Albania and the Environment: Mindset over Matter

Freelance writer Laura Powell recently traveled to Albania and couldn’t help noticing the amount of litter that lined the roadways. Upon further investigation, she found that the trash was indicative of a troubled history and of a challenging future facing the nation.

One thing that strikes you as you drive through the Albanian countryside (other than the horrendous state of the roads) is the litter that dots the landscape. Piles of trash highlighted by blue plastic bags show up everywhere. Ask foreign aid workers why this is so, and they might tell you it’s a combination of a lack of waste management facilities and a lack of education regarding recycling. But ask Albanians and they will tell you they are plenty educated when it comes to recycling. In fact, they were forced to recycle well before the practice was in vogue. According to Auron Tare, head of the Albanian National Trust and a noted historian, during the Enver Hoxha dictatorship (1940s-1985), people were required to turn in glass bottles and paper, and there were school programs designed to teach children about the importance of recycling. Furthermore, given the dearth of consumer goods during Hoxha’s reign, there wasn’t all that much in the way of nonrecyclables to throw out. As a result, there was little need for landfills and other waste management facilities.

After speaking with many Albanians, my assessment is that the current trend of tossing trash without regard to recycling is not merely careless disregard for the environment. For these people, who had to endure forced recycling during the Communist era, the import of plastics and other disposable consumer goods represented both freedom and wealth. The idea of being forced to recycle and reuse, must seem somewhat anathema to these newfound ideals. Additionally, the rapid growth in the 1990s of consumer goods, and thus waste, caught the country off-guard. 

So did the boom in development. During the Hoxha years, no one was allowed to own property. Additionally, according to Tare, “Because of military reasons, many areas in Albania were heavily protected. For example, there was a major tree planting program by the Communist government along the beaches. This was done with the purpose of stopping sea landings by foreign enemies.”  As a result, for many years, Albania’s coastlines shared unspoiled space with forest land.

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But now, as Albanians have gained the right to own property, much of Albania’s coast is beginning to look like a concrete jungle. In Durres, a seaside town that’s a common weekend getaway from the capital city of Tirana, high-rises have started going up everywhere without regard to environmental impact. The high-density growth without accompanying wastewater and trash management systems has started ruining formerly pristine landscapes along Albania’s western coastline.

“There is not much environmental awareness in general,” says Jamarber Malltezi, the Albanian coordinator of the World Bank’s Integrated Coastal Zone Management and Clean-Up (ICZM) Project.

He points out that “there is a disparity between preserving the environment and developing aggressively.” The latter, of course, “provides quick money for inhabitants who might not be willing to look for a longer sustainable future since they can simply sell the land for development, and then move elsewhere. We simply do not have enough examples showing local people that it would be better not to allow the urbanization of pristine areas with high-rises.”

That’s where the World Bank comes in. The overall objective of its ICZM Project is to protect the natural resources and cultural assets of the southwestern Ionian Coast through regulation, infrastructure development and the education of the citizenry. The project has only begun, but officials say their goal is to make the country’s largest potential tourism area an example, in the hopes that Albanians will learn that development done right can work to everyone’s environmental and economic benefit.

Tare, for one, isn’t terribly optimistic. “In my view, there is still a lack of strong public and governmental environmental policies.

As the local people have not yet grasped the importance of environment, and there is no national driving force towards fomenting a movement,” he says. Depending on whom you believe, it may be awhile before Albania cleans up its act.

Photos: Above, road signs signal construction ahead; Below, the Albanian coastline. By Laura Powell