She is American. Her name is Catherine Bohne. She first came to Albania on 2009 to stay just for a week…or at least two. She never made it back. She’s still here to a place she calls home. Someone might think Catherine is on a longer vacation.

But hold on, she has decided to live here forever. Any idea where? In the very North, in Tropoja. Right now, she is a Tropoja naturalized American lady. Not only has she fallen in love with the place, but also with an Albanian man, Alfred. It’s the very romantic story of one woman’s serendipitous adventure that led her to what she’d always wanted.

‘I was oohing and ahhing about the beauty of Valbona’ she says. But no one told her to stay there…except Valbona Valley itself. ‘I came to Valbona as a tourist, but within 24 hours I felt completely bound to the place. I think Valbona is a very strong place and perhaps a powerful one. It suddenly seemed like everything in my life was saying “Move to Valbona!” So I did.’ In a nutshell, it’s what Catherine told AgroWeb about her special connection with Valbona.

But there is more to tell. If you google her name you will be surprised to find out how strongly attached with Valbona Valley she has become. She has already her ‘Journey to Valbona’ blog and recently has become the ‘Guardian’ of Valbona’s Nature Magnificence opposing the establishment of 11 hydropower plant projected along Valbona River.

Catherine Bohne believes the hydropower plants are a ‘bad news’ for Valbona. ‘The first is of course the environmental catastrophe. Valbona is potentially one of the most unique habitats in Europe. It has a unique mixing of Mediterranean and Arctic-Alpine ecosystems. And it has a huge population of very rare animals and butterflies, huge numbers of endemic plants, and no one even knows anything about the birds. Because all of this is just tantalizing glimpses by science so far – there have been no extensive or long-term studies. So the thought that this gem of European wilderness would be destroyed, before even known is frankly heart-breaking. Or infuriating, depending on your temperament’ she said, openly showing how she feels, adding that: ‘I tend to go for fury.’

For Catherine ‘There is no doubt that the HPP will destroy the river, placing most of it in gigantic 3-meter wide diameter “tubes.” But the construction will also necessitate the creation of numerous roads and the projects acknowledge “Large scale changes to the terrain and virgin territory.” So it’s hard to imagine there will be anything left.’

The second reason is the economic one: These Hydropower are each individually less than 15MW (this way they can take advantage of “Small HPP” status, which potentially grants state subsidies and entitles them to more lax controls) – but this also means that they just don’t add up to that much production. Certainly nothing that makes any significant contribution to the economy. Dragobia Energy’s production estimates are based on using 12.6m3/s of flow, while elsewhere in their own studies, they report that the river has at most 7m3/s during one month of the year, and more of the time has something like 3m3/s.

The final major reason is connected with the murky plant authorization process, Catherine told AgroWeb: ‘It is quite clear that the licenses and various permits should most definitely not have been, based on the quality of the applications submitted. Not only are public consultations grossly inadequate, with one company submitting 20 signatures as proof of consultation, and the other submitting twelve, but every single one of those signatures is subject to discrediting! Some people were dead at the time, others not only didn’t sign but never even heard of it, and most of the other people are either employed by or directly related to the proposed construction company. The Environmental Impact Assessments not only make no mention of any negative impacts at (which is impossible), but indicate an absolute lack of knowledge regarding biodiversity, and fail to mention the fact that the area is an IUCN level II protected area, and has been for 20 years.

‘ When Catherine and environmentalists heard about the first small “Tplani” plant in 2013, they were very disturbed. But in January this year, when they learned about the Dragobia Energy projects, everything changed, because these were much more damaging, scary projects, and they were poised to begin construction within months (if not weeks).

Where there’s a will there’s a way

When asked ‘Do you think there is a good will to stop the hydropower’s construction?’ the answer is optimistic ‘Yes, in fact I do. I don’t think anyone really thinks they’re a good idea, except for the developers. Even in the government, many people have said to us “Please just generate some big demonstration of public support, because then we can take up this fight.”

Catherine said that the Ministry of Environment has been working hard to produce legislation to stop HPP developments.

‘I would also urge people not to listen to the “it’s too bad we can’t do anything but we can’t afford to pay to break the contracts” arguments. The developers have all allowed their Environmental Permits to lapse and according to Albanian law they must now begin the process of applying for new permits, from the absolute beginning (including new Environmental Impact Assessments and actual public consultations). I find it hard to imagine that they would get away with it a second time. So although they may have licenses, they ironically have no permits. And this makes it illegal for them to begin work.’

But what is a good economic source for Albania? ‘Tourism’ she firmly states. “Valbona is already one of the most popular tourism destinations in Albania, with an estimated 40,000 visitors last year alone. Valbona tourism is good not only for Valbona, but has the potential to pull up the economy of all Tropoja, and to contribute significantly to the overall Albanian economy. And this tourism income flows into Albanian pockets across socio-economic divides, from the shepherd who makes the cheese, to the people invested in the airport. And tourism is only just starting here. In Croatia, tourism amounts to 17% of the GNP, which is more than 7 Billion euros per year. The HPP, as much as they will benefit anyone, will put money in only one or two pockets.’

A final message

Do I have a message? Oh . . . that would depend on who I’m talking to’ she answered the question posed by AgroWeb. ‘To some I might say “How do you want history to remember you?” (guess who that would be). To others I might say “You don’t want to deal with this because it seems like too much trouble, but it’s worth it. And it’s beginning to look like not dealing with it will be even more trouble.” To some of the foreign institutions I might say “Please focus the funding of enormous projects on core problems: Good governance, public awareness, land ownership.”

‘Valbona is a treasure’, Catherine fondly insists. For many people, local, national and international, it has value without end, and I don’t think it’s fair or even very sane to destroy that for paltry reasons: for a series of ridiculous projects which make a puny profit for one or two people, or because we were too lazy to protect it, or because we just didn’t think we could. We can save Valbona. So why on earth wouldn’t we?’ /