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Last Updated: Monday, 22 January 2007, 11:21 GMT
Albania wakes up to green issues
By Nicholas Walton
BBC News, Tirana

Tirana street scene
The environment is starting to become a political issue in Albania
Albania does not at first sight seem to be fertile ground for environmental politics.

Rubbish bins on city streets and country roads overflow with refuse.

Plastic bags blow around the fields, catching on the branches of trees and on fences.

Dust, diesel and smog choke pedestrians braving the chaotic traffic of Tirana.

Albania is a very poor country, and many citizens seem to have too many other problems to worry about to concentrate on ecology.

Smouldering rubbish

But with fiercely contested mayoral and local elections due in February, environmental issues are firmly on the agenda.

"I think they have started to realise how important environmental issues are," explains Xhemal Mato, the executive director of Eko-Levizja, a grouping of NGOs.

"People feel it most when it affects them, much more than reading about it or hearing it on the news.

Pile of rubbish
Piles of rubbish are a common sight in Tirana

"In Tirana a lot of people now have allergies and cancers from the bad air. Polluted drinking water has caused disease outbreaks. The green gardens in our cities have disappeared, covered by buildings."

The environmental issues that Albanians view as important are local ones.

When the charismatic Mayor of Tirana, Edi Rama, took office, he started a campaign to paint buildings in bright colours and clean up the area around the Lana River.

In February's election for the capital's mayor, green spaces and air pollution are important issues.

So is the city's rubbish dump, just outside the capital. Fires underneath the rubbish send smoke over Tirana, making its smog even worse.

Many trace the environmental problems to the downfall of the oppressive communist regime of Enver Hoxha.

Deforestation

People did not have much then, argues Dzemal Mato, so although Albanians are still poor, they now generate a lot more rubbish than the infrastructure was built to cope with.

This is not only a problem of flowers or birds or plants, the environment can be a big cost economically
Dzemal Mato
Green campaigner

Under Hoxha's rule, Albanians all had to take part in communal activities.

After communism people turned against this, keeping their own private places spotless and caring far less about the public areas.

Albania's beautiful countryside has also suffered.

It is a country blessed by a mixture of towering mountain peaks, dense forests and a long coastline along the Adriatic and Ionian seas.

Since the end of communism around 30% of the forests have gone, and erosion is now a serious problem in many parts.

Clean-up 'vital'

But despite poverty and the scrabble to make ends meet, there are signs that changes are under way.

Around a third of Albanians earn their livings abroad.

When they return they bring outside influences to what was for almost half a century a very closed society.

This includes awareness of how important the environment is.

Campaigners say that cleaning up Albania is vital if the country is to make the most of its potential as a tourist destination.

Hopes are high that areas like the Ionian coast, which borders Greece, could be the next cheap holiday hotspot.

Part of making this happen is getting the environment right.

"This is not only a problem of flowers or birds or plants," says Dzemal Mato.

"The environment can be a big cost economically. The government and people now realise that getting it wrong means they have to pay."


SEE ALSO
Albania's deadly factories tamed
29 Mar 04 |  Science/Nature
Albania tackles killer exhausts
28 Mar 04 |  Science/Nature
Country profile: Albania
22 Nov 06 |  Country profiles
Timeline: Albania
22 Nov 06 |  Country profiles

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