Emanuel Xhindi, a rising third-year law student at the University of Tirana, argues that granting legal personhood to Albania's Vjosa River could help advance environmental justice in the country, as it has in a growing number of other global contexts...
The ongoing battle over the proposed construction of a new airport in the Albanian city of Vlora has sparked fierce debate among environmentalists worldwide. As Prime Minister Edi Rama pushes forward with plans for the airport, hundreds of young Albanians have taken to the streets to protest what they see as an impending “environmental disaster.” NGOs from inside and outside the country have weighed in on the controversy, but the legal intricacies of the situation may surprise some.
Since 2017, Albania’s Law No. 81/2017 “On Protected Sites” has regulated the protection of key areas. The planned airport site is located within a protected site that’s beholden to the law known as Narte-Pishporo .
On paper, this law appears strong, but its abstract language makes it all too easy for the government to push its agenda. Article 20, letter c) of Law no 81/2017 states that in a protected site, it is essential to ensure the removal of threats when needed and to prevent the use of land and activities that may be unsuitable or harmful to the site’s natural environment.
Compelling though this language may at first appear, in reality, it provides no clear prohibition against such projects, leaving gaping loopholes ripe for exploitation.
As Albania is not yet subject to EU law, the country is urged to “align its legislation with the EU Environmental acquis” by EU Commissioner Olivér Várhelyi.
To provide adequate legal protection for the Narte-Pishporo site, I propose granting legal personhood to the area — an initiative that has in the past been successfully carried out in Europe with Spain’s Mar-Menor Lagoon. Unusual though this approach might first appear, it ultimately allows environments under threat to be represented in court, offering them stronger protections against harmful activities.
In Colombia, the Atrato River was granted legal personhood in the aftermath of a period of heavy pollution, illegal mining, and armed conflicts. In rendering their decision, the judges of the Colombian Constitutional Court emphasized the importance of cooperation between human beings and nature, and of creating a model for sustainable development.
“At the same time, this model seeks to achieve the ends mentioned, by allowing human beings – the foundation of every constitutional construction since the origins of modern constitutionalism – to live and interact within a healthy environment unthreatened by the extractive activity of the state, which allows him to develop his existence in decent conditions, without the latter being threatened by the extractive activity of the state.”
I believe the Akërni community should embrace a similar approach, fostering strong cooperation with nature to ensure sustainable development.
By granting the Vjosa River legal personhood through a popular legislative initiative, the Nartë-Pishporo Protected Site could be better protected, setting a positive environmental precedent in Albania. As the battle over Vlora’s airport continues, we must consider innovative legal solutions to safeguard the environment and promote sustainable development.
Emanuel Xhindi is a rising third-year law student at the University of Tirana Faculty of Law.
Suggested citation: Emanuel Xhindi, How Granting a River Legal Personhood Could Bring a Measure of Environmental Justice to Albania, JURIST – Student Commentary, May 9, 2023, https://www.jurist.org/commentary/2023/05/make-vjosa-river-a-person/.
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