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Albania's major roadworks

Albania's major roadworks
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Albania is the latest candidate to become a member of the European Union. One of the continent’s poorest countries is moving ahead with major infrastructure development. Attention to the environment has the tourism and property sectors worried.

Albania today is taking strides towards a better future, and yet many Albanians are still struggling to make ends meet. Quarrying by hand is work for women and children if it’s the only way to put food on the table. They are on the reject heap at a chrome ore mine in Bulkiza. Albania is one of the poorest countries in Europe. “People have died here”, said one woman. “Look where they’re bringing the rocks. And look where they’re getting them from, up there. There’ve been two deaths. The workers can be buried in the rocks.”

A lot of Albanians scramble to survive. But their country is on a hopeful path of integration with the European Union. The land of eagles is a candidate to become a member.

Change, on the road to Europe… a main theme in this month’s legislative elections. Drive north and the road is not only a metaphor. There’s building on a monumental scale. A 170 km-long motorway will soon link the west of Albania with neighbouring Kosovo. From the capital Tirana, by the old route we’ve driven more than three hours. We’ve reached a stretch cut through mountain. The construction company is Turkish-American.

Michael Swinford, project director of the Bechtel/Enka consortium, explains: “We’ve excavated 34 million cubic meters of earth and rocks, and we’ve done that in a period of about 24 months. We were consuming 10 tons of explosives a day. It’s hard for people to imagine that. We had 1200 pieces of equipment we had to bring in to do this work. This right here is probably one of the largest civil works that is being undertaken in the world!”

The ‘patriotic motorway,’ as it’s sometimes called in Albania, should halve the time it takes to go from its southern border to Kosovo, where more than 90% of the population is Albanian. This adds symbolic satisfaction to the expected economic impulse expected from the transport acceleration, which will affect the whole Balkan region. But when costs ballooned – from a projected 400 million euros to now more than one billion for a 60km section alone – critics were horrified.

In one village by the motorway no one wants to talk about the corruption allegations linked to the contract bidding. Homes were expropriated, although the owners were financially compensated, and a new school was built. And there is promise for the future.
“This place was lost, dead!”, said one of the villagers. “There was nothing here. Now there’ll be stores, restaurants, tourism. We have everything to gain because now we can work. I’ve worked in Greece, Italy, all over Europe. But I’ve earned more money in Albania, and that’s been thanks to the road. Things are going to change here. It’s better to be able to work in one’s own country, in Albania. When you’re an immigrant, you don’t have a life, you’ve got nothing. Nowhere in the world is worth what life is at home. We hope that life in Albania will change for the better, thanks be to God.”

Albania has high hopes for tourism. Vlora bay in the south is promoted as a gem of a place, just a few dozen kilometres from the heel of Italy. But the people who live here are worried about industrial developments. Lavdosh Ferruni is spokesman for a group of locals trying to protect Vlora bay: “Instead of developing tourism, which is considered as having a high potential, it’s quite likely that they’re going to develop some polluting industries: coal or oil power plants. That is definitely not for the benefit of the country.”

Beside an abandoned sodium hydroxide factory now stands an oil storage depot – the new face of Vlora. The foreman for the Italian concession-holder says the facility is fully up to safety standards, that there is no risk of pollution, and that if ever a tanker docked here has a problem, it’s been taken into account. This terminal has potential.

Gazmend Shalsi, project manager, explains: “Major companies – I don’t want to mention names – now see Albania in a different light, because the technical conditions to come and work here have been met. That was impossible until now. Vlora is a natural harbour, in the heart of the Balkans. You see we also have our railway here. It’s linked to the national network. You can go to Macedonia, to Montenegro and a little later to Kosovo. Northern Greece isn’t far. That’s what’s geostrategic about this place.”

Nearby, a dual fuel energy plant sits at the edge of a protected forest. This was the option the authorities chose to ensure the national power supply. Ecologists contest this, saying Albania is only using 30% of its main source: hydro-electricity. They also object to a planned wind turbine park in the area, among Europe’s biggest, also to be built by an Italian group, in a nature reserve.

Lavdosh Ferruni: “All these investments are just the kind of investments that are fully designed to serve the Italian companies, and some other multinationals, like in the case of the big port.” The biggest container port in the whole Mediterranean basin is on the drawing board, a joint Swiss-British project. And then, an American-led multinational has been entrusted with building an oil pipeline from Bulgaria, to end up in Vlora. Local property agent Hektor Harizaj is concerned about how tourism can survive. It has other problems too: Prices have soared in the past few years, then the economy soured. Building rules are ignored, waste management neglected…

“All abusive construction, without permits, has to be stopped”, says Hektor Harizaj. “This policy harmful to the environment mustn’t be allowed, if we want a Mediterranean city which answers to all the standards of modern tourism. There has to be an end to the negative effects of industrialization. Because we are hoping to get into the European Union within the next few years. If we don’t do the right thing we risk paying a high price.”

Will Albania grasp the opportunity of sustainable development?