Hydropower plants in Valbone are massacring the cultural identity, livelihood, and future of people in the area, and driving mass emigration.
This is according to a recently published report by the World Wildlife Fund that looked at the ongoing construction of HPPs in the area, including
In the report, the WWF report has made several recommendations to the Albanian government and the construction companies involved, including Dragobia Energy and Gener2.
These include increasing the practical function of democratic values and existing laws, adhering to the Aarhus Convention, filing a case in the European Court of Human rights, and acknowledging customary local law including the Kanun.
Respondents noted that the HPP activity on the river had diminished opportunities for young people and led to a wave of mass emigration. It also “exposed some fundamental issues regarding local politics and decision-making processes.” People often felt threatened and attacked, the report said, leading to feelings of “despair and hopelessness.”
The WWF report said that this is “far away from how a democracy should aim to function.”
As a first step, the government must ensure the right to information, participation, and justice for all citizens. They should strengthen these principles in the local and national government, ensuring people have the power to be actively involved. Short printed booklets should be distributed to educate people on their rights and these should be reinforced with public meetings and discussions
WWF highlighted in their report, the example of Dragobia Energy, linked to Genr2 which held public consultations but didn’t properly inform residents. This resulted in people only finding out about the HPPs too late and after the statute of limitations had passed. It also noted that “falsified documents using dead people’s signatures” had been presented.
In terms of the Aarhus Convention, Albania is legally bound to ensure that citizens have the right to live in a healthy environment. This includes access to information, public participation in decision-making, and access to justice. WWF called on the Albanian government to uphold these principles.
The organization’s report also recommends that a case be filed at the European Court of Human rights in Strasbourg., claiming a violation of their human rights. The WWF report notes that Valbona could “transgress regular environmental rights since the government has continuously neglected the political rights of the people, and locals have even been threatened and in some instances physically attacked.”
It continues that the Albanian courts have “failed to make the government or development/construction company comply with national law” meaning an appeal to the ECHR could force them to act.
The WWF report also observed that the HPPs in Valbona ignored the customary law system called Kanun which includes provisions on how water for irrigation is divided between the community.
“Accepting or adapting customary law can ensure the continuing vitality of the intellectual, cultural, and spiritual life, and heritage of local communities who have also called for various forms of respect for and recognition of customary laws beyond the scope of their own communities, for example, in claims over land and natural resources.”
Surveys conducted for the WWF with the local population found that some 70% want to leave. Some of the reasons for this included the construction of HPPs. When asked what would encourage them to stay, one resident stated:
“If I could, I would change the hydropower…they have a big impact on my children’s lives, they have changed the climate here. I want to leave something to them so they can live here too, but I am afraid that if I build something, the government won’t approve it because I fought against the hydropower plants.”
Other respondents explained how they have lost hope and are fearful to resist.
“It’s done, they are built. It’s come to the point where they will arrest us and nothing has changed. WE cannot do anything else. If you try and stop them, they will make it personal, they will attack your personally.”
“They have money, they have power, and they will make conflicts with individuals…they will pick people to attack.”
Others felt that the government didn’t consider the needs of the local community before granting permissions for such projects.
“The government has to inform us…we feel we don’t have any power…we have to try with other courts outside Albania because here, the courts don’t work. The government has to ask its own population about what it’s planning to build.”
Another key concern was that no social impact assessments had been carried out on any granted hydropower concessions. The main conclusion of the report was that “hydropower developments on Valbona River create a significant social impact on communities living in Tropoja.”
“Respondents professed a great dependency on the river for their everyday lives…and have done so for generations. Additionally, a sense of belonging and identity is derived from the land and its features.”
They called the HPPs an “attack” and a “massacre” and create a sense that not only is the river being destroyed, but people’s identity, lives, and future is as well.
“The water they have lived with for generations is seen as being taken from them and put in underground tubes. Their nascent businesses and profits are being ruined, and their quality of life is already severely decreased. Moreover, the river and its ecosystem are perceived as being at risk of being lost, together with the unique biodiversity that they host.
This proves that the consequences of the hydropower plants on the communities surrounding the Valbona River have not been thought through and that not enough care has been taken regarding the impact the plants have on their social surroundings, the WFF report noted.”
They also said that it’s clear natural resources are being stolen from people for the benefit of private interests and profit for development and construction companies, as well as the government.
“The people themselves do not believe that they gain anything from these hydropower plants as they will generate minimal electricity while destroying “everything”.
You can read the full report here WWF Report Valbona