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Layers, Linkages and Lines: Environmental Peacebuilding in the Balkans

Guest Blog on observations and insights during a field expedition and course on “Conservation Beyond Borders” in the border regions between Albania, Montenegro and Kosovo, summer 2012. By Dr. Anna Grichting, Senior Fellow at Institute for Environmental Diplomacy and Security, University of Vermont. Assistant Professor, Department of Architecture and Urban Planning, Qatar University Layers, Linkages...

Guest Blog on observations and insights during a field expedition and course on “Conservation Beyond Borders” in the border regions between Albania, Montenegro and Kosovo, summer 2012.

By Dr. Anna Grichting, Senior Fellow at Institute for Environmental Diplomacy and Security, University of Vermont. Assistant Professor, Department of Architecture and Urban Planning, Qatar University

Layers, Linkages and Lines. Balkans International Peace Parks Expedition 2012 from Anna Grichting on Vimeo.


Experiencing the preparation of Flija, a traditional and ancient recipe from the Rugova Valley in Kosovo, one observes the adding of layer upon layer of dough (batter) in a circular motion, placed like the petals of a flower. This form and motion of manufacturing ensures that the previously cooked layer appears through the newly poured raw batter. Interspersed with butter and milk solids, each layer is cooked separately from the top down with a large metal lid that is heated over an open fire and placed on the circular pan slowly  browning and maturing the culinary landscape.

A multilayered mountain version of “Slow Food” – a culinary movement that advocates for food that is grown, prepared and eaten in a healthy, organic and mindful way – the Flija takes around four hours of constant motions – between adding layers, tending to the fire and heating the cooking lid. This unique and authentic experience during the first days of the Balkans Peace Park Expedition 2012 can be seen as a metaphor that evokes the many layers of the landscapes that compose the mountains of the Prokletije region, that is, the geological, ecological, social and cultural strata that narrate the eras of history, the cycles of the seasons and the eternal rising and setting of the sun – alternately baking the earth and melting the snow.

Aside the historic civilizations, like the Romans and Ottomans, who united and divided territories, established religions and built mountain passes and trade routes across the lands, the more recent layers of the Prokletije mountain ranges – which spans Kosovo, Montenegro and Albania – has been one of conflict, following the dismantling of Yugoslavia after the fall of the Iron Curtain. In the margins of these mountains, cultures, religions, ecologies and livelihoods are mingled and connected, yet national borders separate the communities and nationalism and conflicts were played out in these strategic and peripheral locations.

It is precisely this heritage of conflict that has given birth to the idea of a Transboundary Peace Park in the region. Initially conceptualized by an English NGO, the B3P  Balkans Peace Park Project between Kosovo, Albania and Montenegro is now becoming a reality on the ground, with the engagement of a number of a number of local NGOs and a group of passionate and informed personalities. An in depth case study on the evolution of the project has recently been published on the website of the Institute of Environmental Diplomacy and Security.

The Balkans Peace Park Academic Expedition, – led by Anna Grichting, Senior Fellow at the University of Vermont’s Institute for Environmental Diplomacy and Security and Assistant Professor of Architecture and Urban Planning at Qatar University, and Todd Walters, Director of the International Peace Parks Expedition – gave a group of eight graduate and undergraduate students from the University of Vermont and the American University of Washington the opportunity to study and experience the multiple layers of these complex landscapes and to encounter the key personalities driving the establishment of national parks and transboundary collaboration, in view of softening the national borders and strengthening environmental cooperation and conservation.


Walking across the borders between the three countries of this one mountain range gives the students a deep understanding of the cultures and concerns that tie the communities together, as well as the rifts and differences that distinguish them. It also underscores that the borders do not necessarily divide languages, religions and cultures but do divide and create nations which are administered by centralized states. There are also different scales and functions of borders and they are necessary to define and administer any form of territory, be it the boundaries of a proposed or existing national park or the fences that separate the mountain pastures belonging to the different farms.

The materialization of these borders takes different forms, from the beautifully crafted pasture fences to the intermittent boundary stones of the national borders. Various military infrastructures also announce and delineate the margins of the national border zones, areas which were formerly under high surveillance, especially those surrounding the Albanian border. This was a very tightly secured border, whereas the border between Kosovo and Montenegro is a newly established national border, since Kosovo’s independence from Serbia in 2008.

The trails and paths that form the network of physical communications in the Prokletia Mountains are lines of communication and memory. While walking towards the border from Kosovo to Montenegro at the Hajla Peak, we were informed by our Kosovo guide, Bardi, that we were walking a trail that had been used to carry guns and ammunitions to the Kosovo Freedom Fighters who were fighting against the Serbian army on the border. Our Montenegrian guide, Zuko, on the way down from the Hajla Ridge, also indicated a line in the landscape below between two mountains which represented the path along which refugees fled from Kosovo into Montenegro, an area which was intensively land-mined and closely controlled by the Serbian Army.

In Kosovo, on our way up to Hajla Peak,  we stopped by abandoned shepherds huts along the route that had been burned by the Serbs and now lay derelict in the landscape. On our way down into Montenegro, we also encountered abandoned shepherds huts, but these had been abandoned by the change of economies and livelihoods in the area, resulting in a re-colonization of wild nature in the former sheep pastures. A charming fairy-like landscape re-emerged after the intensive grazing by the sheep, around an abandoned magic fountain where the moss was no longer trampled by hooves or human feet.


Transboundary linkages are formed through both material and immaterial modes, through the physical communications and transport networks, as well as by means of exchange of information and collaboration on ecological, environmental and economic issues. The idea of the Balkans Peace Park is to connect the three existing or proposed national parks in Montenegro, Albania and Kosovo with the overarching concept that this will soften the national borders and the obstacles to cooperation and will enable the implementation of a well defined and well managed ecological region which will both protect nature and create livelihoods for the populations living there.

Transboundary networks, created through ecotourism, transport, nature trail linkages, historical sites and other ares of common interest are today enhanced by the Internet, mobile phones and GPS. Accessibility is a key issue, but building tarmacked road is not always the best solution for ecotourism. The students experienced many modes of transport, including walking and hiking, boat cruises, tractor rides, transformed military vehicles, horses (to transport the back-packs) and four-wheel drive vehicles.

One important and unique initiative in the Prokletje Region is the creation of a network of mountain cabins and ecotourism accommodations. Students were able to observe and experience a number of accommodations which were the result of a remarkable effort and engagement on behalf of the local NGOs and their partners, who in many cases invested their time, efforts and labor to build the cabins and eco-villages.

For example, the Hajla Mountain cabin in Montenegro was built by Zuko our guide and his family and members of the mountaineering club. Enko, the new director of the Prokletje National Park in Montenegro built the Eco-village with volunteers. Over the past few years Fatos Lacji, Executive Director of ERA Group, has spearheaded the movement to invest in the construction of mountain cabins throughout the Rugova region.  Each cabin, planned and designed by Mr. Lacji, is constructed by joint efforts between friends, family, local citizens, and ERA volunteers. These projects have become the foundation of ERA’s efforts to promote ecotourism and to renew interest among local citizens in experiencing Kosovo’s natural heritage.

Environmental Peace Building: An Academic and Experiential Expedition.

In this type of experiential academic course, the classroom is everywhere – in a field, beside a waterfall, on the edge of a lake, on the summit of a mountain, around an open fire, in an archeological site or even in a boat. The course included lectures by the instructors, guest lectures from experts, practitioners and professionals within diverse fields – addressing issues of sustainable forestry management, biodiversity surveys, ecotourism plans, development and infrastructure planning, environmental conservation, water resource management, peace-building initiatives and cross-border projects.

Part of the students assignments were journal entries in which students reflected on a number of themes: their changing perspectives, while experiencing the borders, what transcending boundaries means to them, different modes of collecting information and the importance of conversation, the transformations of the family structure, the importance of leadership and the approaches to reading a territory.

The overall course objective was to give students an overview of the dynamics involved in creating and managing an International Peace Park.  That, plus a strong understanding of the multi-disciplinary issues that converge in International Peace Parks and a working recognition of the interplay between local communities, broader culture, international development, environmental conservation and peace-building initiatives. These were attained through the readings and lectures, as well as by the experiences of traditional village life through home-stays and the discussions and interactions with various actors and stakeholders involved in the environmental conservation and peace-building. International case studies on the Cyprus Green Line, the Korea DMZ and Lake Titicaca between Peru and Bolivia were also included to broaden the vision and approach to the subject.


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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.