One-on-one | Environment

Shpresa Loshaj: Now is the time for me to speak up more

By - 23.02.2021

Environmental activist explains what is at stake in Deçan.

Shpresa Loshaj didn’t know anything about hydropower back in 2018, when she came back to her hometown Deçan, in Kosovo, from her usual life in Canada, where she resides. Now, she is the face of a movement that goes beyond the environment, or rivers, or water — a movement that has emerged as a democratic initiative to end the exploitation of the commons, for the benefit of a few; to end the culture of opaque deals whose consequences end up falling on the backs of citizens.

Loshaj has been immersed in the fight against small hydropower for two years in Deçan valley, where the Austrian company Kelag (Kelkos in Kosovo), has several hydropower projects in the Lumbardhi river in part of Bjeshkët e Nemuna National Park. As it has happened in other regions and rivers of Kosovo, like in Sharr National park and its Lepence river, dams and tubes have become part of the landscape despite the fact that citizens have raised their voices loudly against this type of construction in their towns. 

With the support of activists, Loshaj’s hand has knocked on everyone’s door, including that of one of the national ministries, Austrian diplomats, European parliamentarians, international environmental organizations and the courts. 

Kelkos itself recently published on Twitter that since 2018, it has identified “more than 40 defamatory public statements” by NGO Pishtarët, which Loshaj founded two years ago. But Loshaj is not alone in raising concerns and accusing Kosovo institutions of issuing permits without the fulfillment of conditions and procedures by Kelkos and others.

The legal problems surrounding the construction of hydropower in the whole Kosovo are so many and so flagrant, that several public institutions have raised strong concerns and launched their own investigations. From October 2020 until the dissolution of parliament before the February elections, a parliamentary commission was formed exclusively to investigate the process of licensing and monitoring hydropower, and although their work was unfinished due to the dissolution of parliament, it allowed the public to see the testimony of each one of the actors involved in the hydropower business, including public officials — and the incoherence in their work. 

Recently, the Ombudsperson published an incontestable ex-officio report citing each of the legal violations committed by the Ministry of Environment in recent years and how they have, according to the office, violated not only several laws regarding water, environment or public administration procedures, but also the Constitution of Kosovo. What the report says is that, because of the lack of transparency by the Ministry of Environment, there was no clarity about the legal basis of the operation of hydropower plants.

"We knew that the war had caused no damage there and I always imagined it to be the way it was."

Shpresa Loshaj

With the support of other environmental activists, in January, Loshaj herself took the fight for the Deçan valley to court in an unprecedented lawsuit against public institutions, bringing forward evidence and requesting that the Ministry of Environment and the Energy Regulatory Office  annul the permits and licenses given to Kelkos to operate two hydropower plants on the Lumbardhi river. Finally, in February the court suspended the concession of two 40 year licenses and one 15 year license provided to Kelkos to operate in Deçan. It was a victory, for the time being, but it soon proved to be a small battle within the fight.

Only a few days later, Loshaj, who has remained unapologetically outspoken about the environmental and social damage caused by Kelkos to the communities and the environment of Deçan, received a defamation lawsuit filed by Kelkos. It requests an indemnification for damages of 100,000 euros. 

The case has been labeled by civil rights activists as a Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation, a suit intended to intimidate, censor, and scare off anyone else wanting to speak against the actions of Kelkos in Kosovo. It is not Kelkos’s first, as the Austrian contractor already sued activist Adriatik Gacaferi in 2020, that time requesting a sum of 10,000 euros in damages. 

Kelkos’ lawsuit might as well have ignited a new spark within the movement, with activists coming back to public debate to repeat every of the concerns that had been raised against Kelkos and public institutions once again. 

We spoke to Loshaj through the screen as she is now settled in Ottawa, her other home, after a long year of activism in Deçan, and asked her how this fight has evolved, the problems they have encountered, and what lies ahead. 

K2.0: When you came to Deçan for the first time after living abroad, what was the situation or moment when you saw that you needed to commit yourself to changing what is happening there, that something is not right?

Shpresa Loshaj: The first time I saw what was happening in Deçan Gorge was in 2018. I came to Kosovo for a diaspora conference and heard in Prishtina that Deçan had hydropower plants. I had never heard about there being hydropower plants in Deçan or the Deçan Gorge when I came in the years before; nobody mentioned it.

So I became interested to know more about what the deal with those hydropower plants in Deçan was. “Jeta në Kosovë” was doing an installment and told me, “if you want to come and see, join us.” It was May 2018 when I went to check it out for the first time.

When I was in Kosovo before the war, we always spent our summers in the mountains, exactly where Lumbardhi II [hydropower plant] is now. That is where our pastures were and still are. And that’s when I saw that it was completely different from before, from how we left it. I had not been there after the war because the road was bad; we knew that the war had caused no damage there and I always imagined it to be the way it was. At least my memories were unharmed by the war, my childhood memories in the mountains.

It hit me hard when I saw the large-scale destruction because I realized that that place hadn’t spared either. There is no… [her voice trembles from emotion] it’s very painful… there is no place in Kosovo that the war, and our own selves, didn’t destroy. I could not believe it that someone knew this was happening, when I heard that the Ministry [of Environment] was involved — that they allowed this to happen and did not stop it.

It was unbelievable to me because I wouldn’t have thought that there are people in Kosovo who experienced what we experienced and [still] do things like this to their own country.

The other thing is that, when I heard that nobody here dares to talk about hydropower plants, I became even more curious, determined and motivated because somebody had to speak up about these hydropower plants. Although I went back to Canada at that time, I always tried to keep in touch and it always gnawed me from within.

View from the Deçan Gorge in 2018. Photo: Atdhe Mulla / K2.0.

The more I discovered, the further I understood that Kelkos and the destruction in the Deçan Gorge stand for everything that’s wrong in Kosovo, for everything that doesn’t work. The failure of Kosovo’s institutions, the failure of democracy — you can find all of them there. Every problem in Kosovo, [you can see] there — the failure to enforce the law.

Now I realize that any step made to fix [what has happened] in the Deçan Gorge is a step that contributes to the development of Kosovo. Because I think that Kosovo is [only] going to be a functional state when the law is enforced in the Deçan Gorge, and we know that this will take a very long time.

We didn’t begin this venture by thinking that we will fix it immediately because we know that it’s tied to the functioning of Kosovo as a state. Firstly, it was the damage inflicted upon the environment — how is it possible for a place that was unscathed during the war to be destroyed by our own hands, and they are perhaps the only memories we have that were unaffected by the war. Secondly, it is the functioning of the state of Kosovo; in a way, the failure of the state of Kosovo and enforcement of the law, which again ties back to sacrifices during the war.

To me, allowing the sacrifices of people to be trampled on is immoral. Many people died in Deçan, we suffered a lot to [finally] see the law — our law — actually working. Not enforcing it means betraying all the people who died.

For the readers who might not have followed every step and every problem regarding the hydropower plants in Deçan, could you list the problems and failures of the Ministry of Environment?

This project of new hydropower plants in Deçan started in 2010. From the beginning, the Ministry did not ask Kelkos to provide the required documents in order to issue the necessary permits. For example, we have the specific case of the water permit: It is a study of the river [Acceptable Ecological Bearing] that should be done to know how much water is in the river and how much water should be left in the river to allow for the survival of fish and the natural ecosystem [before] Kelkos runs it through pipes. It is the first study [that has to be conducted when an entity] applies to build a hydropower plant. That study was never done, the Ministry never required it.

You cannot eyeball the river and say there is enough water now or there isn’t.

So, Kelkos avoided every step leading to the permit application and they were granted the permit. Kelkos has the final permits and can say, “We have the permits.” But what they needed to do to be entitled to the permit — there is no evidence, and this is also reflected in nature.

Ten years later, the Ministry asked Kelkos to do the study. In the case of some other permits in the past [they said], “Here is your permit, you have 60 days to do the study.” According to the law, if any condition of the permit is violated, the permit is revoked and the operator cannot apply for that permit again for three years. Kelkos violated it umpteen times, the evidence is public.

The other thing is, even if Kelkos did the study, the Ministry did not ask them to install water meters in order to carry out the study. How can you conduct a study [like that] — you cannot eyeball the river and say “there is enough water now or there isn’t.” There needs to be a real-time measurement to see how much water the river has. In the most recent water permit [granted in November 2020], the Ministry asked Kelkos to install meters once again, but it did not specify a deadline.

Kelkos can go to court or speak in front of the public and say, “It is not our fault. They gave us the permit and told us to install the meters, but there is no deadline. We are not breaking the law.”

According to Kelkos, they have their own methods for ensuring and proving that there is [enough] water in the river. These methods are all under their supervision and one of them is taking pictures of the river twice a day. Someone who worked for Kelkos told me that even though we [activists] are showing that Kelkos is depleting the water in the river, they [Kelkos] are allegedly gathering evidence by turning the water on twice a day and taking pictures, afterward turning it off again.

I had no way of verifying it, that’s why I did not mention it, but using a photo taken at a single moment to prove that there is water in the river for 24 hours seemed absurd to me. But this year, when I gained access to Kelkos’ environmental permit application, I saw that this was precisely the evidence that Kelkos used to allegedly prove that the river has water for 24 hours, and unfortunately the Ministry of Environment does not see the problem with this method. So, the real-time, 24 hour water meters are replaced with two photos that Kelkos can take whenever it wants, and it can turn the water on and off with the push of a button whenever they want.

So, the Ministry keeps infringing the dignity and identity of Kosovo institutions by issuing such permits. I think it is neither professional, nor ethical to use a public institution for joining agreements that I consider individual, because, in this case, it is not the Republic of Kosovo that is doing this, the Republic of Kosovo is not in accordance with the laws of Kosovo making deals with Kelkos. [Rather], there are some individuals at the Ministry and some individuals at Kelkos who are agreeing on what permits are issued, excluding the public from this process. So long as we [the public] have no clue what’s happening there, nothing can be legitimate for us.

You and another activist were sued for defamation because of your activism. How would you describe the modus operandi of Kelkos when it comes to building hydropower plants?

Based on Kelkos’ actions, I think that they do not aim to be part of the community where they operate, but [only] use our resources. Their goal is to isolate us as much as possible from that area, because due to the consequences of Kelkos’ actions, we do not have access to the same resources that we had before. And in a way, it seems that Kelkos claims to be the only one in the Deçan Gorge that has access to those resources.

Now is the time for me to speak up more; the community needs to be more cautious with this because it is not safe for them.

So, when they saw that we were raising our voices, they immediately filed lawsuits against us because they thought they could silence the community. So far, Kelkos has failed to prove itself a genuine and desired partner in the community. But unfortunately, the local community knows that if they say something against Kelkos, they risk trouble from a lot of people there, so everybody is cautious. Not everybody, but most people, and it’s justified.

You have said that the community in Deçan is in danger. What kind of danger?

The environmental protection posters we put up in Deçan are continuously vandalized by people in Deçan who defend Kelkos’ interests. I do not think those people are dangerous for me, but they are indeed dangerous for the people who live there. So, based on as much as we have seen and discovered through evidence, Kelkos has a very wide network that defends its interests through illegal ways.

Ever since I started doing activism, I have never wanted someone to say something that could get them into trouble, because I know that people who speak up will have real problems in their lives. That is why I decided to speak up more. Now is the time for me to speak up more; the community needs to be more cautious with this because it is not safe for them.

So far, everyone has told me, “What you are doing is right, just be careful,” and sometimes I wondered whether it’s something that I really need to be careful about. There was a time when I took a lot of care; for example, I did not go to the mountains after 6 p.m. because I knew that anything could happen.

But then there came a time when I said, “The worst that could happen is that I die, so if I do not try I will not achieve anything.” I have also worked and still work with my husband, Visar Alimehaj, and we are together at every step. This of course made it easier for me to feel safe. When there was suspicion and reason to worry, we sent evidence that our activism was in danger to the police in Deçan and to KFOR, which monitors the specific area where [one of the] hydropower plants are.

But the risk is much more real for the people there because the ones that I know, who defend the interests of Kelkos and — for example — vandalize our posters, are dangerous. They are dangerous to the community.

Zalli i Rupës is one of the areas that was affected by hydropower construction in Deçan, and you along with the residents have talked about the importance it has. What does this place mean to you?

Zalli i Rupës is a valley surrounded by mountains that is accessible to residents of the villages of Deçan, Junik, Gjakova and Peja. This means that it was a spot that connected many mountainous areas, but it also was a rare natural beauty, a plain surrounded by mountains and a river.

The ground was gravelly, that’s why Kelkos saw material benefit and proposed creating a drainage basin [by building dams] in that place. The Kosovo Government happily accepted the basin that would allegedly serve the villages for irrigation. The Municipality of Deçan told everybody that they are creating a basin; “there will be a basin, it’s very good for us.”

We still don’t know why Kelkos did not build the basin, because there is no public information.

Kelkos started digging, taking out gravel and building hydropower plants downstream. Then they said that they couldn’t build the basin because the solid ground can’t hold water. They could have tried with one, two, or maybe three meters — you cannot take out kilometers worth of gravel, destroy nature and say “I wanted to create a basin.” So it seems that the drainage basin was never part of Kelkos’ plan and ten years later we still do not have anything tangible regarding a basin — I think that this was only a deception by Kelkos.

So, Kelkos has had access to exploiting our resources from the beginning and it did not follow a legal route. If the basin really can’t be built, they should have reported that in time. We still don’t know why Kelkos did not build the basin, because there is no public information.

Now, that area has been completely destroyed — especially in the summer, when it turns into a desert. The highlanders who previously had access there cannot go anymore. There are no longer spots for picnics because you cannot have a picnic in a desert. Going there makes your heart ache.

You can also not have a picnic anywhere along the Deçan gorge because not only has the river been destroyed, but Kelkos has altered the geography of the gorge. The river is not how it used to be, the altitude of the road in relation to the river is not the same anymore, there are trees that completely separate the river from the road.

It is a different world, and every time you pass by it turns more and more into a world that does not support tourism or usage by local residents; the access is not the same anymore for picnicking, cattle grazing or summer camping. I fear that eventually you won’t be able to do anything there.

Again, Kelkos does not take responsibility for Zalli i Rupës. The Ministry of Environment knew about this tragedy from the beginning. We have the report by the Ministry; in 2014, an inspector went there and [proved] with photographs what Kelkos is doing. We have [pictures of] the trucks full of gravel going downhill. When that report from 2014 was sent to the Ministry, guess what happened? Nothing at all. This issue was never once mentioned again, although I asked to know what decisions were made after that report, if something was done. They never answered me.

View from Zalli i Rupës in 2018. Photo: Atdhe Mulla / K2.0.

So the Ministry of Environment is complicit in Kelkos’ destruction of Zalli i Rupës, in destroying the way of life of tens of thousands of residents who variously accessed Zalli i Rupës and the nearby mountains. We had access for camping but it was also a connecting point with other mountains for hiking, we went there to gather tea and bilberries — it was a very important part of the lives of people in Deçan, it was a part of our DNA.

All of these things have changed now — you do not have the same way of life anymore because going to a desert is not the same thing. Eventually, those mountains will lose their most important characteristics to the people of Deçan, as every village is connected to them, and most importantly it will have a harmful effect on the maintenance and development of animal farming, as this is a very developed sector in Deçan.

If my generation does not have access to the mountains, the next one, who has never been there, will not want to go. So, as long as they keep us isolated, it will be much easier to do the same with the next generation.

Last December, you went to court to request the suspension of environmental permits by the Ministry of Environment and licenses by the Energy Regulatory Office that allow Kelkos to operate two hydropower plants in Deçan and Belaja. At the same time, Vetëvendosje also took the same issue to court. The court decided to suspend them, but the Ministry allowed Kelkos to continue operations and appealed the decision. Meanwhile, these institutions gave Kelkos another license and permit to operate Lumbardhi II. In the end, after the appeals, all permits and licenses were suspended once again by the Court. At a very sensitive time, the Ministry fought a lot for these licenses. What does this mean to you?

When permits for two hydropower plants were issued last November, it was a very serious violation, one of the largest in Kosovo in democratic times. 

Two weeks before the elections [earlier this year] we received insider information that some people from the Ministry of Environment were working intensively to give Kelkos all the permits they needed before the elections took place. It seems that they were making a deal with Kelkos where they apparently were granted all the documents they needed and this was somehow legal, even though they did not meet any of the conditions for the water and environment.

We have previously asked the Austrian Embassy to distance themselves from Kelkos and tell them, “we do not support you.”

Briefly said, it seems that those people who worked together with Kelkos put the law aside and accepted everything that Kelkos offered and issued all the documents that they needed. This is not anymore about what legal criteria Kelkos didn’t fulfill, it is an issue about how it is possible for a handful of people to hold public institutions hostage and use them against the public interest.

This is not negligence, this is an intentional attack on our resources and the rule of law. We are conducting an analysis of government decisions [related to these hydropower plants] and so far we have not found any document or action by any public institution that was taken to protect our environmental rights. It is difficult to believe but it is true. Thus, none of these permits is valid.

This is alarming for us and we have informed the justice institutions, we informed the head prosecutor in Peja and sent a [public] notice saying that this is happening. We will also take other steps.

We have previously asked the Austrian Embassy to distance themselves from Kelkos and tell them, “we do not support you.” But the Embassy is still supporting Kelkos publicly, apparently unaware of the harm their decisions are causing in Kosovo.

Now that the elections are over — if a new government is formed, what do activists expect?

We expect the new government to start working on these issues immediately and undertake a full review of these processes and that the justice system will hold all involved people to account. The permits that we know of have been sent to court, [but] we don’t know how many permits Kelkos has managed to get.

Nowhere in the world have I heard of such a denial of facts in the face of so much evidence.

The court agreed that these permits need to be put on hold and should not be executed until further notice. The court believed that the permits could cause irreparable damage to our environment. We are not sure whether Kelkos will respect this decision because they have not done it in the past.

I am being sued for my Facebook posts, for contacting the Ministry of Environment and the Energy Regulatory Office and for requesting the suspension of Kelkos’ licenses because it is not legal to operate without environmental permits, for my conversations with the media — for everything, more or less. And apparently Kelkos said on Twitter that they have identified 40 other cases where, according to them, I have harmed their reputation. 

Nowhere in the world have I heard of such a denial of facts in the face of so much evidence.

We have ample proof in the form of photos and videos that point to the degradation of the land. We know of affected people who testify to what they are experiencing due to Kelkos’ violations, we have proof of how decisions were made to ensure permits for Kelkos and Kelkos is well aware of this.

They are very afraid and they are trying to cover things up; that is why they are taking extreme measures to silence me and to prevent others from speaking.

It looks like they have thought that the rule of law will never take root in Kosovo and as we uncover how the processes went, it is painful to see how much little respect they have had for our young republic. We have only laid bare some of the violations committed by them and by the public institutions.

The visible degradation is one part of it, but the damage done to our public institutions is irreparable and will take decades to fix. So based on the uncovered evidence, it is safe to say that this is all that Kelkos has wrought in Kosovo while they continue making millions of euros from our taxes.K

This conversation was edited for length and clarity. The interview was done in Albanian. 

Feature image: K2.0.