Legal struggle of local communities to protect Valbona Valley National Park from hydropower development

Posted on July, 12 2017

Newsfeed from the heated Courtroom as the historic case for free-flowing rivers in Albania unfolds
Tirana, Albania – Villagers from Valbona river valley and non-governmental organization TOKA filed a lawsuit at the First Administrative Court of Tirana against the development of two hydropower plants in Valbona Valley National Park on May 16, 2017. They were represented by Kalo & Associates law firm and financially supported by WWF. The first hearing was held on 24th May, and this lawsuit is a major step in the ongoing campaign of local population and different non-governmental organizations.   They have already succeeded in lowering the number of hydropower plants from 14 to 6, but the campaign continues as even if only six are to be built, it would destroy the ecosystem of the valley and compromise the foundations of eco-tourism development that has just started to flourish. In the region with around 20,000 inhabitants with unemployment as high as 79%, tourism presents the best option for employment and sustainable development of the region.
The lawsuit was filed against four different governmental institutions, and during the seven already held court hearings, some of these institutions did not even send their legal representatives. The Ministry of Environmental Protection and the Drin-Buna Water Board did not send their attorneys to any of the hearings, but in the last few days the situation seems to be changing.
Some of international organization have shown great interest to the case , the German and French Embassies, OSCE Presence and the UN Delegation have sent representatives to every hearing, noticeably sitting on the “plaintiffs’ side” of the courtroom. “We are following this case with great interest and concern,” stated one diplomatic present at the hearing.
Court upholds the rights of citizens under Aarhus Convention
Legal representatives of the Government and developer’s claimed that the citizens had no legal right to file a suit although they are protected by the Aarhus Convention and Albania has signed the convention. The Aarhus Convention grants the public rights regarding access to information, public participation and access to justice, in governmental decision-making processes on matters concerning the local, national and transboundary environment.
 During the 3rd hearing held on 1st June, Kalo & Associates explained the provisions of the Aarhus Convention as ensconced in Albanian Law. The lawyer for the Dragobia Energy Company stated that the local population have no right to legal recourse, or any right to object at all. The judge made a point of clarifying their position.  “So you are saying that even if the works created catastrophic environmental damage, the locals have no right to complain?”- asked the judge, “Absolutely not – they have no rights,” said the lawyer.
The judge’s formal decision one day later granted legal rights to local communities as protected under the Aarhus Convention.
Court allows continuation of works, but the law suit continues 
As the case continues the courtroom has been filled with more observers, diplomatic and local supporters, as well as media all awaiting new developments and decisions.
At the same time with filing the lawsuit, the lawyers had filed a request for immediate suspension of construction works pending resolution of the suit.  Based on historic precedents it was assumed that the request would be denied, as expected, during the fourth hearing on 2nd June the judge rejected the request of the citizens to stop the construction works. An appeal to this decision was promptly filed on 7th June, supported by more concrete evidence of the damages already done to the environment.   
New evidence of illegality of works comes to light
Then during the fifth hearing on 14th June new opportunity to stop the construction works came to light, when lawyers for the National Development Agency (AZhT) revealed that Dragobia Energy Company had been working without a valid construction permit since 28th May 2017. The Agency (AZhT) stated that the application process for extension had never been approved but is still pending as the National Territory Council has to date failed to approve an extension.
Lawyers for the citizens and NGO TOKA immediately pointed out for the court record that any construction works carried out after that date had been and are in fact illegal. According to the law, the work should be stopped immediately.  Within 24 hours of the fifth hearing the plaintiffs’ lawyers prepared a letter to the State Inspectorate of Environment and Forestry as well as to the National Inspectorate of Territorial Protection asking them to immediately request documentation of a valid construction permit and stop current construction works if the developer does not have a permit.
The sixth court hearing took place on 30 June, and the hearing was brief, where National Territorial Council confirmed that no new Construction Permit had yet been issued to the Developer – indicating that they have been working illegally since 28 May 2017. 
The court asked the plaintiffs if they intended to submit evidence of environmental damage caused, although this has no bearing on the actually basis of the lawsuit which is the absolute invalidity of the concession contract due to procedural irregularities.  Court was then promptly adjourned pending submission of new evidence.
The seventh hearing was held on 12 July, where the lawyer for Dragobia and Gener-2 submitted new evidence regarding expenses incurred by the companies so far in the context of their investment, according to the lawyer their investment has now almost reached 10 million euros. The plaintiff’s lawyers plan to object to all this evidence as irrelevant to the process.
During this hearing it was revealed that the Court has received documents from Shkodra Prefecture indicating that Water Basin Council Drin Bune is getting active in the process. 
Nacionalni park Valbona, Albanija
Court hearing on Valbona case in Tirana
BRT on the Valbona River
© Jan Pirnat
BRT on the Valbona River
© Jan Pirnat
Don't touch my Valbona
© Valbona