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Although slightly smaller than the state of Maryland, Albania is a country of rich natural diversity. Situated on the Adriatic and Ionian Coast between Greece and the former Yugoslavia, it boasts a landscape of coastal plains, a largely forested mountainous interior and the deepest lake in the Balkans. Albania enjoys a mild Mediterranean climate that supports a unique set of species, including the rare and endangered Dalmation Pelican, 277 species of birds, 400 species of flowering plants, and wild herbs that include raspberry and blackberry leaf, bilberry, nettle, rosehips, chamomile, thyme, oregano, sage, bearberry and licorice. Albania's diverse flora represents nearly 30% of all European plant species and approximately 250 species have medicinal, spice, or aromatic value. In the early 1990s, herb and spice exports contributed up to 30 million USD to Albania's GDP, but revenue generated by this sector has dropped by nearly two thirds since then. The forested interior provides habitat for large mammalian species, including the brown bear and wild boar. Albania faces unique challenges to sustainable environmental management, following years under a communist regime and, more recently, regional conflict. Since the 1990s, Albania has begun creating regulatory structures to mitigate the environmental stresses of an emerging liberalized market economy. During this period of liberalization, the Albanian government has made a series of strides in enacting environmental legislation, including the Law on Hunting and Wildlife Protection, the Laws on the Land and its Distribution, the Law on the Protection of Wild Aromatic and Medicinal Plants and Tannifers, and the Law on Protected Areas.

Threats to the Resource Base
Despite the legislative actions, Albania faces serious threats to its environment, the largest of which comes from the impact of human use. Urban waste, industrial pollution, population growth, illegal cutting and harvesting of forest and vegetation resources and unregulated development have led to environmental degradation in Albania, particularly in the coastal areas. Coastal wetlands are the home to 41% of Albania’s population, which has recently tripled in size following an influx of refugees. Scenic seaside areas and coastal towns are experiencing rapid development to bring in tourism dollars. However, poor planning and lack of regulation can lead to sanitation and severe pollution problems, negatively impacting tourism, as well as the health and livelihoods of its citizens.

Forested areas are facing similar threats of degradation due to unsustainable harvesting practices. This is particularly evident with the case of non-timber forest products, including medicinal plants and herbs. Albania is an important world producer of sage and other herbs and spices, which are largely collected from the wild. Agricultural and grazing practices combined with the demand to grow the sector put the sustainability of these species under increasing risk.  Due to increasing temperatures and climate change, fire and post-fire disasters also pose an increasing threat to Albania’s forests and people.

Why Does the US Forest Service Work in Albania?
In response to significant flooding and water quality problems in Albania, the USDA Forest Service initiated a Watershed Management project in 1998. Since that time, the Forest Service has provided technical assistance on a number of issues including watershed management, marketing of non-timber forest products, monitoring and inventory of herbs and spice species, protected area management, and fire and disaster response and management. 

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Forest Products
Albania enjoys extensive plant diversity due to its geographic location and the influence of Central European and Mediterranean climates.   Albania contains over 30% of the entire European flora, and the country is home to as many as 250 medicinal and aromatic plant species, including herbs and spices that are collected for internal use and export. Economic revenue in the herbs and spices sector currently depends primarily on wild harvest. The conservation and sustainable management of hundreds of native plant species depends upon implementing effective strategies not only for sustainable harvest, and societal benefit but also for species, habitat, and ecosystem protection.
The US Forest Service has been working with Albanian counterparts to promote the sustainability of non-timber forest products since 1999.  In 1999, the US Forest Service conducted a training program for a Albanian business owners working with botanical and medicinal plants and wild mushrooms in an effort to improve understanding of effective marketing mechanisms, promote the economic and environmental sustainability of enterprises involving non-timber forest products, and maintain biodiversity in forest areas.

Since October 2004, several US Forest Service teams have traveled to Albania to support USAID activities in the herbs and spices sector. An assessment team provided recommendations for ensuring the sustainability of herb and spice resources while allowing for their continued use and development.  Additional teams worked with the Directorate General of Forests and Pastures, and subsequently the Ministry of Environment Department of Forest Service, to develop a pilot monitoring and inventory program for several critical herbs and spice species in an effort to provide necessary information for determining the status of the species, ensure sustainable harvest levels, and promote the long-term persistence of plant populations. Efforts included the development of a GIS database, establishment of a sampling strategy and an outline of training needs to build capacity within Albania for field collection methods, data entry, and data analysis.  Successful implementation of inventory and monitoring will require a long term commitment by the Albanian government.


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Specialty Tourism
Albania is rich in natural and cultural resources with unique features including coastal lands, mountains, rivers, parks and historical sites, which provide significant tourism potential. As the nation moves forward with social and economic development, this tourism potential may be diminished or lost without the purposeful protection of significant natural and cultural resources.  Fortunately, Albania is addressing the need for that protection through the official designation and management of protected areas.  Thoughtful, sustainable development of these resources could enhance rural village and community livelihoods throughout Albania, and increase its tourism. 

Since 2004, several US Forest Service teams have traveled to Albania in support of USAID activities in the specialty tourism sector.   Forest Service Specialists have worked with USAID Albania and the Albanian Ministry of Environment’s Directorate of Nature Protection to provide tools and methodologies to improve and promote management capacity that would ensure the long term viability of protected areas, ecologically conserving their attributes while at the same time promoting their ability to provide long term economic and social benefit.  In 2007, US Forest Service and USAID, in collaboration with the World Bank, UNDP, and the Directorate of Nature Protection, sponsored two workshops for nearly 48 protected area managers around the country.   The workshops contributed to the growing knowledge in protected area management, recreation planning and sustainable ecotourism in Albania.  They also provided for excellent “networking” between managers from different areas. As Albania continues to develop expertise in protected area management, recreation planning and sustainable ecotourism, the country can emerge as a significant contributor in regional and international protected area forums.

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Fire and Disaster Management
The 2007 fire season was severe in southeast Europe, including Albania.  Unusually hot and dry weather, together with human carelessness, resulted in over 1,300 fire ignitions and the burning of over 4,400 hectares of forest, pasture, and urban areas in Albania.  The US Agency for International Development Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance (USAID/OFDA) provided funds to support immediate fire suppression efforts as well as capacity building efforts in fire and disaster management. 

With support from USAID, the US Forest Service conducted two workshops in Albania on fire and disaster management.  In December 2007, twenty nine participants from the Albanian Ministry of Interior General Civil Defense Directory, regional Fire Fighting and Police Agencies, Red Cross, Ministry of Environment, Forests and Water Administration, and regional Forest Service Directorates attended a three-day introductory Incident Command System (ICS) course and contributed to planning for additional training opportunities.   In April 2008, US Forest Service conducted a Fire Management Course for twenty two participants from the Fire Department, Forestry Department, Police Services, and the Health Department, representing five prefectures and six districts.  The course covered basic wildfire prevention and suppression techniques and analyzed challenges and strengths for fire management in Albania.

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Past Projects

Albanian Watershed Assessment Project
In recent years, Albania has experienced a variety of serious environmental problems, including increased flooding on the coastal plain, drained wetlands, excessive sediment transport and deposition, and poor water quality. In 1998, the US Forest Service initiated an assessment of the Shkumbini and Vjosa watersheds to identify the causes of these problems. Albanian resource managers have used the assessment data to develop watershed management plans, and identify the mitigation practices that minimize the socio-economic impacts associated with changing land use practices. The USDA Forest Service Inventory and Monitoring Institute provided technical and administrative management for this project.

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