Albania is located on one of the most important flyways for migratory birds travelling between Europe and Africa. Narta Lagoon, situated on the south-eastern coast of the Adriatic Sea, and made up of over 10 000 hectares of salt lands and cultivated land, is where hundreds of species of these birds in transit come to rest. It's the second most important site for waterbirds in Albania, which is one of the reasons it's a protected zone.
Birds in the Narta Lagoon already have to dodge bullets from poachers and busy roads. But guns and cars are not the only threat to them. There are now plans to build an international airport inside this protected zone.
The government’s masterplan is not only to build an international airport. There will also be large-scale constructions of hotels, marinas and tourist resorts. We met with some of Albania’s most outstanding birdlife experts sounding the alarm on tourist developments to get their point of view.
Scientists like Erald Xeka from the Albanian Ornithological Society and Zydjon Vorpsi, the project manager at the nature protection organisation, PPNEA, are horrified by the plans. The site of this construction is on one of Albania’s and the Mediterranean’s largest and most important wetland ecosystems.
Xeka tells us that "birds use this part of the Adriatic flyway to migrate, so, if we put it under threat, it will be a barrier for them". Vorpsi adds that "these plans go against our national and international laws. Albania is aspiring to become an EU member state and these plans go against the birds and habitats directives". Neither of them are against building an airport, they just don't want it built in a protected area.
An area in need of an economic boost
But the Narta Lagoon is also home to fishermen. Viktor Moçka is one of them. Like a lot of the local population, he is not worried about the new airport project. He believes it will be of economic benefit to the area. He says that "this airport will be good for our villages and towns, it is nearby and we will not have to go to Tirana airport anymore. On top of that, they will build a street directly to the beach here and build a lot of hotels. All of this will bring employment".
It is true that Albania is one of Europe's poorest countries and this region is in urgent need of an economic boost.
The local mayor, Dritan Leli, is much of the same opinion as Viktor. He sees his city of Vlora as the future of Mediterranean tourism. He counteracts birdwatcher arguments by saying that the location of the new airport was once already an airport. Until the early 90s, there was a military airport on the site. He tells us that it's part of his job as mayor to create economic development and he strongly believes the new airport will be good for the region. He wants it built as quickly as possible.
Xeka tells us that the old airport was not a real one. He sees a stark difference between a small military training airport with little traffic and an international commercial airport, like the one they're proposing.
Meeting protection requirements
The Narta Lagoon and its surroundings are within the protected area of Vjosa-Narta, so is the site for the new airport. Vjosa-Narta is part of almost every international ecological network that a natural site in Albania can be part of. It comes under Albania's 'Protected Area Network', it is recognised as an 'Important Bird Area' and as a 'Key Biodiversity Area'. There's more, it also meets all the criteria to be classified as a 'Wetland of International Importance' and it has been nominated by the Albania government as a candidate site for the 'Emerald Network' under the Bern Convention.
Albania has also signed the intergovernmental "Agreement on the conservation of African-Eurasian Migratory Waterbirds” (AEWA), which concerns 92 species found at Narta lagoon. On top of that, more than 200 species of wild birds are monitored in the area. Despite this, hotel constructions are popping up all along the coastline. According to local experts, the country’s strategy to develop a bigger tourist industry is destroying marshlands and bird habitats.
Upcoming elections may have something to do with this development drive and they seem to have overclouded the area's biodiversity. Political parties, including those governing and the main opposition, are siding with the tourist promoters.
Vorpsi tells us that building in Vjosa-Narta "is a big issue for all of the networks of protected areas. If we create a precedent of building strategic investments wherever we want, even in a protected area, we can do that later also in the other areas".
Xeka works with a group of Hungarian ornithologists. Joint Albanian-Hungarian research on migratory routes started six years ago. To get exact data, strong male birds are equipped with solar-powered radio-emitters. But despite the research results, Albanian politicians are still going ahead with their tourism-linked infrastructure plans.
The European Commission's country report scrutinising Albania's legislation on strategic investments, a potential gateway for large investments in protected areas, has raised concerns for the protection of biodiversity in Vjosa-Narta. These concerns are shared by some 37 wildlife organisations all over Europe, who wrote an open letter to the Albanian Prime Minister.
But many believe that if mindsets don’t change, the vulnerable waterbird populations may diminish and perhaps the day will come when some species will move from the wild only to be seen in museums.
Xherri Xhemal is a project manager with the nature organisation PPNEA. He shows us the pied avocet, a beautiful bird that he says "is one of the species that breeds in the area, which could not breed any more if the airport will be built".
Arian Mavriqi is a high-profile wildlife photographer. He has made Narta lagoon one of his favoured hunting grounds for great bird pictures. He says that he sees a lot of different birds in Narta lagoon and he has taken some good photos, but he's not sure he can do that if they build an airport. He really hopes that the government will change its mind.
A friendly exchange
To this end and in an attempt to change local people's minds about the airport, the PPNEA organised a goodwill operation where bird photos were given in exchange for stuffed ones. The owner of the 'Tavern of Friendship' where the exchange took place is a local who believes the airport should be built to help the local economy. However, he does think it should be built further away to not hamper with the eco-system and the species living there. So mindsets might be starting to shift already.
Albania wants to become EU member state. This means the country is expected to respect EU law, including the European directives to protect wildlife and habitats. For the moment, plans for the airport are still ongoing. But wildlife experts continue to fight for this to change because as Zydjon Vorpsi says, they do not have "the luxury to lose such a gem".