Protected areas “occupied” by illegal activities, quarrying and the “axe” on centuries-old forests

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    The sacred mountain of Tomor, the Lura National Park, as well as the natural forests of Shebenik-Jabllanica have not escaped the environmental massacre, although they have a special status. INA MEDIA has been able to document with photos and videos the axe on the trees in the national parks has not stopped for a moment, while Tomori continues to lose stone slabs “one peel at a time”, an activity that has been banned since 2019.

     

    Authors: Erjola Azizolli, Neki Feta and Endi Olldashi

    The asphalting of the road leading to the sacred mountain of Tomor has raised the hopes of the residents of the area for the revival of life.

    Myqerem Muço, a resident of Kapinovo village, who sells his products by the roadside, is aware that the area has an extraordinary tourist potential.

    In 1973, in Kapinovo was inaugurated for the first time a tourist spot in the area, where athletes, students came, who enjoyed the rare beauties of Kapinova and Tomor Mount“, – says Myqerem.

    But, Myqerem, like the other inhabitants of this area, which  has finally started to breathe, is afraid of the activity of stone extraction on the sacred mountain of Tomorir, which is still going on illegally.

    Myqerem Muço, inhabitant of the village of Kapinovë

    The extraction of the stone is an old wound. It keeps coming out, even though they are trying to stop it.  Some are without any conscience, some say they have a license,” said Muço.

    Declared a National Park for the first time in 1956, for almost two decades the sacred Tomor Mount was subjected to an aggressive and unprecedented massacre for the extraction of stone and marble.

    First by the locals themselves, then Mount Tomori was occupied by dozens of different companies digging incessantly for the sacred stone.

    In 2019, the borders of this protected area were expanded, so the decision was made to close all quarries that operated within the new borders of Tomori National Park .

    But it seems that the “moratorium” on quarries has not yet taken effect.

    As you leave Kapinova and traverse other villages to reach the mountain, on both sides of the road you encounter piles of stone slabs, proving that work on the mountain does not stop.

    Investigative Network Albania was able to document with photos and videos that there are still open construction sites, digging for the extraction of stone slabs.

    Some workers , who are digging in the quarry, hide behind the stone quarries, as soon as they see movement on the road.

    Workers extracting stones inside Tomori National Park

    This environmental massacre continues to occur, even 4 years after the former Minister of Environment, Blendi Klosi, undertook a sensational action to close the quarries within the protected areas and specifically on Mount Tomori and of Kruja.

     “Neither on the mountain of Kruja nor on the mountain of Tomor, no unlicensed quarry operates“, -he reconfirmed during a scientific conference in 2020, but the data collected by Investigative Network Albania proves that the status of the area as protected has not saved national parks from environmental massacres.

    Ermelinda Mahmutaj, botanist, has studied Mount Tomor from the point of view of sustainability, but also from the point of view of exploitation.

    According to her, the attempt of the Ministry of Environment to block environmental permits failed, as long as the permit has a term of up to 30 years.

    It is impossible to stop them, but these permits over 30 years of mineral exploitation should be inspected: What is the area? Where is the surface and why are they located in the buffer zones of Tomori National Park?”, – she argues.

    Since they had an active license, the subjects chose the legal way, suing the Administrative Court for the decision to stop the activities and one after another some won, some are still in process, so the expert explains that their activity continues, for so long as long as their use permit is not prohibited.

    According to her, what is happening with Mount Tomori, is extremely disturbing and has damaged the ecosystem irreversibly.

    In Tomori National Park we have a massacre, an environmental crime, which is unlike any other in all national parks of the country. In Tomori National Park we do not have a stone-extraction activity, but over 12 stone-extraction activities “, – says Ermelinda Mahmutaj, botanist and environmental activist.

     Quarry inside the Tomori National Park

    The environmental massacre on Mount Tomor is also confirmed by law enforcement institutions.

    The Administration of Protected Areas in Berat, which also administers the area of the National Park of Mount Tomor, admits that during inspections and monitoring by environmental guards were found dozens of cases of extraction of stone slabs illegally.

    “In order to stop the abuse with the extraction of stone slabs, a total of 49 reports were found to establish minor offenses. Of these, in 2019, 8 reports were kept; in 2020, 27 reports were kept; in 2021, 14 reports were kept“, – was the response of the Administration of Protected Areas for INA MEDIA.

    Administrative measures for stone extraction entities have not been absent over the years from other institutions related to the environment.

    The State Inspectorate of Environment, Forests, Water and Tourism (ISHPUT), in Berat, confirms that it has found violations of environmental permits by entities that carry out the activity of exploitation and extraction of quarries, as well as the exploitation of stone quarries.

     “In the area of Novaj, Municipality of Skrapar, 10 administrative measures and suspension have been imposed over the years”, – said officially ISHMPUT, Berat.

    The local police are also involved in the action against illegal logging and stone extraction activity, while the prosecution body in Berat informs that it has registered several proceedings.

    Regarding the abuses in the protected areas, during 2021, 48 cases were referred to the Prosecutor’s Office of the Judicial District, Berat for the criminal offense “Damage to habitats and environment in protected areas “. “These reference materials have as object the possible damages in the protected area of Tomori Mountain”, – explains the Prosecution of Berat, which specifies that 4 criminal proceedings have been sent to the Judicial District Court, Berat and are still pending, while the proceedings of others are still under investigation.

    As a solution to the situation Mahmutaj sees only the cessation of activity, finding opportunities not to burden the parties, but to find solutions to save the National Park of Mount Tomor, which covers an area of 26,106.27 hectares.

    The activity that causes damage must be stopped. We are not in favor of a ban on the activity that brings punishment at the expense of the parties, so it is very good for the parties and all stakeholders to sit down and see where the problem lies,” she said.

     

    Lura, stripped of her beauties

    Once a true paradise, today Lura National Park has been devastated by the cutting of trees, which has been going on for 3 decades.

    With an area of about 1280 hectares, left in oblivion and at the mercy of fate, residents of the area, but also hundreds of illegal companies have not spared their axes from falling on the rare forests of Lura.

    Environmental massacre on Lurë

     

    With an unpaved road, which is crossed only by a car destined for difficult terrains, instead of the magical Lura of postcards, you are faced with  whole tree trunks cut and violently burned.

    The state itself has destroyed the forests. it destroyed them itself with its own people, as it did not save them. Abuse in all kinds of directions”, – says one of the residents of the area, who does not want to be identified.

    But, unlike the violent reality that unfolds in Lura, local authorities claim that in this park they have increased the protected area and illegal logging is almost non-existent.

    “The Lura National Park, today Lura-Mali i Dejës National Park, has expanded its borders, from 1280 ha to 20,242 ha. Illegal cutting in the Lura-Mali i Dejes National Park is almost non-existent and meanwhile we are working on other projects to increase the number of plantings with forest / fruit seedlings, to contribute along with the natural growth that comes from their protection“, – declares the Regional Agency of Protected Areas, Dibra.

    Moreover, the he Regional Agency of Protected Areas claims that from 2015 to 2021, illegal activities in forests / pastures result in a total of 6 cases.

     We have identified only one criminal proceeding, registered for “Illegal deforestation”, where two citizens were arrested in flagrante delicto and are under the security measure “Prison arrest” and another was prosecuted on bond“, – declared the Prosecution of Dibra for INA MEDIA.

    But the Dibra Protected Areas data on the number of staff and logistics they need to monitor the area dampen local institutions’ optimistic figures for offenders.

    ADZM, Dibra explains that in its structures there are only 7 employees, namely, the person in charge of monitoring, 3 specialists and 6 rangers (environmental guards), located in the protected areas of this region and especially in the Lura-Mali i Dejës National Park.

    For the surface of the Lura-Mali i Dejes National Park and the difficult terrain that this park has, it would be necessary to have additional staff, as a ranger cannot cover more than 2000 ha, this referring to the norms for monitoring and protection of forests in mountainous terrains. In the Lura-Mali i Dejës National Park, only 2 rangers currently perform the function”, – says ADZM, Dibra.

    According to the calculation made by them, it turns out that these 2 rangers can control only 1/5 of the area of this park.

    Finding itself in this situation, the Municipality of Dibra is giving a hand to ADZM, although the functional protection of national parks it is not in its duties.

    Employees of the control and inspection structure, established in the municipality, despite the forest economies they have in custody, have been ordered to act in cases of illegal interference in the protected areas, in cooperation with the Police Directorate and ADZM, Dibra”, – explains Ramazan Zili, director of Agriculture in the Municipality of Dibra.

    For the director of Forests in the Municipality of Dibra, the situation in the forests is critical and it is time to sound the alarm.

    Especially in the conditions when the population of the area uses it for heating and the demand is very high, the law enforcement structures find it very difficult to tackle the problem“, – says director Tafa.

    Ened Mato, activist, who in 2015 launched an afforestation campaign, All for Lura, planting thousands of saplings so far, says state intervention is non-existent.

    “Institutions have not been made aware, as we do not have an annual planting budget, unlike in Kosovo. The neighboring country budgets about 8 million euros every year for planting parks and forests,” he said.

    In conditions where the country’s forests and protected areas are located, according to Mato, local and central institutions need to do more.

    “There is no initiative from the Albanian state for state nurseries and voluntary planting programs. This would serve the country in the long run, both for the education of the generations, and for the condition of the main trees that our ecosystem requires”, – he suggests.

    The Shebenik-Jabllanicë Park on the verge of destruction

    The massive cutting of trees in the Shebenik-Jabllanica National Park , with an area of about 34 thousand ha, is destroying the natural forest, protected by UNESCO.

    The Shebenik-Jabllanicë Massif received the status of National Park in 2008, thus becoming the youngest park, but also the largest in the country. It is part of the green belt of Europe and has an area of 33,900 hectares.

    In July 2017 about 2,000 hectares of ancient and virgin beech forests, with great biological values, known as the Rrajca forests were included in the UNESCO World Heritage List.

    INA MEDIA traveled right inside this park, where it faced an environmental massacre, with trunks cut and stacked in the middle of the forest. Residents say with fear that they are cut down, under the pretext of clearing the forest.

    This form of deforestation has started since the time of the moratorium. Companies come and CUT DOWN [trees] new and old, dry and wet. They don’t allow us to cut them down, because they tell us you are on the other side. I do not think that anyone gives permission, that it is a forest, but because they will take pine wood … they will take oak wood “, – explains a resident of Kostenja in Librazhd.

    All our forests have been damaged. After cutting, they set it on fire. The same situation is in the forest part of the municipality“, – denounces a former employee of the forestry, who shows that the trucks sold in Tirana are filled with their wood.

    This, according to residents, happens, both day and night, even under the nose of the police, which was present in the area even during our visit to this national park, while trucks of private companies pave new roads to cross the forest.

    As can be seen from these images captured by Investigative Network Albania , in the middle of the day and without fear, the trucks continue to be loaded with rare wood from the Shebenik-Jabllanica natural park to end up later, either as firewood or on the black market of wood processing.

    Trucks loaded with timber inside the Shebenik-Jabllanicë National Park

    Damage to the national park is also acknowledged by environmental specialists, who say that although a legal basis has been established, there are still problems, especially due to a lack of staff.

    In the Shebenik-Jabllanicë National Park, the work of the competent bodies does not continue to be done seriously.  There has been a lot of damage, especially with logging, but there are also fires,” said environmental expert Ahmet Mehmeti.

    Timber ready for transport within the Shebenik-Jabllanicë National Park

    Meanwhile the prosecution claims that it is investigating cases referred by other law enforcement agencies.

    From the verification done, it results that for the period January-October 2021, 4 criminal proceedings have been registered, where 1 was referred by the Police Directorate, Elbasan and the other three by subjects or citizens. All 4 criminal proceedings are in the investigation phase“, – says the Elbasan Prosecutor’s Office.

    Trucks loaded with timber inside the Shebenik-Jabllanicë National Park

    While accusing of negligence, the environmental expert, Ahmet Mehmeti, says that the staff is in great difficulty, as it is impossible to cover such a large area.

    “We have total negligence of the staff there, but on the other hand what can 10 people do, who have a car, in front of an area of 300 hectares “, – says Mehmeti.

    The lack of staff is also acknowledged by the Elbasan Regional ADZM, which requires additional staff to control the destruction of the national park.

    For the large area of the Shebenik-Jabllanicë National Park, it would be necessary to have additional staff (as the park currently performs the function of 8 rangers), because the terrain is very difficult and a ranger cannot cover more than 2000 ha. Meanwhile, in the national park, each ranger on average covers twice the norm “, – says ADZM, Elbasan.

    These employees have even been threatened with weapons from time to time.

    ADZM personnel have often been shot at, but I do not see a reaction to the situation improving, it is just getting worse. It is unfortunate that the central government is not taking this job seriously,” explains expert Mehmeti.

    Meanwhile, it is precisely these problems that have caused the reduction of the number of case detections.

    “From 2015 to 2021 in Shebenik-Jabllanicë there have been found illegal activities in forests / pastures a total of 102 cases, where there are 31 cases with found authors and 71 without authors. Specifically, 86 cases were for deforestation, 14 cases for fires, 1 case for excavations and 1 case for hunting“, – explains the Regional Agency for Protected Areas.

    Danger the protected areas face

     

    Experts think that in some cases the intervention has been so drastic that some areas no longer deserve National Park status .

     “Lura-Mali i Dejes National Park has been destroyed in time by illegal logging and in our opinion this area does not deserve the status of National Park. The Deja Mountain area and especially the wonderful area of Zall Gjoçaj continue to be threatened by illegal logging and the construction of hydropower plants”, – says Genti Kromidha, president of the Institute for Nature Conservation in Albania (INCA), emphasizing that the main problem is the indifference and non-involvement of some key institutions in addressing these problems.

    “In many cases, the offenders identified by the rangers of AKZM are not followed and prosecuted by the police and / or the Environmental Inspectorate,” said the expert on protected areas.

    The former head of Civil Emergencies, Shemsi Prençi, told INA MEDIA that the government should not have been satisfied with the moratorium, while the forests are being exploited in a barbaric way.

    “The Albanian government is satisfied with a moratorium, but in the meantime up there, carnage happens. There are people who are favored by politics and exploit the land for profit. We have large construction companies, barbarically exploiting quarries. No quarry has returned to normal, so that trees can be planted to protect against erosion,” Prençi said.

    Panorama on the Tomor Mountain

    But the Ministry of Tourism and Environment thinks quite differently. In response to a letter for information sent by INA MEDIA , this ministry said that protected areas are not only not shrinking, but are even growing. According to this institution, their condition is very good and the institutions are taking care to protect them, both from illegal activities and those allowed.

     “We inform you that the territory (surface) of the system of protected areas is growing day by day, including areas with high natural, cultural, historical and heritage values and rich biodiversity,” said the Ministry of Environment.

    Regarding the protected areas that are currently at risk, the Ministry of Environment says that a detailed study has been conducted, where in the end 8 areas have been assessed, which have lost a lot of natural, biological and biodiversity values and it has been proposed that be deprived of their current status, but remain natural areas and work for their recovery.

    The recent review of the boundaries of government-protected areas has not been well received by civil society.

    “The process was not done in accordance with the relevant legal framework, and violations here are numerous; starting from the fact that the review of protected areas was done with a single decision-making and not with area-by-area decisions, without proper studies, bypassing the public consultation, which in fact has been replaced by public meetings. Reviewing the boundaries of protected areas, as has been done, is generally harmful for protected areas and has not achieved the initial goal that was their greater protection,” said ResPublika lawyer Irena Dule.