Nick St.Oegger – Kuçedra: Portraits of Life on Europe’s Last Wild River

Kuçedra: Portraits of Life on Europe's Last Wild River

Kuçedra: Portraits of Life on Europe’s Last Wild River

In collaboration with Patagonia and NGOs RiverWatch and Euronatur, as part of the Save the Blue Heart of Europe campaign, photographer Nick St.Oegger travelled to Albania’s endangered Vjosa river to document life along its banks. Through a series of striking landscape shots of the environment and portraits of the people and homes of the riverside communities, Kuçedra is a snapshot into life along the Vjosa, as it faces the threat of being changed forever.

The Vjosa is Europe’s last undammed river, running untamed through southern Albania to the Adriatic Sea. It is a key source of life for numerous endangered plant and animal species, many of which have disappeared from the rest of Europe’s rivers. The Vjosa is a unique biosphere, where scientists are discovering new species with every journey downstream.

The river also holds important economic and cultural value for the nearby rural communities which formed the backbone of Albania’s agricultural industry during communist times. These communities have seen decline, and, in some cases, total abandonment as development by the central government has waned.

Today, the Vjosa and its tributaries are under threat from hydropower projects, which would permanently alter the flow of the river, harming life within, and displacing thousands who live along its banks. The dams are part of a hydropower boom in the Balkans which has attracted international investors. However, their involvement does not often extend to oversight of social or environmental impact of these projects on the region.

Despite aspirations of joining the European Union, the Albanian government has ignored calls to halt construction on the Vjosa, which would qualify as a protected environment under EU law. Local villagers and an international group of scientists and activists are challenging the government in court, in attempts to preserve the biodiversity, communities and culture of the region.

The Vjosa holds cultural and economic significance for the agricultural communities along its banks, and thousands of people would be displaced and lose their source of income if the dams and reservoirs are constructed. Many of these villagers and farmers hold no deeds to their lands, due to the bureaucratic chaos following the fall of communism, and so compensation would be extremely difficult to secure.

Furthermore, many of these people have no other source of income, or skills upon which to rely for their livelihood. The proposed dams on the Vjosa are part of a larger hydropower boom in the Balkans. This is funded by international investment banks, and could result in the construction up to 3,000 dams along rivers throughout the Balkans.

The book features an essay by Nataša Gregorič Bon, social anthropologist at the Slovenian Academy of Sciences and Arts, on the importance of the Vjosa to Albania’s economy and culture. Speaking about the project, Nick St Oegger said: “For most of us living in Europe or the US, we’re so used to seeing altered rivers that we don’t know what a wild river looks like. It is important that the Vjosa is allowed to remain in its natural state, to preserve its biodiversity, and to allow the communities along its banks to remain. I am grateful to Patagonia, RiverWatch and Euronatur for the opportunity to document this incredible environment and its people.”

Kuçedra: Portraits of Life on Europe’s Last River is published with support from Patagonia and their campaign, Save the Blue Heart of Europe (www.blueheart.patagonia.com), which seeks to end investment in destructive hydropower projects on rivers throughout the Balkans. The book has been distributed to members of the European Parliament, European Commission and other policymakers directly involved with environmental issues. It is now available for purchase here: www.stoeggerphotography.com/portfolio/books


A selection of photographs from Kuçedra:

Kuçedra: Portraits of Life on Europe's Last Wild River
The Vjosa near the Greek- Albanian border. Despite willingness to declare the river a national park in 2015, the Albanian government issued a contract to build a new hydropower dam at Poçem. The European Parliament has demanded the government put a stop to plans for hydropower on the Vjosa, noting the environmental damage it would cause.
Kuçedra: Portraits of Life on Europe's Last Wild River
“Without our land, we have nothing.” Ylli and her family raise sheep and grow crops on land that would be flooded by a reservoir. There are few non-agricultural jobs in Kuta, meaning locals could have to relocate from lands their families have lived and worked on for generations.
Kuçedra: Portraits of Life on Europe's Last Wild River
Rronja, a retired teacher in Kuta. Like many in the village, she does not hold title documents for her land, due to the administrative chaos that followed the fall of communism in the 1990s. This would complicate any attempts to claim compensation for land lost in the creation of the Poçem reservoir.
Kuçedra: Portraits of Life on Europe's Last Wild River
Fields between Kalivaç and Kuta, which would be lost to flooding for the reservoir created by the Poçem dam. Electricity generation could come to a standstill within 30 years due to sediment build-up in the reservoir. This would require expensive and invasive dredging equipment to be brought into the area in order to clear debris.
Kuçedra: Portraits of Life on Europe's Last Wild River
Felek Maça, mayor of Bënça village. Felek hopes the government will listen to locals who oppose hydropower projects in the Bënça valley. He instead sees a future for Eco-tourism, driven by young people returning to the valley from living abroad.
Kuçedra: Portraits of Life on Europe's Last Wild River
Tepelenë, at the confluence of the Vjosa and tributaries, the Drinos and Bënça. These tributary rivers were also in a similarly unmodified state, however, hydropower projects have since been undertaken on them. These projects have largely been opposed by local communities.

 

Kuçedra: Portraits of Life on Europe's Last Wild River
Interior, Shehu family home, Bënça. The Shehus have been active in protesting against the construction of a hydropower development nearby, and organised a petition to send to Prime Minister Edi Rama.
Kuçedra: Portraits of Life on Europe's Last Wild River
Yanni, returning across the Vjosa from a search for scraps of iron around Përmet. Economic opportunities are limited in areas along the Vjosa, due to lack of development, forcing many people to find work abroad or in the capital, Tirana.
Kuçedra: Portraits of Life on Europe's Last Wild River
Kuta, village in Mallakastër county. During communism, Kuta was an important farming village, and went through significant development in the first decades of the regime. However, the area has been in decline since the end of communism in the 1990s.
Kuçedra: Portraits of Life on Europe's Last Wild River
A farmer walks with his goats in the Bënça valley, near the construction site for a hydropower project. A pipeline would divert water from the Bënça river to a hydropower station down the valley, compromising water supply for villages in the area.
Kuçedra: Portraits of Life on Europe's Last Wild River
Dam construction site, near Kalivaç. The project began in 2007 as a collaboration between Deutsche Bank and Italian businessman, Francesco Becchetti, but was stalled for several years after charges of fraud and money-laundering were brought against Becchetti. He has denied these charges. The Albanian government nullified the contract and a new one was awarded to Turkish firm Ayen energy, who also hold the contract for the Poçem dam.

Nick St.Oegger is a documentary photographer working throughout Europe. His interest in storytelling and the natural world was formed during childhood conversations and journeys with his mountaineer grandfather. 

His work explores the relationship between people and their surroundings, often focussing on forgotten communities threatened by modern developmental or environmental concerns. He has spent several years following the impact of a hydropower boom in the Western Balkans. In 2018 he self-published Kuçedra, a photo book about Europe’s last undammed river in Albania.

He completed an MA in documentary photography and photojournalism in 2016 at the University of Westminster in London. His work has been exhibited internationally and is held in collections at the libraries of Oxford University, Cambridge University and Trinity College in Dublin. Selected clients include Vice, Huck, Reuters, Le Monde, Libération, C41 Magazine, De Standaard, Nieuwe Revu, The Calvert Journal, Kosovo 2.0, Trip Advisor, Culture Trip, and Patagonia. Find out more at http://stoeggerphotography.com or on Instagram @aquietamerican. 

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