Earlier this month, Voice of America reported about so-called “strategic investments” within the area of the archeological park of Butrint, after the park was reduced in size by 800 hectares in January 2022. According to a decision of the Committee of Strategic Investments, headed by Prime Minister Edi Rama, “Manastiri Resort” will be built by construction company AlbStar and consist of 33 units across 5 hectares along the coast of Ksamil, representing an investment of €28 million. The project is expected to be one of several.
The story of how one of the most important national parks was drastically reduced in size, allowing a construction company with close links to the government to develop a highly profitable commercial project on one of the most coveted coasts of Albania starts, however, with a report of the Albanian–American Development Foundation (AADF) from 2020.
In April 2020, the AADF and the Ministry of Culture published a report commissioned from consultancy company Prince & Pearce on the National Park of Butrint. Over the years, the AADF has been heavily involved in investing in the preservation of the historical site of Butrint, and this report was supposed to be the basis for its long-term sustainability. As reported by Voice of America back then, the management of the park would be transferred from the state to a public–private partnership in the form of a foundation. Such public–private partnerships have proven controversial, as they remove the management of state assets from public and therefore democratic control.
The report proposed to reduce the original “Zone B,” the recreational zone (fig. 1), because of existing construction, in particular the village of Ksamil:
Until the uncontrolled and unmonitored expansion of Ksamil finally dealt with, it will continue to extend gradually within the area of the Park […]. Thus it is recommended that the entire current area of Ksamil is removed form the National Park, and that a “Green Belt” is placed surrounding it to prevent further expansion. […] Even though a small part of the seaside and its immediate hinterland will be removed (maybe 100–150 ha), this would secure and consolidate the principle of no further extension into the remaining 9,000 ha of the National Park. (p. 38)
The new borders of the national park proposed by the international experts are indicated in fig. 2. The report further recommends that the new borders of the national park are harmonized with the borders of the International Culture Heritage Site (orange line in fig. 1) and even extended to include the Butrint Lake.
Thus the report commissioned by the AADF and the Ministry of Culture proposed a reduction of the park size of 100–150 ha, as part of the long-term sustainability and management plan of the national park, in which the AADF over the years already invested millions.
What is remarkable then is that in a Decision of the Council of Ministers (VKM), headed by Prime Minister Rama and dated January 26, 2022, the Butrint National Park is reduced from 9424.4 ha to 8622.2 ha. This is a difference of 800 ha, about 8 times more than proposed in the 2020 report and a significant reducation of the size of the national park without any apparent justification other than the strategic investment of AlbStar.
In a response to Exit, the press officer of the AADF confirmed that the original plan of 100–150 ha reduction and protection of the park was “prepared by international experts in close discussions with local and government agencies and other stakeholders.”
Given that the Butrint National Park integrates both cultural and natural values, the Integrated Management Plan was co-proposed by the Ministry of Culture and the Ministry of Tourism and Environment, in accordance with their respective area of competence, for approval by the Council of Ministers.
However, the new zoning, cutting 800 ha off the national park, was not part of this plan: “The new zoning of the Park is not part of the Management Agreement between the Ministry of Culture and the Butrint Management Foundation, approved by the Parliament.” Despite this significant alteration to the Management Plan, ignoring the advice of international experts, the AADF insists that this reduction “does not affect the donations and the contributions of AADF in the Butrint National Park.”
And this is what raises the main question: why is that the AADF, despite unilateral changes of the government to a project they drafted and funded in collaboration with the Ministry of Culture, continues to fund this government plan to the tune of €5 million?
The AADF is a foundation based in both the US and Albania. It has its own mission and statutes, and was seeded with US taxpayers’ funds. It is essentially an independent investment fund, not a piggy bank for the Albanian government. Would any other investment fund accept such a major change to the nature of its investment without requesting further study or external evaluation?
These questions remain unanswered, for now, but the willingness of the AADF to continue to pump money (Pazar i Ri, the Pyramid, Butrint National Park, etc.) into flagship development projects of the Rama government with what appears to be very little say in the actual implementation, raises serious questions about its independence.