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VJOSA: Europe’s First Wild River National Park

Vjosa, one of our last wild rivers, becomes Europe's first Wild River National Park

The Vjosa and its main tributaries run freely for over 400 kilometers, from the Pindus Mountain Range in Greece, where it is called Aoös, to the Adriatic coast in Albania. The river and its surrounding areas are ecosystems of substantial biodiversity and are home to over 1100 species of animals


By Salam Rajesh

In a significant development which is historic in all essence, the Government of Albania on 15 March earlier this month declared the Vjosa River in Albania as a Wild River National Park. The Vjosa River is one of the last remaining wild rivers in Europe. With the historic declaration of the river as a National Park, Vjosa River becomes the first ever Wild River National Park in Europe while securing for itself a significant status in the world as a protected river.

The Vjosa River will be conserved as a living, free-flowing river, to the benefit of people and nature. The effort is the result of a unique collaboration between the Albanian Government, local and international experts, environmental NGOs from the Save the Blue Heart of Europe campaign, IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature), and the outdoor clothing company Patagonia.

The Vjosa and its main tributaries run freely for over 400 kilometers, from the Pindus Mountain Range in Greece, where it is called Aoös, to the Adriatic coast in Albania. The river and its surrounding areas are ecosystems of substantial biodiversity and are home to over 1100 species of animals, including 13 animal species and two plant species assessed as globally threatened by the IUCN.

The IUCN, the Save the Blue Heart of Europe campaign NGOs, and Patagonia had been campaigning for the protection of the last remaining free-flowing wild rivers of the Balkan Peninsular for the last eight years. In 2021, the IUCN had finalized a study that indicated how applying IUCN’s protected area standards would benefit the communities and biodiversity of the Vjosa Valley.

In June of 2022, the Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama, the Minister of Tourism and Environment Mirela Kumbaro, and Patagonia CEO Ryan Gellert had signed a commitment in Tirana to create the Vjosa Wild River National Park.

Over the past nine months, extensive fieldwork and in-depth analysis had taken place by a team of over 30 local and international experts in areas of eco-tourism, geomorphology, ecology, planning and management of protected areas, sustainable financing of national parks, legislation, and social and environmental impact assessment. Consultation with interest groups, as well as public communication, was incorporated into the process.

According to the Albanian Government, the Vjosa Wild River National Park will facilitate solutions to challenges faced by the river such as water and land pollution, waste management, and deforestation. Additionally, the National Park will help create economic opportunities for local communities, through responsible tourism, and help address the problem of depopulation from the area.

While gaining IUCN Category II status, the National Park status also means that the Vjosa River will be afforded protection, to the highest international standards, ensuring its ecological integrity, allowing natural processes to occur, and sustaining populations of all native species.

The designation takes place in two phases, namely, Phase I and Phase II. With Wednesday’s (15 March) declaration, in Phase I, the active channel of the river will be given National Park status, plus some lands and river vegetation within the active channel, or at risk of flooding or erosion – over 400km in total length. The area will be managed as a National Park and is expected to be fully operational by early 2024.

In its Phase II implementation, the coming years will see the addition of other free-flowing tributaries and areas that are integral to the river’s ecosystem, and few private lands following consultation with the local stakeholders.

For Mirela Kumbaro Furxhi, Albanian Minister of Tourism and Environment, “Vjosa is a symbol of human history and also a very important part of the history of our country. Maybe Albania does not have the power to change the world, but it can create successful models of protecting biodiversity and natural assets and we are proud to announce the creation of this first National Park on one of the last wild rivers in Europe.

The Albanian government has taken the bold decision to create a National Park of 12,727 hectares, including the 190 kilometers long Vjosa, where over 60,000 people have lived for centuries. This is our vision: sustainable and environmentally responsible development, which protects biodiversity and gives people the opportunity to prosper in their homelands”.

Patagonia’s CEO Ryan Gellert says, “This unique collaboration between government, civil society and business is testament to the power of collective action and we hope it will inspire others to come together to protect the wild places we have left, in a meaningful way. Standing on the banks of the Vjosa today, we are humbled to know that this exceptional river and its wildlife will be conserved forever”.

Similarly, IUCN European Regional Office’s Director, Boris Erg reflects emotionally that, “This marks a milestone for the people and biodiversity of Albania. IUCN applauds the Government of Albania for its leadership and ambition and stands ready to support the implementation of the decision to designate the Vjosa Wild River National Park. We invite other governments in the region and beyond to show similar ambition and help reach the vital goal of protecting 30 percent of the planet by 2030”.

Concurrently, the Albanian Government is starting a joint process with the Greek Government to create the Aoös Vjosa Transboundary Park, aiming for the highest level of protection for the entire river, from source to sea, across Greece and Albania – which by itself is a unique process.

This singular achievement reflects back on the Government of Manipur wherein the State can go a similar campaign to save and protect the entire stretch of the Barak River as a Wild River National Park which would be unique to the region and for the country.

The best part of the Barak River system is quite undisturbed unlike the Manipur River system which suffers from deforestation and siltation, and pollution along with several human settlements along its course. The Barak river head at Liyai is wonderfully conserved, and it flows majestically through Senapati and Tamenglong districts. It is worthwhile for the Manipur Government to give it a try.

(The writer looks at environmental stories through the journalistic lens. He can be reached at [email protected])

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