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Conservation Beyond Borders: Balkans 2011 Academic Expedition

Guest Blog. Conservation Beyond Borders: Balkans 2011 Academic Expedition. By Todd Walters – Executive Director, International Peace Park Expeditions “I thought this course was about `transcending boundaries,’ not propping them back up!” said Saleem Ali as he was deep in the heart of the Accursed Mountains on the remote and rugged border between Albania and...

Guest Blog. Conservation Beyond Borders: Balkans 2011 Academic Expedition. By Todd Walters – Executive Director, International Peace Park Expeditions
“I thought this course was about `transcending boundaries,’ not propping them back up!” said Saleem Ali as he was deep in the heart of the Accursed Mountains on the remote and rugged border between Albania and Montenegro in the Balkans; after several students and our local Albanian guides grunted and groaned while lifting the concrete border marker back into an upright position.


Albania & Montenegro Border Post – Photo Credit: IPPE / Megan Greeley


In June 2011, a group of seven American students from the University of Vermont and York College, Pennsylvania trekked into the mountains following the ancient trading trail between Thethi, Albania via the high mountain pass of Qaf Pejas, and down into Vusanje/Vuthaj, Montenegro. Leading the students on this physically and intellectually challenging academic course were ToddWalters, the Executive Director of International Peace Park Expeditions and Saleem Ali PhD, Professor from the University of Vermont, National Geographic Emerging Explorer, and the Director of the Institute for Environmental Diplomacy and Security. Along the way, the group met members of the HRID Mountaineering club in their 4×4 ex-Yugoslav military vehicle – a Pitzgower – and were led down into the village of Vusanje/Vuthaj where they experienced traditional hospitality of the region – a local homestay for two nights at a completely sustainable family farm with organic agriculture, free range animals, and beekeeping.

Beekeeper & Homestay Host in Vuthaj/Vusanje, Montenegro – Photo Credit: IPPE / Megan Greeley


The academic expedition deepened the students’ understanding of cross-border cooperation; environmental issues particularly in forestry, water and waste management; sustainable development initiatives and infrastructure projects; and the development and promotion of eco-tourism in the Prokletja Mountain Range in the tri-border, post-conflict area of Montenegro, Albania, and Kosovo.

In Albania, students had a chance to walk along the korca of Shkodra in the evening, passing the mosque, the catholic church and the Greek Orthodox church in the span of two blocks. Lectures were given by Arjeta Troshani, the Dean of Shkodra University; Mark Rupa, a Forestry specialist working for SNV – the Dutch Development Agency; and Arian Gjura and Alma Shkreli – two of the core founders of the Balkans Peace Park Project in Albania. In the mountain village of Thethi, the course honed in on sustainable agriculture, traditional architecture and traditional water resource management, while not ignoring the challenges faced by those living in the remote Shala Valley: energy, livelihood opportunities and a transition towards eco-tourism.

Village of Thethi in Shala Valley, Albania – Photo Credit: IPPE / Cory Wilson


In Montenegro, the students heard guest lectures from Boris Erg, Director of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) South Eastern Europe; Mersudin Avdibegovic, a Professor of Forestry at the FOPER Masters program; Gorica Bogic, a Senior Advisor in Eco-Tourism and Local Action Groups from SNV; and Enko Dreshkovic, the President of PSK HRID Mountaineering Club. They visited the “Blue Eye” underground mineral water aquifer and Gerla Waterfall in Vusanje, heard guest lectures, and studied at the AQUA hotel on Lake Plav. They learned about sustainable water and waste management, and the network of local hiking trails at the HRID Eko-Village.

On June 6th, they crossed the border into Kosovo on foot, accompanied by HRID Mountaineering Club President Enko Dreshkovic and his brother, at Qaf Bogicivca, and enjoyed a stunning view of the Tri-Peak region between Montenegro, Albania and Kosovo in the Prokletja Mountains.

Montenegro & Kosovo border crosssing with PSK HRID – Photo Credit: IPPE / Megan Greeley


The expedition passed through shepherd villages, illegally clear cut and burned areas of forest, as well as small sustainable green roofed cabins in Milichev. Then they headed down into Peja to meet with local Kosovar partner ERAGroup and celebrated the opening of their Mountain Education Center for environmental education and youth leadership development. Lectures from Fatos Lacji and Ellen Frank Lajqi highlighted the dichotomy of challenges when you juxtapose environmental conservation efforts, and the urgent need for development to raise the basic standard of living. Their Board Member Burim Leci, from the Kosovar Ministry of Youth and Sport shared an emotional presentation on the traumatic events that led to Kosovo’s creation and independence. Through homestays with local families the students shared traditional meals and customs of hospitality.


Lake Komani Ferry, Albania – Photo Credit: IPPE / Megan Greeley


The expedition wound to a close down the curves of the Lake Komani gorge on a ferry ride, and the return to the University of Shkodra to wrap up final group video projectssharing the students’ insights on the tri-border expedition and exploring the prospects for a Peace Park in the Balkans.

Now experience the beauty and inspiration of the region for yourself in the video slideshow above, and leave your comments below.

During the upcoming 2012 Expedition, the University of Vermont and International Peace Park Expeditions will open up the expedition to include students from the Balkans region in addition to the American students, creating a stronger cross cultural exchange, as well as a unique learning opportunity for University students from both the U.S. and the Balkans. Follow this adventure as well, here on NatGeo NewsWatch.

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Meet the Author

Author Photo Saleem Ali
Saleem H. Ali is Blue and Gold Distinguished Professor of Energy and the Environment at the University of Delaware (USA) and a Professorial Research Fellow at the University of Queensland, Australia. He is also a Senior Fellow at Columbia University's Center on Sustainable Enterprise. Dr. Ali is a National Geographic Emerging Explorer for 2010 and World Economic Forum "Young Global Leader" (2011). His books include "Environmental Diplomacy" (with Lawrence Susskind, Oxford Univ. Press) and "Treasures of the Earth: Need, Greed and a Sustainable Future" (Yale University Press). He can be followed on Twitter @saleem_ali.