Lifting a Curse in the Balkans
A rolling clap of thunder echoes menacingly across the dramatic limestone escarpments of the mountains straddling Albania and the newly independent countries of Kosovo/a and Montenegro.
Tumult, both natural and manmade, is nothing new to this corner of the troubled Balkans: conflict, blood feuds, refugee flows and urban migration have all served to scar societies that for centuries have eked out livelihoods in these uplands, given the epithet of the “accursed mountains”.
In spite of this, the area boasts some of the finest mountain scenery in Europe – relatively unknown to outsiders – and efforts are underway to preserve the unique natural beauty and to harness its potential for improving the lives of its inhabitants and facilitating cross-border cooperation.
The Balkans Peace Park Project, a non-governmental organization founded in the United Kingdom and working with a coalition of local and transnational actors, aims to establish a peace park encompassing an area of approximately four thousand square kilometres in the adjoining mountainous border regions of Albania, Montenegro and Kosovo/a.
The concept of the park builds upon the example of other peace parks such as the first established between Norway and Sweden at Morokulien in 1914. Having gained in currency as a novel tool of integrating the joint concerns of conservation and peace-building, peace parks have also been proposed between India and Pakistan and on the Korean Peninsula, among other places.
While relations between the three Balkan countries are largely non-conflictual, “peace can be both positive and negative”, asserts Todd Walters, summer programme coordinator of the Balkans Peace Park Project – through envisioning the region as a single eco-system rather than one marked by political boundaries, the park can serve to stimulate cooperation and strengthen relationships across borders.
Towards this goal the project aims to facilitate joint mountain guide training, implement a cultural preservation programme, as well as help revive traditional trade routes across the borders to benefit local economies and stimulate eco-tourism in a region that has faced the ravages of depopulation.
In spite of the potential, a number of obstacles exist: enforcement of environmental protection measures remains weak with illegal logging a particular problem; other issues include smuggling and not least the need for stronger political will at the national level. While the concept of a peace park is relatively uncontroversial, the three countries are beset with other pressing problems, including those of newly acquired statehood.
Nevertheless, as all three countries harbour hopes of one day joining the EU, implementing the peace park – through demonstrating efficient border management, environmental protection and coordination of national laws – would represent not only a symbolic but also a practical step that could help contribute towards their candidacy.
Ten years ago, tens of thousands of Kosovars fled in desperation across these same mountains. Refugees have now been replaced by the sight of an increasing number of tourists bringing much needed money to a deprived region. If all continues to go well, it would seem that the area’s cursed moniker, if it was ever true, may finally have been lifted.