Saving the Blue Heart of Europe

By Lily Henbrey

The unique collaboration that led to the protection of one of the last wild rivers in Europe

For many years, NGOs and nature lovers have been campaigning for the protection of Europe’s last large wild rivers, in the Balkans. Unlike most in Europe, these very special rivers are truly ‘wild’, governed entirely by natural forces, free from human intervention such as dams or built-up embankments. One of the largest of these rivers, the Vjosa in Albania, is teeming with life, a complex ecosystem supporting a myriad of biodiversity, including the critically endangered Balkan lynx.

But the Vjosa has been under threat from hydropower dam projects, which many other European rivers have fallen prey to. Dams are catastrophic for biodiversity and interfere with the natural processes of the river itself.

As of March this year, the threat is no more. In what the Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama called “a historic moment for nature”, the Vjosa wild river was officially declared a National Park, the first of its kind in Europe. With National Park status, the river’s biodiversity and ecological processes will be protected, and all native plants and animal species will be maintained. Crucially, this means that manmade threats such as dams will not be allowed.

The road to get there was not easy, taking years of hard work and commitment. It is estimated that around 45 hydropower plants were planned, one of which, the Kalivaç dam began construction before being shut down in 2020. An abandoned digger has been left in the river, serving as a poignant reminder of what could have been.

Fortunately, the hard work has paid off. The declaration of the Vjosa Wild River National Park is the result of a unique partnership between the Albanian government, NGOs from the Save the Blue Heart of Europe campaign, international experts, the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) and Forster client Patagonia, who got involved in the campaign in 2017. Since 2022 Patagonia has been working to support and coordinate collaboration between the NGOs, the Albanian Government and other stakeholders.

In this time, a process of real trust building has gone on that has led to the positive partnership of today. Despite often differing points of view, each party brought expertise and an exceptional willingness to collaborate, coming together with a shared vision for the protection of this area of enormous natural significance.

The hope is that the joint work of the public and private sector could set a framework for how partnerships for nature protection can work in future.

At Forster, we were lucky enough to support Patagonia through the campaign and spread the word about this monumental moment. It has been immensely inspiring to go on the journey with them, and is an uplifting reminder of the deep and transformative impacts businesses can have.

Patagonia is the ultimate example of a business putting nature protection and climate action at the heart of how it operates. The company’s mission, we’re in business to save our home planet, was epitomised by the decision in 2022 to make earth its only shareholder, distributing every dollar not reinvested back into Patagonia as dividends to protect the planet.

The Vjosa river is proof that business commitment can have remarkable results. Now we need to see more businesses following suit and aiming to give more than they take.

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