The propaganda that stops the regeneration of forests

  • Shqip
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  • Indiscriminate logging, largely illegal, and the flames that are occasionally set to cover up evidence of aggressive exploitation of forests have not only reduced the surface but also the volume of forests in Albania. The central government has “delegated” the responsibility to the Municipalities, which lack both the funds and the human capacity to preserve the forests.

    Author: Artan Rama

    “The impact of afforestation, seen from above, is not visible,” says Ronny Dobbelshteijn, a Geographic Information System (GIS) specialist.

    He has been examining satellite images over the Central Mountainous Region of Albania for months. The results were made public last December, in a study supported by the Organization for the Conservation and Protection of the Natural Environment in Albania (PPNEA).

    The study shows that in the Munella Mountain, near Puka, and in the Polis-Valamara Mountain range near Lake Ohrid, forests are diminishing. The last decade’s data are even more disheartening. The rate of deforestation is higher than regeneration. Munella Mountain has been particularly damaged by fires, although Munella, compared to Polis-Valamara, constitutes a natural ecosystem with a higher regeneration capacity.

    Satellite images provided by the European Forest Fire Information System (EFFIS) show that in the last twelve years, approximately 295,000 hectares, precisely forested areas, have been burned in the country, with an average of 18,400 hectares per year. Even worse, another indicator related to the exploitation of timber shows dismal parameters: volume.

    Over the last two decades, Albania has been experiencing a drastic decline in forest volume. Since 2006, the decrease is estimated at 33% or a loss of about 1.5 million cubic meters per year. The reduction in volume “is believed to have resulted from fires, illegal logging, and a lack of investment in reforestation,” according to the National Inventory of Forests and Pastures (NIFP 2021).

    Forest of Ahu in the Great Vrana Mountain (Lekbibaj, Tropoja).
    Photo: Artan Rama.

    According to “Forest Europe,” the Ministerial Conference on the Protection of Forests in Europe, in 2020, Albania ranked second to last among the Western Balkan countries in terms of forest area size, as well as the average forest area per capita.

    Albania was classified as one of the four (only) European countries that, over the last thirty years (1990-2020), had reduced its forest area, unlike all other European countries, which had increased it during the same period.

    In the book “Forests in the Flow of a Century,” authors Irfan Mete and Genc Kacori, two distinguished forestry engineers, assert that even in socialist Albania, the logging of timber was greater than the annual exploitation capacity. However, especially after 1990, the ratio between logging and tree growth has been exceptionally unsustainable.

    The exploitation rate reached its peak in 2005, when Albania utilized five and a half times more than the annual exploitation capacity, setting a European record.

    Albania is the only country with the smallest volume of forests in the Western Balkans. Over the past three decades, the overall volume has systematically decreased, while other countries have experienced increases.

    Propaganda that avoids the emergency

    This January, the government declared 2024 as the Year of Forests and published the annual calendar of activities, highlighting new afforestation campaigns.

    “It’s a typical propaganda campaign,” says forestry engineer Abdulla Diku. “As you see on social media, the impression is being created that the planet is getting greener, while the amount of planting constitutes a mere fraction, or a thousandth of what is being burned in just one year,” he continues sarcastically.

    The same opinion is shared by GIS specialist Ronny Dobbëlshteijn, who has been exploring the country’s forested areas for years. “There are numerous degraded areas, so you need to plant everywhere and continuously,” he encourages.

    The first phase of afforestation campaigns ended, but not the propagation of plantings. The Ministry did not spend a single penny on a single seedling, while in the first quarter of 2024, it spent tens of millions on international tourism fairs in Madrid and Berlin.

    The government created the Forest Agency (AKP) in 2020. This can be considered an achievement, albeit with much delay, as the forests had been handed over to municipalities for administration as early as 2016, through another government decision. At that time, the municipalities found themselves unprepared. In addition to the lack of experience, municipalities did not have the funds to fulfill their legal obligations for forest maintenance. Central budget aids, through underfunded transfers, were much lower than the needs. Municipalities were also struggling to structure the sector that would administer the forests. Thus, the role of the AKP remains a necessity.

    Ironically, today it faces the same problems that municipalities faced in 2016. The agency is a national entity, although paradoxically, there is still no regional administrative division. With a small staff operating only in Tirana, its inspectors, who are squeezed between the pressures of both central and local authorities, face significant difficulties.

    Forests cut in the Lura Basin (Lura – Mali i Dejës National Park).
    Photo by Artan Rama.

    The agency managed to convince the government to declare 2024 as the Year of Forests. But it will take a few more months to see how the government has understood this declaration; it is the same government that amended the law on protected areas to favor heavy tourist investments and more within these territories.

    In an effort to fulfill its responsibilities, for the first time, the Agency has requested sixty-one municipalities’ plans for afforestation in 2024. Just over half have responded, which is not insignificant. Two million seedlings have been promised to be planted. For the first time, the budgeted investments by municipalities in the forest fund exceed the revenues secured from this fund. “These are budgeted projects, and some of them have been approved by municipal councils,” assures the Agency’s director, engineer Artur Kala.

    The chaos with the figures!

    Not only the forests but also the figures about them, Albania has them in poverty. “We need to know how many forests we have,” is posed in the national inventory, the results of which were published in 2022 by the National Forest Agency (AKP). In reality, after the publication of this long-awaited document, questions only increased. INSTAT, the national data institute, continues to publish more figures on the state of forests. The same contradiction between the figures is noted in the data published by the World Bank and Eurostat (the European Statistical Agency). “The data are expected to be unified soon,” says one of the senior officials of the Ministry of Tourism and Environment. “Considering only the data of NIFP 2021 is a necessity,” he concludes.

    “The National Inventory of Forests and Pastures” was drafted in 2021 and is technically updated every eight years. It is thought to be the future reference point, or the “Bible,” of forests.

    In 2020, Albania amended its forestry law, along with the concept of what constituted a “forest.” From then on, a larger area will be considered as such, while conversely, the tree cover within it decreases to 10%, down from 30% in the old law. Naturally, Albania was not alone in making this change. It “respected” the new regulations of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), to which other countries also adhered. According to experts, the FAO applied the same criteria it used for tropical dry forests.

    But there is another parameter, the determination of which plays a crucial role in the quality of forested areas. When we talk about forested areas, according to Albanian legislation, we refer to the forest fund, which includes both non-forest assets (accompanying) as well as denuded areas. Specifically, it suffices to mention that 13% of the forest fund of the municipality of Librazhd, which is rich in forests, is unproductive or denuded. Indeed, this unproductive forested area is also considered part of the forest fund.

    Thus, overall, the legal changes artificially favored an increase in the total forested area, while the tree cover ratio per unit decreased. With these maneouvres, the authorities managed to formally maintain the same area of ​​about 1.2 million hectares, almost constant over the past two decades, technically increasing the percentage of forests in relation to the country’s territory, which remains unchanged.

    Where are we going wrong?

    In 2019, Albania improved the legislation on Environmental Crime, tightening the Penal Code for criminal activity in the field of the environment. However, Article 205 of the Code, which refers to “Illegal logging of forests,” continues to remain the offence with the lowest punishment, compared to two other provisions of the Environmental Crime Chapter, those of mistreatment of domestic animals.

    According to the General Prosecution Office, in the last two years (2022 – 2023), regarding two criminal offences: arson of forests and destruction of forests by negligence with fire, respectively, under Article 206/a and 206/b, there were no convictions by the court, although the number of proceedings in these two years, together with those pending, reached 113.

    Regarding the damages to forests due to fires, data from law enforcement agencies indicate a low efficiency in investigative and punitive activities. Thus, during the recent 4-year period (2019 – 2023), approximately 1500 fires were recorded throughout the country, covering an area of about 70,000 hectares. Although the causes of these fires have been classified as being caused by human activity, there are still no convictions for arson with the intent of forest destruction.

    Firefighter extinguishing the fire in the Pisha – Poros Forest, September 2023 (Protected Landscape Pisha – Poros – Nartë).
    Photo by: Artan Rama.

    During 2022, 65 fires were recorded within the territories of Protected Areas. The number of fires decreased in 2023, but not the losses.

    The Protected Landscape of Pisha – Poro – Nartë caught fire last fall within its central area, completely burning 300 hectares of wild pine forest, while an equal area was partially scorched. The only firefighting helicopter available to the National Civil Protection Agency was out of commission. The military forces, supported by a number of firefighters from the Fire and Rescue Service at the district level, failed to extinguish it. The intervention of the European Union Civil Protection Mechanism was needed, enabling the dispatch of two firefighting amphibious aircraft from Greece to quell the fire’s momentum. Investigations showed that there was no document or project plan for clearing paths and roads to prevent fires within the forest parcels, drawn up by the regional administrations of the protected areas. Out of approximately 1500 hectares, only half survived without being touched by the fire.

    So far, the authorities have not approved any program for the rehabilitation of the Pisha – Poros forest.

    The blame lies to those below, say those above

    In January, the Minister of Tourism and Environment, Kumbaro, met in a closed room with the “owners” of the forests: the mayors of the sixty-one municipalities of the country. However, he treated them as “users”. In a commanding communication, during an hour, she drew attention to the lack of management plans and the lack of investments in forests.

    “Without these plans, we cannot generate an economy,” she addressed collectively to all of them, but without hearing the opinion of each one of them on the state of the forests.

    In fact, the lack of plans is accompanied by a lack of control. Most municipalities do not have sufficient control structures, as the size of the forest area controlled by engineers is many times larger than the size of the area assigned to them by law to control. In 2016, when forest areas were transferred to municipalities, the latter did not have sufficient funds and human capacities to cope with this new responsibility. Government support was helpful, especially in the early years, but today this caretaking is also seen as an obstacle that damages the exercise of the municipalities’ free will to administer their resources.

    The Municipality of Fushë-Arrëz divided the forest areas with the Municipality of Pukë. However, even after this division, it remained a municipality rich in forests, with around 43,000 hectares, of which 30,000 hectares are high forests. “We have fourteen forestry specialists, but we need twenty more,” says the mayor of the municipality, Hil Curri. But he explains that there is no financial possibility to pay them. Fushë-Arrëz, together with Mirdita, Pukë, Tropoja, and Dibra, form the group of northern municipalities criticized by Kumbaro for the lack of investments in forests.

    But Fushë-Arrëz, like other municipalities rich in forests, is considered small due to categorization based on the number of inhabitants rather than the forest area. Structurally, the Municipality of Fushë-Arrëz shares the same number of inspectors in the forestry sector as another small municipality, but it may not have forests.

    “Whether it’s the Municipality of Fushë-Arrëz or the Municipality of Pukë,” says Hil Curri, the mayor of Fushë-Arrëz, “they could secure a three-year budget within one year if they allow us to exploit the forests, but we cannot do it because of the Moratorium,” he concludes in despair. The moratorium prevents us from earning significant income even from necessary thinning or clearing of forest parcels,” he explains.

    Illegally cut timber (Ah wood) in the Great Vrana Mountains (Lekbibaj, Tropoja).
    Photo by: Artan Rama.

    In January, the forestry engineer in the Municipality of Fushë – Arrëz, Pashuk Lulashi, denounced on his Facebook account the illegal intervention for opening a trail near the village of Lumardhë, in the eastern part of the Krraba Mountain, resulting in the logging of a quantity of timber.

    Curri admits that the possibilities to control the majority of the territory he administers are limited. He explains that out of the 400 km of roads connecting the 32 villages of Fushë – Arrëz among them, he can only control 90 km.

    Data obtained through a request for information in the Municipality of Fushë – Arrëz shows that investments in forestry have been significantly lower compared to the revenues secured from the exploitation of the forest fund (1 to 5 ratio). Meanwhile, for 2023, the investment portfolio was zero (0) lekë.

    However, the Municipality of Fushë – Arrëz is not only rich in forests. Within its territory, there are three water factories. Three mines operate, and around twelve hydroelectric power plants (some still under construction), while other renewable energy production companies have expressed interest in building wind turbines.

    Over the territory of Fushë – Arrëz, all four national interconnection lines pass, forming the electricity transmission system, which further favors attracting investments to the area.

    So then, how is the municipality’s financial poverty explained?

    “Often, municipalities with abundant resources tend to have low economic growth,” explains Agron Haxhimihali, a local governance expert and Executive Director of the Association of Municipalities. He continues to present the reasons for this paradox, mentioning, among other things, legal and institutional constraints imposed from above, which place municipalities in impossible positions to generate local revenue. “Therefore, the overall amount made available by municipalities for forest management for the year 2024 is an insignificant figure: 470,000 lek,” Haxhimihali sadly informs.

    The lack of reforestation plans for the country’s forest economies is a direct consequence of this disregard. Only one in every eight forest economies has a reforestation plan. Without this, municipalities cannot plan anything.

    “The lack of forest management plans is the primary cause of the degradation of our forests,” says environmental expert Abdulla Diku. “Without a reforestation plan, no one knows the annual exploitation capacity, which threatens not only the health but also the future security of the forests.”

    During the 2019-2020 forestry year, only half of the municipalities collaborated with the Ministry of Tourism and Environment to jointly determine the annual exploitation quota. For the 2020-2021 forestry year, the number of participating municipalities decreased to 27, and it decreased even further to 22 for the 2022-2023 forestry year. This means that the remaining municipalities acted unilaterally.

    Are we exploiting beyond the annual growth capacity?

    While no one can prove otherwise, everyone cannot exclude the worst-case scenario…

    The green costume of propaganda

    “If we continue in this direction, after a few years we will not have forests.” – stated in the Forest Policy Document in Albania, 2019-2030.

    With the publication of the National Forest Inventory (2021), initially it seemed like something changed, but its findings did not meet expectations. The data from the Inventory are poor, contradictory, and inadequate. The National Forest Agency did not evade responding to an information request when it acknowledged the absence of a National Forest Cadastre, but it blamed the country’s municipalities for not providing the necessary information for the establishment of the Cadastre.

    The Year of the Forests is being exploited to change our minds. The ‘warm hand’ holding a green sapling in the pastoral background, in front of the orchestrated cameras, aims to show that the government is doing well. But primarily, it aims to divest itself of responsibility and not blame anyone up there, where the landscape, even if virtual, should always remain green: in Tirana.

    We have learned that propaganda never ceases, so efforts to expose it should not stop every time it rears its head. It’s not enough to just stand up for the environmental issue; we must also unite our energies to put an end to the greenwashing and the false agenda it promotes at the expense of our natural resources.

    Ky shkrim është pjesë e projektit që mbështetet financiarisht nga Zyra e Mardhënieve me Publikun e Ambasadës së SH.B.A. në Tiranë. Opinionet, gjetjet, konkluzionet dhe rekomandimet e shprehura janë te autor-it/ve dhe nuk përfaqesojnë domosdoshmërisht ato të Departamentit të Shtetit. / This article is part of a project that is financially supported by the Public Relations Office of the US Embassy in Tirana. The opinions, findings, conclusions, and recommendations expressed are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily represent those of the Department of State.