Saving Valbona’s Nature is Saving Its People, and Culture
by Elisa Veini
A remote village on the Albanian alps that seemed an undisturbed paradise only a couple of years ago, Valbona is now a local hub of environmental activism. “The days of ‘the art of doing nothing’ are over for me,” says Catherine Bohne, an American who has lived in Valbona for the past eight years. “The clock is ticking.”
I visited Valbona three years ago. The village came to me as a place where it was truly possible to experience the essential feeling of simply being alive, which is all too often absent in the contemporary world. Doing nothing was an art indeed, as I wrote in Berfrois afterwards. Valbona was a WiFi-free paradise with a striking natural beauty, at least for a handful of hikers and travellers who came to stay in one of the few modest guest houses, the most attractive of which was run by Catherine and her then-partner and native Valbonian Alfred Selimaj. For the locals, life was mainly a question of survival, and the slowly developing tourism was a welcome asset.
Even back then, Catherine, who is a biologist by education, was alarmed by the virtually non-existent environmental protection in the area, despite its National Park status. “One really important conversation for people to start having is about what a National Park actually is, where its value lies, and how it could be generating income in ways which don’t ultimately subvert its primary function: access to nature and quiet. For example, it’s insane to me that there is still no entry point, nor any charge for bringing cars and trucks into the protected area.”
She was right to be worried. In January last year, hydroelectric companies entered the scene. Three separate concessions designed plans for no less than fourteen hydropower plants along thirty kilometres of the Valbona River. Eight of the plants would stand within the borders of the National Park.
“Since the plans became known to us, I started to wake up at four am, in full panic, asking myself the one question over and over: ‘What could I be doing?’, then rushing out of the bed to my computer. There was no time to waste.” By June, Catherine, together with a number of environmental activists and concerned locals, founded an NGO called The Organization to Conserve Albanian Alps, or TOKA. The acronym is a deliberate choice: in Albanian, ‘toka’ means ‘land’ or ‘earth’ and carries a connotation with connectedness and belonging.
Nature = community = belonging
‘Belonging’ is the key word in Catherine’s endeavour to save Valbona from being harnessed for short-term, short-sighted economical profit. What is at stake is the deep-rooted connectedness of the local community with their land. Next to family, land is what constitutes one’s identity.
We corresponded by email about her role in the protests against the hydropower plant and the distinct meaning of belonging in the Valbona microsociety. On the traditional Albanian value scale, one is first and foremost a member of the extended family, or clan, one belongs to. This is non-negotiable, and sometimes difficult to understand for people from individualistic oriented societies like, in Catherine’s case, the United States, or for myself, the Netherlands. “Being American,” Catherine said, “I come from a young country whose culture is based on the idea of cutting ties – not needing them. You go were the work is, you immigrate, migrate, change. If you mess something up, you leave it and move on, leave it behind. Start again. That was one of the most distinctive things that first fascinated me in Valbona I think, the complete extent to which people were tied to their land. Your family name is the same as your village name. Three or four generations living in one house or compound (we don’t even have a good word for this in America!). No intention of leaving, unless forced to.”
In the past decennia, under the communist dictator Enver Hoxha, people planning to flee the country were met with a complicated dilemma. The whole family would be penalised if a member left the country. Relocation of one’s family to another part of the country was a threat that made many succumb and stay, as it would have meant the family’s spiritual death. “Because of this, I think that people here in many ways have a much better sense of needing to look after things, that you’ll have to live with your messes.”
Consequently, the way one’s identity is bound to a place and to a culture and expressed in family ties is illustrative of how different the Valbona, or Albania, is from Western countries. In March this year, the British environmental activist Paul Kingsnorth published an article in The Guardian in which he defended his Brexit choice through the need to defend this very sense of belonging. He wrote:
Any attempt to protect nature from the worst human depredation has to speak to people where they are. It has to make us all feel that the natural world, the non-human realm, is not an obstacle in the way of our progress but a part of our community that we should nurture; a part of our birthright. In other words, we need to tie our ecological identity in with our cultural identity.
The article was met with furious attacts on social media by people who accused Kingsnorth of fascist thinking. Loaded as the idea of birthright is, put in the specific Albanian context, the ecology-culture tie would seem only the way things are. “Kingsnorth’s point”, Catherine said, was that “people are healthier and happier when they belong to a place which helps to tell them who they are. That place does not need to be where one was born – just look at me: I love Valbona and would do anything to save it from any threat. I suppose most places in the world are threatened by some force, these days, whether it’s globalization, economic imperialism, cultural dispersal or environmental degredation. The point is how to react on those threats: retreating into xenophobia and isolationism, or fighting for what is good in the place and its culture.”
It goes without saying the people in Valbona want to improve things, according to Catherine, so that their children will have more possibilities than they have had. But they see improvement in straightforward terms: “For example, people in Valbona are still likely to see nature as something that has to be fought, something unconquerable, whereas in the rest of Europe it’s more likely to be seen as something frail, fragile, desperately needing protection. I have been really surprised by the reaction in Valbona to the threat of Hydropower development. Once you get past a pervading general sense of gloom and hopelessness, you’d be pretty hard pressed to find anyone here who doesn’t believe the ‘developments’ are not going to benefit anyone except one very rich businessman, they will never produce a serious amount of energy or profit and they will seriously destroy the environment and ruin everyone’s livelihood from tourism. The problem now is that they don’t have much optimism about the possibility to succeed (for very good historical reasons), very little idea of how to fight, and almost no resources with which to do so.”
The “weirdness factor”
What is at stake is also Catherine’s own sense of having found a place and a community where to belong. In January this year, she wrote in her blog:
I’m not sure anyone in America, my birth place, would ever have written “Catherine is one of us.” I’m not sure there is an “us” in America, to refer to. I’m not sure how I feel about the fact that I needed to move to Albania, in order to feel adopted. In order to feel recognized. In order to find a place that I would fight for. But isn’t that the definition of home, beyond what you do with your hat? The place you would fight for?
And fight she does. From a guest house manager and an unofficial tourist office, Catherine has converted to a full-time activist. Her efforts with TOKA to save the valley from definitive destruction has deepened her sense of belonging. But in Catherine’s opinion, being adopted is the only way to assimilate in a village like Valbona. A stranger cannot simply buy a house and move in. People must be willing to take the stranger in, accept her as part of the community. This needs conscious effort from the part of the newcomer. From early on in the village, Catherine believed that she had to give the people something in return for the acceptance. The former owner of a New York bookshop started to promote local tourism, drafting hiking maps (a novelty in the valley), participating in the local school and raising funds and donations for educational materials.
“Who would want to be a self-indulgent parasite? I try to listen to what people need, and figure out how I can help. But ultimately, who am I? If I can introduce a few new ideas, help people connect with greater possibilities, and use the skills that I have – simply due to my different education and experience – to make them more empowered to make better decisions and be more in control of their lives, then that seems to me the least I can and should try to do.”
In the past year, she has often figured as a spokesperson for the local community, not as a “foreign champion”, but as she puts it, because thanks to her educational background, managing experience and knowledge of English, she knows how address the government officials and put forward demands. As for the media, she profits from what she calls her “weirdness factor”: an American who voluntarily lives in an area that many Albanians see as backwards. Her dream is to buy a house to set up a community center cum tourism development and education center, but that dream has to wait for a while, as the hydropower plant plan has to be stopped first. Backed by one of Albanian leading law firms, TOKA is preparing a lawsuit against the government. In a recent article, Catherine explains:
Our legal representatives believe there is a good basis to cancel the projects due to serious and plentiful irregularities in the projects’ planning and implementation. However, under Albanian Law the work can only be stopped at the discretion of the court if they ‘recognize that irreversible damage may otherwise occur before legal resolution can be achieved.’ The court also has the ability to demand that an enormous financial guarantee be posted by the plaintiff to secure the stop-work order. Therefore, although the lawsuit might well succeed, the National Park could be irreversibly damaged in the meantime. Luckily, a second avenue for stopping the work exists. The construction permit, issued in September 2016, is due to expire in May 2017.
May is this month. While waiting for the next storm, Catherine cherishes the memory of incidents such as this: “A couple of days ago, I went to a café in Bajram Curri [the nearest town]. Seeing me, another customer asked the owner: ‘Who is she? A foreigner?’ The owner looked at me nervously and then laughed. ‘No, that’s the American of Valbona. She’s ours.’”
About the Author:
Elisa Veini is a documentary maker, writer and communication specialist with an academic background in Cultural Anthropology. Her essays and short stories have been published in magazines in the Netherlands, United Kingdom, Germany and Canada. Her website is www.titojoe-docs.nl.