The Vjosa meanders untamed and free over 270 kilometers through the almost untouched landscape of Albania and Greece. The water flows through steep gorges, along dramatic mountain landscapes over wide gravel plains to the Adriatic coast. As one of the last large wild rivers in Europe, the Vjosa has long been considered particularly worthy of protection. Last week the entire river system on the Albanian side was declared Europe’s first wild river national park. This puts an end to years of protests by environmentalists, scientists and locals who have been fighting the hydropower industry for more than a decade. Tourism could also benefit from the decision.

The Vjosa rises from the Pindos Mountains in Greece, where the river is called Aoös. According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature IUCN, the entire catchment area of ​​the river covers 6,704 square kilometers, of which around two thirds are on Albanian territory. There, the Vjosa winds first through deep gorges and then between gravel islands and sandbanks towards the north-west, expanding to a width of up to two kilometers. The crystal-clear water flows through the valley of the same name, where it branches off into numerous side arms. Such rivers, “which can undisturbedly dig their way through gorges, valleys and plains on their way from the mountains to the sea”, only exist in Europe, according to “Geo” in the Balkans. That is why the watercourses in the south-eastern region are also known as the “Blue Heart of Europe”.

The untamed river constantly carves new paths through the landscape. In its side arms, on gravel banks or under riparian forests, it creates numerous biotopes. Over time, a unique ecosystem has emerged that is made up of a wide variety of habitats. In these there is “considerable biological diversity of national and global importance,” writes the nature conservation organization EuroNatur. The river and its banks are a unique habitat for many endangered animal and plant species, for fish and mollusks, for birds and insects. “Its arms transport extremely large amounts of sediment, water and sand, and thus support an extremely large biodiversity and many habitats,” explains Andrej Sovinc from the international environmental organization “World Commission for Protected Areas” in an interview with “Deutsche Welle”.

According to a statement by the Albanian government and the outdoor clothing company Patagonia, which has also campaigned for the national park to be declared, more than 1,100 animal species, including 13 animal species that are endangered worldwide and two plant species, live in and on the Vjosa. 69 of the native fish species are endemic and only found in the Vjosa. According to “National Geographic”, the river delta where the river flows into the Adriatic serves as winter quarters for around 50,000 water birds. In addition to the diverse nature, the river also has cultural significance. It forms the livelihood of around 60,000 people: the water catchment area offers the villages in the region fertile soil for agriculture. Fish diversity is vital to the welfare of local fishermen.

For several decades, plans by the Albanian government, power companies and foreign investors – the “lust for electricity and private profit”, as the “Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung” (FAZ) calls it – threatened to destroy these natural habitats. Hydroelectric power plants are the greatest danger to animals, plants and people in the region, the “Save the Blue Heart of Europe” initiative has been warning for years. The campaign is coordinated by EuroNatur in cooperation with the nature conservation organization Riverwatch and implemented together with partner organizations in the Balkan countries. They are all fighting for the “protection of rivers with a particularly high natural value on the Balkan Peninsula, which are threatened by more than 3,400 hydropower projects”. 40 of these were to be built in the catchment area of ​​the Albanian wild river: nine on the Vjosa itself and 31 on its tributaries.

Investors see the waters in the Balkans as a “giant battery”. Conservation organizations, on the other hand, warn of the catastrophic effects that hydroelectric power plants and dams would have. Large parts of the valley would flood while other sections would dry up. For example, the Kalivaç region, for which a huge dam was planned. A “project that would drown their country and that they don’t want at all costs,” wrote the “Geo” in May 2021. “The Vjosa is vital for us, for our country, for our food,” a local told the at the time AFP news agency. “Dams would destroy all biodiversity and fisheries for thousands of people.” In the same month, an administrative court in Tirana stopped the construction of the dam.

It took even more persistent protests both at home and abroad before Vjosa finally became a national park. As early as February 2021, 20 Albanian environmental organizations presented a detailed concept for the creation of the Vjosa National Park to the then Minister of Tourism and the Environment. A month later, a study by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) backed up the claim with scientific evidence. The creation of a national park to IUCN protected area standards “is critical to the future of the valley as they would guide long-term protection and ensure sustainable land use,” the report found. A little later, the outdoor clothing company Patagonia released the film “Vjosa Forver”, which shows the “ongoing struggle for the future of this unique river system”. The clip became part of an international campaign and petition that even found celebrity supporters – including Leonardo DiCaprio.

But the Albanian government initially declared the Vjosa a nature park. A partial success, but with little effectiveness. As several media, including “National Geographic”, reported, this status would not have been enough to protect the river from far-reaching changes caused by hydroelectric power plants or dams. Political power is above the law, Olsi Nika from EcoAlbania, a partner organization of the “Save the Blue Heart” campaign, criticized in an interview with “Deutsche Welle”. As an example, he referred to plans to build an airport that should be located in the middle of the nature reserve.

Everyone can do whatever they want in a nature reserve, explained Michael Succow, a German biologist and agronomist. A national park, on the other hand, “is secure and can also benefit from EU funding,” the scientist told Deutsche Welle. The Albanian government initially wanted nothing to do with this. “One national park is a bit too much,” Prime Minister Edi Rama told AFP in May 2021. He felt this restrictive categorization would “undermine the activity of tens of thousands of people”.

The turning point came as a surprise. A year later, the Prime Minister, Albanian Minister of Tourism and Environment Mirela Kumbaro, and Patagonia CEO Ryan Gellert jointly signed the pledge to create the national park. The Albanian government’s decision came against economic interests and despite far-reaching plans to use the river as an energy source. The international protection standard is intended to protect the Vjosa from destruction by companies or future governments in the future. On March 13, 2023, the protection of the river was enshrined in law. Since then, the entire Vjosa in Albania from the Greek border to the Adriatic Sea and its main tributaries – a total river system over 400 kilometers long – has been designated as a national park.

The IUCN Category II national park status is designed to ensure that the wild river is protected to the highest international standards, both nationally and transboundarily. According to Patagonia, the Vjosa will be “preserved as a living, free-flowing river for the benefit of people and nature”. And Prime Minister Rama also promised: “Under the protective cover of the national park, the Vjosa will remain intact, for Albania, for Europe and for the planet that we want for our children’s children.” In the end, the change of heart in politics was probably due to the “unique coalition of locals, Albanian and European environmentalists and the globally active American company Patagonia”, speculates the “FAZ”.

The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) calls it a “milestone for the people and biodiversity in Albania”, EcoAlbania speaks of a “unique initiative for Europe and the world” and “a new standard in matters of nature conservation”. The certificate of the national park could also represent an opportunity for sustainable tourism. “It is high time to learn from the mistakes of other countries and prevent mass tourism by favoring ecotourism,” Minister for Tourism and Environment Mirela Kumbaro told AFP.

The special thing about Albania is not the beaches, but the undiscovered, untouched nature in the mountainous hinterland, the politician told the “FAZ”. Ecotourism in the Vjosa region has steadily increased in recent years. Activities such as rafting, canoeing, kayaking, swimming and hiking are already popular with holidaymakers visiting the region. The status of the national park should attract even more tourists who want to visit the pristine wild river.

According to the “Spiegel”, the zone designated as a national park initially includes the Vjosa, its river bed and its three most important tributaries Drino, Bënça and Shushica. A national park center is also to be planned, a management team employed and people from the region to be trained as rangers. The next step is to add more tributaries and areas important to the river’s ecosystem to the park.

Sources: “Deutsche Welle”, EuroNatur, “Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung”, “Geo” (I), “Geo” (II), “Geo” (III) International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), “National Geographic”, Press release from the Albanian Ministry of Tourism and Environment, IUCN and Patagonia, Save the Blue Heart of Europe, “Spiegel”, ZDF