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Majlinda Hoxha and GARD

GARD: Protecting rural life from a hydroelectric power plant

Dibra in northeast Albania is a region famous for its natural beauty, mountains and rivers. Its inhabitants tend to their land and their animals, living a centuries-old lifestyle, However there are few job opportunities in the region, and most young people are forced to move to Tirana or to emigrate.

Majlinda Hoxha left Dibra when she was fourteen years old to pursue her education. It was after university studies abroad that she decided to move back home. Since then she has become a central figure in a volunteer environmental movement campaigning against construction of a hydroelectric power plant as part of the Skavica dam project, which would flood more than 30 villages in Dibra, displacing around 2,500 people.

This project is highly controversial. Aside from environmental concerns, there were few consultations with local residents and the construction contract was awarded to an American company, with no transparency in the tender process, and dubious ad hoc legislation. This process has fuelled rumours of corruption.

“I had been involved in civil society and human rights activism before, but this is different. I don’t want the land of my parents of my grandparents to disappear,” says Majlinda. She explains that if the project goes ahead, the village where her parents live would be completely isolated from the rest of the valley.

Building a culture of active citizenship in Dibra

In 2021, Majlinda, together with other local activists, started campaigning to block the construction of the dam, travelling to all the villages to convince locals to advocate for their rights and demands to be put at the centre of decision-making by local and national authorities. In 2022, the “Group of Rural Activists of Dibra” (GARD) was created as an inclusive space for activists in the region.

They run a community centre that’s the only activist hub in the region. Majlinda explains that local people sometimes feel like they don’t want to be involved. “But I think every one of us needs to care,” she says, noting how people are struggling to express their frustration with the government’s decisions.

She is providing Dibra locals with information on similar environmental issues across Europe, and the actions activists have taken, so that they can feel more empowered to act not just on the Skavica dam case, but on any other issue they might face.

“Environmental protection and democracy are strictly connected,” says Majlinda. “Most people in Dibra are against the construction of the dam, but they will not say it in public. They don’t see any alternatives to the government making decisions for them, just like in the communist dictatorship times.”

EED support leading to a first success

She admits that it is challenging to convince people to become active citizens, but she was determined to keep working. EED support came in at a crucial time for GARD. “I was not working and had no money left to continue organising against the dam. For the first time, I felt powerless,” she says.

Thanks to EED support, Majlinda was able to organise awareness-raising activities with the local community in different villages, as well as advocacy meetings with relevant MPs, and to network with other environmental activist groups in the region to exchange strategies and ideas. The group is reaching out to the inhabitants of the valley through social media, posting updates and encouraging them to mobilise, and has raised its profile with the national and international press, notably with documentary by Deutsche Welle about the Skavica dam case.

Most importantly, EED support enabled the activists to start legal consultations on the construction of the dam, examining alleged violations of public procurement rules. In May 2023, a complaint presented by the Black Drin Association, part of the GARD group, and other environmental organisations was accepted by the Constitutional Court. While a final verdict has not been reached, the group of NGOs considers this a historical moment in the fight against the dam, and a reward for the activists’ hard work.

Thanks to their advocacy, the case has now been taken to the Council of Europe’s Convention on the Conservation of European Wildlife and Natural Habitats, or Bern Convention.

According to Majlinda, the best solution to protect the Dibra valley is to coordinate with the government, businesses, and residents of the area to develop sustainable tourism and maximize the potential of the region.

This article reflects the views of the grantees featured and does not necessarily represent the official opinion of the EED.