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Letter from Albania: What's being done to improve the environment
Heading south, I passed the town of Orikum and the road soon climbed steeply into the Llogara Pass, one of those places that makes you feel very small and alone.
The road clung to a mountainside so steep that when I craned my neck up I couldn't see it top out. On my left there was a verdant valley far below and another huge wall of gray rock. The valley seemed to pinch farther up ahead, for the views were long enough that I could mark the road's progress as it snaked in and out of sharp bends.
Then, rounding one, I confronted the most dramatic and lovely stretch of road I'd seen on the Adriatic/Ionian coast: In the windshield, a ridge line the color of ash loomed over the road and it descended in a tumbling pitch perhaps 2,000 feet into iris blue water. The narrow road worked its way down the green hillside not in gentle curves but in hairpin switchbacks, like an extended mark of Zoro.
Far below, the town of Dhermi perched in resistance, some how, to the Llogara Pass' plunge to the sea.
A few days later, taking a road out of the southern city of Saranda that soon turned into one of the best in Albania -- despite having been marked in yellow on my map, signifying a track slightly better than cracked concrete -- I was again to pull neck muscles trying to take in the immensity of a light-speckled valley that stretched almost to the hill town of Gjirokaster.
In one frame, a single house sat sentry over groves and green terraces, with the patchwork valley floor running away from it in the distance.
These were scenes that revealed how much Albania, despite all its problems, had that was worth protecting.
It was not an exaggeration to say that Albania's environment and natural landscape had suffered mightily, both during the country's communist isolation and in the years after it emerged from it. Like in the communist countries of the former Soviet Union and Yugoslavia, there was little tradition of conservation and certainly no complex talk of carbon footprints, emissions and the crisis of global warming. Factories and production ruled the day, always at the expense of the land.
Albania, however, had a far messier recovery period after communism than places like the Czech Republic or Slovakia. Elsewhere, countries were beginning to address the environmental legacy of their pasts. When the dust settled in Albania, people seemed to put a higher priority on simply getting theirs.
The rush to build personal property during the past decade, for example, had lead to the disappearance of 30 percent of the country's forests, while substantial mining had altered or dried up water flows in many of the country's rivers.
The problem of air pollution grew as Albanians rushed to buy cars, most of them old and running on diesel. As of three years ago, the country still did not have a single waste water treatment plant.
Albania's environmental woes seemed to gel with a damning United Nations critique of Porto Romano, a exotic-sounding suburb near Albania's main port, Durres. In 2001, environmental experts found nearly 6,000 people living pretty much on top of an abandoned chemical plant where soil and groundwater contamination had been found to be 4,000 times the European acceptance level.
Some had even built homes out bricks taken from the derelict plant.
In a stern letter to the Albanian government, the UN team urged relocating the residents of Porto Romano and cordoning off the site with a fence.
Porto Romano might have been a wake up call for the Albanian government to finally begin taking measures to tackle the country's environmental problems head on -- that and the European Union's recent courting of Albania to one day join its growing club.
Joining the EU would mean bringing the country's environmental standards in line with, currently, 27 other countries.
"This is not only a problem of flowers or birds or plants," Dzemal Mato, a Green trailblazer, told the BBC last year. "The environment can be a big cost economically."
Whatever the reason, Albania lately had scored some significant environmental progress and was currently awash in projects countrywide that while complex in scope and lengthily in timeframe gave hope that the country had turned a corner.
Projects ranged in price. Larger ones included spending $13 million to improve ecosystem management in the Prespa Lake basin; $3.6 million to built and sustain an ecotourism industry; and $2.8 million to develop an environmental management system.
Smaller projects included spending $1.3 million to cleanup a handful of polluted "hot spots," like Porto Romano, countrywide; $600,000 for green house gas emissions projects; and $36,900 to rehabilitate the Drini-Mati river delta.
The United Nations, with its development program, the EU and individual European countries like the Netherlands were helping Albania pay for all this.
It seemed that the world was taking notice of Albania's new environmental commitment. This year Yale University ranked Albania 27th out of 149 countries in its annual environmental performance index, 12 places ahead of the United States.
Tome Thercaj, a spokesman for Albania's environment minister, was particularly proud of this ranking as we sat and talked in his office in Tirana. He said the government overall had doubled spending on the environment.
I asked him what was the biggest environmental problem Albania continued to face, expecting him to address those dry river beds, or the air quality in many urban centers. His answer was more fundamental.
"Urban garbage," he said. "It is not only an environmental problem. It is not good to see."
Any traveler in Albania noticed the garbage that lined many streets and roads, piles of food and diapers and other trash that cooked in the hot sun and gave off a terrific stink. But this was not something unique to Albania; in Montenegro the situation, especially around the capital of Podgorica, was the same: litter everywhere, and in a country that last year called itself an "ecological state" in its new constitution.
Not far outside Tirana, a massive landfill lay smoldering, set ablaze by nearby residents so that its smoke would often waft over the city.
Thercaj told me that the government was currently negotiating with the northern city of Shkodra to build a $5 million landfill there. Another big new landfill had been built in the middle of the country.
So, Albania's was tackling its garbage. But, Thercaj told me, there was more. Yes, there were many projects underway and financing coming from outsiders to fund them. But there were also more subtle efforts to change the environmental consciousness of the Albanian people.
One of the government's biggest initiatives, he said, was to develop a recycling program for the country and foster a recycling culture among the people.
"Look," he said. "I'll show you."
After a few clicks on his computer, Thercaj pulled up a photo taken on a recent trip to Italy. It was of four large recycling bins taken in Milan, colored red, blue, yellow and white. Soon, he said, these would begin popping up in more locations in Albania.
He started at the picture on the screen, the way you would at a postcard.
Yesterday: The brutal custom of Albanian blood feuds (Part 2)
Tomorrow: Tirana's impressive recovery