Interview by the SPP on the International Agreement for the Protection and Sustainable Development of the Prespa Park

On Tuesday 4th October the final approval of the ‘International Agreement for the Protection and Sustainable Development of the Prespa Park’ by the EU Council of Ministers was published in the Official Journal of the European Union (EU). We took this opportunity and interviewed Vivi Roumeliotou, Coordinator of Policy and Sustainable Development sector from the Society for the Protection of Prespa (SPP)  on the meaning of this development and other issues.

1. Why is the final approval of the International Agreement for the Protection and Sustainable Development of the Prespa Park by the EU Council of Ministers important? What does it mean on a practical level?

The Prespa Park is the first transboundary protected area in the Balkans. It was established in February 2000 with a joint Declaration by the Prime Ministers of Greece, Albania and FYRoM, following a proposal from the Society for the Protection of Prespa (SPP) and WWF Greece. Nevertheless, despite the progress achieved in the past 10 years, the lack of a binding formal commitment by the states concerned hindered the process. The signing of the “International Agreement for the Protection and Sustainable Development of the Prespa Park Area” on the 2nd of February 2010 came to fill that gap as it signalled the formal engagement of the three states, sharing the Prespa basin, as well as the active involvement of the EU.

Nevertheless, until today the agreement remains inactive as the required ratification process by the EU and the three states has proved to be a labyrinth of bureaucracy. Final endorsement by the European Union signals the unanimous resolution of EU institutions to actively support the Prespa Park collaboration process and gives the three countries the ‘green light’ to rapidly begin and conclude ratification process at the national level. More specifically, the Agreement must now be ratified by the national parliaments, in order to clear the way for the comprehensive commitment of all parties and finally bring its provisions into full effect.

It is important to stress that this Agreement is a ‘key’ to the institutional problems which stalled the cooperation so far, since upon its entry into force the three states will be legally bound to establish permanent structures for collaboration in order to develop joint strategies and implement agreed measures for both the protection of the natural environment and the linked human activities, such as farming, fishing, tourism and infrastructure development, in the region.

2. How has the SPP been involved in the establishment of a Prespa Transboundary park?

The involvement of SPP in the establishment of the Transboundary Prespa Park in 2000 and in the years that followed, until the signing of the International Agreement in 2010, has been catalytic.  The Prespa Park was established in 2000 Signing of the Prespa Park Agreement by the three Ministers on 2nd February 2010 (Photo credit: L. Nikolaou, SPP) with a Declaration by the Prime Ministers of the three countries sharing the Prespa basin, following a proposal from the SPP and WWF Greece. Since then, the SPP has been supporting the work of the interim Prespa Park Coordination Committee (PPCC), the informal body that was set up to test the feasibility of transboundary collaboration in the basin. Indeed, the SPP has served as a member of the PPCC, has hosted the Secretariat of the Prespa Park in its premises in Agios Germanos and has also been the main funding body of the Secretariat.

Most importantly – beyond the institutional and operational support of the PPCC – the SPP has contributed in maintaining the momentum of cooperation and in translating the high level statements into action on the ground. This has been realised through the preparation of a Strategic Action Plan for the Sustainable development of the Prespa Park early on in the early ‘00s, which for the first time formulated a shared common vision for the future of the region and through the promotion of the transboundary approach on various issues, notably water management, and therefore the development and implementation of several projects on the transboundary level, in collaboration with partners from Albania and FYRoM.

3. What are your current priorities concerning the Transboundary Prespa Park?

SPP’s current priorities are manifold: At the institutional level, we wish to see the rapid ratification of the Prespa Park 2010 Agreement and the launching of the new formal collaborative institutions; most important among them, in our view, are the Prespa Park Management Committee, to be composed by representatives of the Ministries of Environment, of local authorities, of protected area authorities, of environmental NGOs, and of the EU Commission, with Ramsar/ Medwet as a permanent observer, and the standing Working Group on Water Management, to be composed by representatives of the water authorities of the three countries and the EU Commission’s Water Unit.

At the practical level, water is again a top priority, as it is the most influential natural element and resource that unifies the basin and faces a series of challenges that can only be effectively addressed through interstate collaboration. Water needs to be monitored in the Prespa Park in an agreed and coordinated way by all three countries and the data that will result from this exercise to be used as the basis for joint decisions and actions. The SPP, together with a large number of bodies and scientists from all three states and other European experts, has invested considerable resources and effort in the last four years to develop a transboundary monitoring system, not only for water, but also for all the significant elements of biodiversity and human activities in Prespa. This transboundary monitoring system needs to be urgently implemented in practice, if one wishes to see any meaningful results of transboundary cooperation in the near future. Without a common understanding of what we share here and what the status of our resources is, there can never be any meaningful joint decision on how to better preserve and manage these resources.

4. According to the SPP, what would be the best case scenario for the management of the Prespa Lakes so as to ensure a better protection of nature and the people of the area?

The best case scenario, or, in other words, our vision, for the future of environmental management in the Prespa Park area would certainly be a permanent working system of cross-border dialogue, cooperation and action, with the participation of competent authorities and all interested stakeholders, for every issue that goes beyond limited local/ national concern. This does not guarantee any ‘quick fixes’ to environmental problems or an immediate improvement in living and working conditions in the basin but it is the only approach, according to our standpoint, that would actually guarantee these in the long term.