from potential destruction.

But let’s get back to Albania first, this mysterious and fascinating country which remained completely closed to the outside world for decades between the end of the Second World War and the collapse of the Soviet Union. Named ‘Shqipëria’ or ‘Land of Eagles’ in Albanian, this small Republic of the Balkan peninsula is mostly mountainous and shelters dense forests and a very rich flora and wildlife. A lot of Albanians still make their living from the land they live on and cultivate. The country of Skanderberg, a landlord hailed as a national hero, is indeed composed of fertile alluvial plains and majestic rivers, regarded as trueliving organisms by local populations.

Vjosa is the biggestfree flowing river in the whole Europe outside Russia.

Vjosa. The mere sound of this name suggests the poetic power of this river. Vjosa starts her path in the Pindus mountains of Greece on a plateau 1400 meters above sea level. It is called Aoos in Greece and has been worshipped since the dawn of times. A number of small streams come together to form one river bed which continues its way in the mountains of Albania. Vjosa is a very special river, not only for its beauty and the variety of wildlife inhabiting it but also because it is today the biggest free flowing river in the whole Europe outside Russia. With its 270 kilometers of untamed flow, this vital artery gives life to this part of the Balkan Peninsula. But it is now underthreat of a large dam construction near Pocem and also of the development of thirty-three power plants over the course of the river. No environmental impact assessments according to European standards have been conducted yet and these building projects would have a huge impact on the whole ecosystem and rich endemic wildlife. It is also far from certain that these large-scale projects truly correspond to the needs of local populations. For all these reasons, a strong movement of individuals and organizations was born and sharing ideas and initiatives, gained momentum to resist the project.This is how ‘Save the Blue Heart of Europe’ was born.

‘We have to dream big in order to make big things possible. Join us in the fight for better future.’ Rok Rozman

          ‘Rivers are my life.’ This simple quote could very well sum up the vibrant personality of Rok Rozman. Former Olympic rower, biologist, fly fisherman, pro kayaker, this multi-faceted Slovenian played a pivotal role in the setting up of the whole campaign. Founder of Leeway Collective two years ago, together with fellow Slovenian kayaker Zan Kuncic, he has been working tirelessly this past year to make things happen. The centralidea behind the whole project was to initiate a Balkan Rivers Tour crossing different countries of the Balkans with rivers potentially endangered by dam construction. In the end, what was achieved exceeded their expectations: they crossed over the course of 36 days six countries and twenty-three rivers, paddled 390 kilometers and for one single purpose, to give a voice to those hidden naturaljewels of Eastern Europe. The culminating stage was the Vjosa river. The support of Patagonia also gave a strong impulse to the whole thing. The very respected outdoor brand is indeed a true pioneer in conservation issues and ecological campaigns. Activism and grassroots efforts have always been at the heart of its philosophy. Grants and communication efforts enabled the movement to grow over the past few months. Mihela Hladin and Hans Cole, who respectively work as heads of environmental issues for Patagonia in Europe and the States, were also part of the last week in Albania to show the full support of the brand regarding the issue.

‘I have always been a river person, a river freak if you will.’ Ulrich Eichelmann

Besides Leeway Collective and Patagonia, several ecological organizations played a major role in the making of the whole campaign. The firestone is Riverwatch, led by charismatic Ulrich Eichelmann. This tireless activist and whistle blower grew up in a small town near a little river in central Germany where he learned to catch trout with his bare hands and build huts in willow trees. Then in the 1980’s adam was constructed upstream and the water level dropped dramatically. ‘Mypersonal paradise disappeared and since then, I have been working to protect rivers which mostly means fighting against dam projects.’ Ulrich is the coordinator for the ‘Save the Blue Heart of Europe’ campaign and in cooperation with the organization Euronatur, Eichelmann aims at preventing this dam tsunami. To him, the rivers of Slovenia and Albania stand as the most intact on the entire continent. ‘Wildrivers with extensive gravel banks, spectacular waterfalls, deep canyons, crystal-clear streams full of fish, large alluvial forests where rare eagles nest, even karstic undergound rivers.’ The initial idea was to fight not only for the protection of a single river, or even a stretch of river, but for all the Balkan rivers, a huge challenge. In 2013, the ‘Save the Blue Heart of Europe’ campaign was launched. The first step was to assess the biodiversity of the rivers and the outcome was astonishing: 80% of all river kilometers in the region are pristine or in near natural condition.

‘EcoAlbania’s mission is to work on strengthening the friendly coexistence of man and nature in Albania.’ Olsi Nika

Localorganization EcoAlbania is the other key activist involved in the whole project. Created in December 2014 as a joint initiative of professors of the Department of Biology at the University of Tiranaand the ‘Save the Blue Heart of Europe’ campaign team in Albania, the mission of this non-governmental environmental organization is to protect the natural ecosystems and their ecological interactions through the preservation of wildlife and their habitats with the belief that the use of renewable natural sources should be sustainable for the human well-being in the country. Olsi Nika, head of EcoAlbania, has been in touch with Riverwatch and Euronatur sincethe beginning of the implementation of the campaign at the end of 2013. He admits the fact that initially all the things looked very difficult and almost impossible, in terms of communication with the institutions, the government and especially the media. ‘But going through the campaign activities step by step, we are now aware of the fact that at least we have already done two main achievements: we managed to make the ‘Vjosa issue’ a real issue. Now more and more people locally and internationally know about Vjosa as the last wild and big free flowing river in Europe. We also somehow succeeded in making the local and national public opinion think twice before saying that hydro is green.’ Olsi perfectly sums up the whole process in the following way: first nobody cared at all, secondly they listened to us, thirdly they followed us and fourthly they took their position. Now the European Union, local government and communities and most of the media are strongly supporting the whole movement.

‘Now I know how salmons feel like when faced with a wall of concrete.’ Rok Rozman

The sun is setting on Tepelene, a small city in the Southern part of the country overlooking the Vjosa. The base camp of the flotilla has been established by its shores, surrounded by mountains and lush vegetation. As we all sit around a big bonfire, the gentle flow of the river and the cracking of wood burning are the only sounds coming to our ears. ‘When you really carefully listen to the fire, you can hear the stories branches and logs have to tell, combined with its serene flames and the sound of the river, this is one of the best soundtracks MotherEarth has to offer. These are the moments that make us what we are.’ Hereare the words of wisdom of Rok Rozman, revealing that a mere blueline on a map has actually a lot more to reveal in person. The night goes by and stories, experiences are shared around the fire. Slovenian and French climbers Marko Prezelj, Luka Krajnc, Nastja Davidova, Arnaud Petit and Stéphanie Bodet also joined the movement showing their support regarding this cause and with the aim to explore the climbing potential of Albania, opening new routes, expanding horizons… It is almost time to get ready for the grand finale of the tour, the flotilla event on the Vjosa. After days of rain, sun is eventually fully shining for the big day on the river. Kayakers from various countries such as France, Austria, Germany, the Netherlands make up a colorful flotilla on the river and ride down a section of it among an amazing scenery to reach a grassy spot and display huge white letters saying ‘Vjosa, no dams.’ A number of local people, politicians and famous Albanian singer Golik Jaupi also attended the event to show their full concern towards the campaign. Then the flotilla continues its way down the river to get closer to the site where the dam is supposed to be built. We enter a beautiful narrow section before it gets wider again and we are sadly able to contemplate the scars inflicted on the riverbanks on each side. The procession paddles one last section before reaching its final destination of the Balkan Rivers Tour after almost 400 kilometers on water. It is with great emotion that we are given a warm welcome by a large number of local people, of all ages, displaying their banners of protest. ‘Jodiga ne Pocem!’ No dams in Pocem! Several mayors of villages and towns of the region are there to rally the cause and choose the path of sustainable income instead of short-sighted greed. ‘When you stop water flow, you cause disease to the environment. It is like in our bodies, when you stop the flow, something bad happens.’ These final strokes of paddles and the heartfelt support of the local population are no doubt the culminating point of months of efforts and a strong moment of emotion.

The kayak-petition handed in Tirana stood as a true symbol of the whole movement.

Then came the time to get back to the capital of Tirana to voice one last protest. A handful of kayakers carry their kayaks and paddles with them, marching the streets of the city to reach the area of the Parliament. Ryan Gellert, General Manager for Patagonia Europe, takes part in the event to show the full involvement of the brand regarding that matter, one of the most important conservation campaigns on the European continent right now. Several Albanian representatives also chose to attend the demonstration. The crowd is getting bigger and bigger to reach a sizeable number of people. One after the other, Rok Rozman, Ulrich Eichelmann, Olsi Nika, Albanian politicians and heads of environmental organizations express their protest. The blue kayak of Rok Rozman which just completed the whole Balkan Rivers Tour continues to be signed by a countless number of people. It was supposed in the first place to be directly handed over to Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama but a row of policemen block the way to the top of the stairs leading to the entrance of Parliament. It does not matter so much in the end. Mission has been accomplished. The ‘Save the Blue Heart of Europe’ campaign is a sheer success. Local and international awareness has been raised.

This amazing amount of energy gathered by individuals from different countries and horizons is the living proof that grassroots activism works and is truly fundamental in our societies. This campaign stands as a strong echo of the fight led by Patagonia in the States regarding the legacy of industrial dam building. Some dams are now in a crumbling state and will be removed. The Dam Nation petition has been signed by more than 70 000 people and delivered to the White House. According to Yvon Chouinard, founder of Patagonia, there are 40 000 obsolete dams in America. More and more people in Albania are now fully supporting the idea of a Wild River National Park from the mountains to the sea, which would make it the first of its kind in Europe. As John Sawhill, President of the Nature Conservancy, perfectly summed up, ‘in the end, our society will be defined not only by what we create, but by what we refuse to destroy.




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