FACTS ABOUT VALBONA

At the recent Rogner press conference for the protest concerts, a well-wisher said to me something like: “You need to publish more facts – so far the appeal has been entirely emotional, and this is not enough.”

This surprised me, since I feel like for the past 10 months, I’ve done little more than desperately limp through reams of facts, trying to ingest and transmit them. I’ve learned to read Albanian legal documents (in Albanian). I’ve had to read technical reports (in Albanian). I’ve learned to request information (in Albanian) and then ingest it. I’ve read experts’ opinions, legal opinions and engineering documents (in Albanian). My brain has begun to bulge. I imagine, I feel, my brain inside my skull, morphing and constricting like some sort of monstrous starfish, extruding its stomach to ingest . . . more facts, desperately grasped at, even through the bizarre medium of google translate when necessary.

I actually believe in truth. I believe that truth exists, and that it is clean, and impartial and accurate. I believe that truth is honest, and that it cuts a clear way forward, and that even when the path of truth appears at first to be uncomfortable, if you look past the first discomfort, truth will lead you to the best possible resolution – the most ultimately comfortable resolution. That truth is the way forward. And truth of course is based on those most elusive of creatures, facts.

How then is it possible that I could have become perceived as a purveyor of purely emotional appeals?

Like everyone else, I blame the media, and what has been chosen to report. Emotion sells, it’s quick and cheap and easy. Sound bites, face time. I accept the (seeming) fact that this is what media wants and chooses. But my well-wisher was right. It’s not enough.

So, with your patient indulgence, I would invite you to walk with me through some of the facts about the Valbona Hydropower situation. And of course, in order to approach facts, we need to ask questions.

The first, most important fact to consider is that Valbona is not just a pretty place. It’s not just a place that we’re fond of, or simply a place that has emotional resonance – although it is all these things. Valbona is an amazing, largely unstudied area of incredibly rich biodiversity (see Arne Strid, see VNM opinion, see glacier papers here and here). What does that mean? Why should we care? Should we? Valbona seems to have unusually high populations of reproducing large carnivores for Europe. Does this matter? Well, that probably depends on who you talk to, but I would argue that the largest “inconvenient truth” of our collective lifetimes is the effect we humans are having on our natural environment, and that it is becoming increasingly difficult to ignore the fact that we are not separate from nature, not above it, but part of it. And that as we destroy nature, so we destroy ourselves. See: Climate change. In which case, areas of pristine nature become more important, more precious. They are important as reservoirs. We cannot afford to destroy a place like Valbona, as we have destroyed so much else, before we even understand it. But let’s assume we don’t care about that.

(c) Ilir Bajri, 2016

(c) Ilir Bajri, 2016

Well then, Valbona is still not just a pretty place – it is an unusually pretty place, recently judged by National Geographic as one of the 9 best destinations in the world for outdoor adventure. Which means tourism. Which means money. Potentially very large quantities of money. National Parks in nearby Croatia actively demonstrate that 8,000 ha of National Park should profit something like $8,000,000 per year – just the park alone, never mind serving as an economic engine for the whole area. If the National Park of the Albanian Alps (including Valbona, Theth, Gashi and Kelmend) was allowed to be legally created – and we don’t forget the fact that to date its legal creation has been blocked by the Albanian Ministry of Energy – at 86,000 ha, it should profit something like $80,000,000 per year for Albania within 30 years, based on the Croatian example. And never mind that Croatian parks don’t even figure on National Geographic’s “nine best list.” But let’s say, for the sake of argument that we don’t even care about that. Money? Who needs it?

Well then, we arrive at the inconvenient fact that Valbona is a National Park. Like it or not, in 1996, Valbona was declared an IUCN level II protected area, with attendant legal protections. Very clearly written in the Albanian law on protected areas is the fact that NO industrial developments are allowed within a defined National Park.

Okay. So let’s try to argue that Hydropower projects aren’t really “industrial developments.” Hydropower is currently classed as green energy – although this is increasingly subject to argument internationally. But let’s forget those quibbles. Well, we have accepted standards on how to prove that construction – industrial or other – won’t negatively affect environment. EU accepted standards, as Rama has recently invoked, although he didn’t really need to. Albania herself has perfectly good laws on how to test and prove environmental impact. At the heart of all these standards and laws is something called the “Environmental Impact Assessment.” This EIA (or VNM in Albanian) is a report which: 1) assesses what is present – basically, makes a complete biodiversity report or inventory, 2) asks searching questions about how the construction in question might affect, or “impact,” this existing situation, 3) addresses these impacts, listing measures which will be taken to minimize them, and 4) provides a plan for monitoring: How will the construction prove, ongoing, that it is minimizing impact? What measurements will be taken? Where and how will it be reported?

Here we come back to facts, and truth. The truth is, I think, that if the Hydropower developers had provided an EIA which demonstrated that they had actually thought long and hard about constructing in Valbona, we would have no argument. If the developers demonstrated that they were caring for Valbona, constructing in a responsible manner, we could not, and would not, object. But the EIA provided by the developers is . . . appalling. It does none of the 4 required things. The description of what is here is not only inadequate, but flat out wrong. Their assessment of what is Valbona is like a (bad) joke. “Here and there there are some walnut trees” they wrote. When in fact what we have is vast tracts of virgin beech forest, currently under consideration as UNESCO world heritage forests, not to mention an array of habitat types, many of which are legally protected in Albania. They write: “Animals include Jackals,” – when in fact there are NO jackals in Valbona, nor have there ever been; Jackals exist in the south of Albania, “and some rabbits and foxes and maybe some bears, higher up.” That is the sum total of biodiversity description which the developers conclude. In fact, leaving aside the 50-some legally protected species they don’t mention, there are not only “some bears” but large populations of breeding bears – documented. They don’t mention wolves, or otters, or Balkan Lynx (the rarest carnivore in Europe). Or stone and pine martins (the only place in Europe where their habitats overlap). But it doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter if you care or don’t care about any of these animals. The point is, that the developer’s EIA doesn’t know what it’s talking about. It is therefore, already a completely unreliable document.

But move on, to the question of impacts – the most important question an EIA should be asking. The developer’s EIA doesn’t mention any. They don’t mention that the path of the water delivery tunnels will cut straight across a proven bear breeding ground. They don’t mention the effect of construction on habitat, or tourism. They don’t consider that removing 80% of the water from the river for 3 km will have any effect on the river. A child can spot the questions, would ask the questions, would suspect the effects. The developers apparently couldn’t.   And don’t.

Finally, there is no mention made of efforts to counteract bad effects, and there is no plan made to monitor them. For all of these reasons, the EIA supplied by the developers is no EIA at all.

At this point, in a spirit of inquiry, you might be asking yourself: If this document exists, in order to reassure the Albanian Government that the development will be responsible, and if it fails so signally to address any question of responsibility, why on earth did the government accept it? Well, you may ask with us, as we may soon need to ask in court. But never mind even that question. Let’s assume (shocking) that the government was either irresponsible, incompetent, or corrupt in this case. Hey – it happens.

Well then, what fall back was there? At the end of the day, there’s US. If the developer has failed to do their job, if the government has failed to spot this – and in thus failing, has failed to do their job, there is still, in the end, us: The people. Let’s imagine that we are more interested, more concerned, more responsible than our elected officials. If they won’t ask the questions, well then we will, as is our legal right. Ah. But for that, we’d have to know it was happening. Would have to have access to documents, to be informed, to be consulted. Fine, it’s boring, but let’s assume that we care enough to bother to try to read this stuff. Well. But to even have that choice, we would have to know it was happening.

And now we arrive at possibly the most unescapable fact of this whole argument. We were not told.

No matter how you feel about the arguments I’ve presented, or how I’ve dismissed them, the solid final fact is that we, the people, have an ethical and legal right to know what is being done to and around us. This right is formalized in several Albanian laws, notably: Ligji nr. 8503, date 30.06.1999 “Për të drejtën e informimit për dokumentat zyrtare,” Ligji nr. 8672, datë 26.10.2000 “Për të drejtën e publikut për të pasur informacion, për të marrë pjesë në vendimmarrje dhe për t’iu drejtuar gjykatës për çështjet e mjedisit” (Konventa Aarhus), and Ligji nr. 119/2014 “Për të drejtën e informimit” (I wasn’t kidding about reading everything). All of these laws were ignored. We were not informed. No public “public consultations” were held. No information was given us. No notice. Tplani has been constructing since 2013, and to date they have yet to post a construction signboard.

We have not been told. This is illegal. And this is the final fact.

Since January 2016, our NGO TOKA has sent, registered mail, 10 different requests for information and/or formal administrative complaints to varying governmental bodies. The only proper response we recieved was from Mr. Zamir Dedej of AKZM (the National Agency of Protected Areas) who pointed out that his agency only came into being in 2015, and so had no information to contribute. Mr. Dedej has spoken publically, on numerous occasions, his personal opinion that the Hydpropowers should not be being developed inside Valbona. This lack of admistrative response is illegal. It clears the way for judicial appeal, or in other words a law suit. Which we will clearly win.

These are some facts.

Possibly they are less interesting than a flat out emotional appeal, though on the whole, if you have the patience, I don’t think so. Or possibly, what facts – massed and proved – amount to is in the end a larger justification for the equally factual howl that comes out of my soul every morning on waking. An elegant counterpoise to the equally factual fact that the sound of bulldozers ripping into the face of Kollata Mountain, which I have had to listen to every day, all day, for the past 31 days, is the sound of destruction torn into and across my spirit, torn and ripped from the spirit of everyone who loves Valbona. And we are not few. What I have presented are the facts, and what they amount to is that what is happening is wrong. It is illogical, it is destructive and it is illegal. And it is wrong.

Somehow, we have managed to put aside the emotions. To work through and in spite of the particularly elegant torture of having it happen before our eyes, in spite of us. Of having to listen to it. Of feeling powerless. In the end we will win. We will win based on the facts. I know this. I can only say that I hope, more than I can say, that our triumph will arrive in time for Valbona.

 

(For the Albanian version see here)

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