Protests broke out in Albania on Saturday against a new airport being built near a bird sanctuary on the Adriatic coast.
The Vjosa-Narta lagoon is a crucial stop for flocks of birds in their annual migration between Europe and Africa. The area was declared a protected landscape in 2004.
Environmentalists say the airport could threaten around 200 bird species, including flamingos and pelicans.
Set to be the biggest in the country, the airport will serve the southwestern city of Vlore on Albania’s Adriatic coast. The government hopes it will boost tourism in the often overlooked Balkan country.
Why are environmentalists protesting against Albania’s new airport?
Albania’s new airport is being constructed on the edge of the Vjosa-Narta protected area and in the flight path of migratory birds.
The area has high ecological value and eco-tourism potential, but these could be ruined by the project.
The lagoon is an important feeding and nesting site for Dalmatian pelicans, which are considered 'near threatened' by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). These birds were once close to disappearing in Albania before conservation efforts were made over the past decade.
The airport could reduce their habitat and disrupt their movement, as well as that of other species.
More than 100 environmentalists and ornithologists gathered at the airport’s building site on Saturday to oppose the plans.
"For those who think this airport will bring development, in reality it will bring only destruction," said tourist guide Alben Kola at the protest.
Does Albania’s new airport breach biodiversity laws?
The European Union, which Albania aims to join one day, says the airport project was undertaken in contradiction with national laws and international biodiversity protection conventions that Albania has ratified.
Both the Berne Convention, which works to protect European wildlife and natural habitats, and the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) say Albania should suspend the construction of the airport.
"This nature wealth belongs not only to us but to the whole of Europe, and foreign governments are doing more to protect it than we do," says Joni Vorpsi, from NGO Protection and Preservation of Natural Environment in Albania (PPNEA), which has been fighting for years to protect the lagoon.
In November an Albanian court rejected a lawsuit filed by local NGOs against the construction of the airport, but they plan to appeal.
The airport project launched in December 2021 and is due for completion at the end of 2024.
How could Albania’s new airport impact birds?
Vorpsi says the airport not only would destroy avian habitats but raise the risk of aircraft collisions with big birds.
Vjosa-Narta is one of the most important wetlands complexes in the whole Adriatic Flyway, according to PPNEA (Protection and Preservation of Natural Environment in Albania). Hundreds of thousands of birds stop there each year during their spring and autumn migrations.
It is also a candidate for the Emerald site network, which provides shelter to more than 62 species of birds listed in the EU Birds directive.
The Swiss firm leading the airport project, Mabetex, says the take-off and landing paths of planes would not affect bird routes.
It says the runway would be 3.5 km from the bird sanctuary and 5 km away from major bird migration routes.