Western Balkans: The Fight for a Sustainable FutureLatest update November 7, 2018 Started on September 21, 2018
Developing regions worldwide are struggling to retain their identities while coping with the global surge in tourism. The western Balkans are on the front line of this battle.
Mass tourism is already transforming and degrading parts of Montenegro and Albania. Yet beautiful but impoverished rural areas in these countries actually need more visitors. Can residents there do tourism in a way that preserves the true soul of the Balkans?
Authentic experiences; that's the Western Balkans
Today in Montenegro, we traveled for an hour and a half by car from Plužine, a fantastic town that was flooded for a dam construction in the 70's and was reborn piece by piece, to Sokolina (Land of Falcons) and I found myself in nothingness and with myself.
We were inside an actual cloud, it was not fog, because we were 1500 meters from the sea. The forest was confused with the sky. There in Piva Mountains we literally arrived at The Little Paradise, the guesthouse of Dragan. This is really a true story about returning to sustainablity .
Dragan was born in 1961 in this falcon village. Looking forward for a "better life", his parents sent him to college. He studied political science and became a suit and tie man working in the Serbian Parliament. One day he had a cerebral stroke that luckily changed his life and he decided to leave his stressed life and move back to the mountain that saw him grow as a kid.
What does this have to do with sustainable tourism? What does this have to do with the sustainability of the Balkans? Everything.
The story of Dragan is one of many here in the Balkans, of people who went back to their roots to remember that life is what we only had once: organic food, clean air and the philosophy of going slowly to be happy. That is what makes the difference.
Mass tourism is far away from this awesome place in the mountains, 1000 meters up from Pivo River, that Dragan calls, "the paradise that made him heal".
And such as Dragan’s Paradise, sustainable tourism makes the land and our souls heal.
P.S. He makes a delicious potato and goat roast. And yes, everything was organic.
I had all the intentions of posting about Trebinje's challenges today, but while exploring sustainable tourism and looking for anthropological roots, we got invited into a 2 century year-old Ognjište made of stone and drank some homemade wine and distilled raki until late into the night with local villagers.
2,500 years of preserving, of sustaining: Subashi family.
Albania is simply authentic. Touring the country gives you the feeling of traveling through time. Its villages are small communities where people have the good habit of kindness and nobility, values that are not so common between the inhabitants of a 15-story apartment building. By any chance do you know the names of all your neighbors?
Not knowing your neighbors does not happen in the places we had the opportunity to explore in the Western Balkans. In fact Albania is a good example of the true meaning of the word community, which is: to put in common. The Albanians put people in common. They willl seek in every way to make a connection with you, they are people who want to recognize the thread that will unite them with you. This is how their conversation begins, and the thread they are weaving ends with a beautiful blanket of hospitality.
We saw this value with Silvana Subashi and her family’s olive oil processing company. Having preserved millenary olive fields, her business is one of the most magnificent examples of sustainability we visited. "You have to be proud of your origins to want to take care of them even In war, poverty and adversity. Each of these olive trees is a member of my family", Silvana tells us as we enter to her wonderful olive orchard, where the oldest tree is 2,500 years old.
Hey Cristina! What does this have to do with tourism? Local companies are one of the most important pillars for the conservation of tourism, Nancy Tare stated in Butrinty, because foreign investment can result in the displacement of local products that give the touch of authenticity to destinations.
As a conscious consumer that I am, it is unfortunate to find the same commercialized products, same shampoo, toothpaste, soda... in all the countries of the world. Cultural diversity, sustainability, and the authenticity of a place depends on the actions the locals generate.
Jack Delf moved from London to Montenegro with his wife and business partner fourteen years ago, after they fell in love with the Western Balkans. Together they founded a successful travel company in Montenegro which now works throughout the Western Balkans.
In 2005 he was looking for somewhere to set up an adventure travel company and recognized the incredible potential of this region, with its amazing landscapes, the best biodiversity in Europe, its unique cultural diversity and the genuine warmth and welcome of its people.
As a director of one of the first adventure travel companies in the region, most of Jack's early work involved training and supporting other small businesses, local entrepreneurs, and community associations to create and supply travel experiences for his guests.
Now that his company is established he spends the majority of his time as a sustainable tourism consultant for USAID, the Adventure Travel Trade Association, the United National Development Program and others, helping to protect destinations which face the challenge of developing sustainable tourism in competition with pressures from mass tourism.
I believe that big tourism is an incredibly destructive industry that puts profit before people and causes a great deal of harm. What concerns me most is that 'big tourism' seems to promise so much to host communities but in reality the people who live in these beautiful destinations risk losing everything, their culture, the natural beauty of their surroundings, ownership and even access to the places where they have always lived. Look at developed destinations, all the best places are now foreign owned. Large scale resort developments usually bring a small return to local people and also often destroy the very things that we travel for. Local communities are lost. I've always been a passionate traveler and it breaks my heart to go back to places that have now been built over with hotels, parking lots and gas stations. The essence of these places, the things which once made them amazing are often lost forever. I don't want to see that happen to the Western Balkans.
Watch the video below and hear from Jack about the challenges of developing sustainable tourism that values the protection of the nature and culture of this incredible region while benefitting the the local communities; the classic definition of geotourism.
Butrint, the city of desire.
Butrint is strictly attached to greek mythology, its historic legacy was written by Dionysius of Halicarnassus, historian and renowned writer of the greek origins of Rome. In his work, he tells that Aeneas, trojan warrior, father of Romulus and Remus crosses paths with Andromache, Hector of Troy’s spouse, after the war of Troy. This is one of the first written mentions of Buthrotum (Butrint) in history and with this specific story, it may be possibly founded by trojan war exiled.
The archeology of the ancestral city, evidently depicts the legacy of past cultures: greeks, romans, byzantines, venetians, turks, french and ottomans who foresaw in Butrint a strategic site for their expansion affairs. Kings, conquerors, prince’s, thinkers, archeologists and historians have found in this city vestiges of the conformation of human history. A legacy of humanity, that is Butrint. It was until 1927 that the greatness of this place remained hidden. Its archaeological finding started in hands of the Italian Archaeological Mission Camp. This enterprise traced the excavation of what would become one of Albania’s most ancient settlements. The official works started in 1928, nonetheless, as the archaeological work never concluded, it is thought that what we see today may be probably a fifth part of what still is beneath undergrowth.
Butrint is today an architectural complex of fifteen areas from different periods that go from the 4th century BC to the 16th century BC. The historical relevance of Butrint is overwhelming and being able to walk in it is a privilege: white stone statues of Octavian Augustus, Agrippa, Antioh, Serapis, Livia Drusila were once erected, as well as the high birthplace of citizens in different times or of Roman generals during the splendor of the empire when the city was called Colonia Augusta Buthrotum.
In addition to its historical splendor, Butrint is a paradisiacal home for the 800 species of plants, 246 species of birds, 105 species of fish and 39 of mammals. What happens then when this cultural heritage of humanity meets tourism? The first four paragraphs in which I have described it make this a city of desire. That is the real problem. Thousands of people want it and this is not entirely favorable. "On average Butrint receives around 300,000 people a year", says Auron Tare with awe to the camera.
It is a large number. It sounds like a good figure for turistic management purposes. It seems to be also an attractive business for private tours of 47 Euros per person. However, the consequences of this number and activity may seem okay in the short term: income and jobs for the region. But the reality is that during the 4 hours that the regular tour around Butrint lasts, it is unlikely to assess its historical and nature relevance. 300,000 people per year are equivalent to 50,000 walking feet per month in an extremely delicate archaeological site. "The experience can not exist if so many people, organised or not, seek to see something", says Auron Tare while a large American group was about to enter Butrint’s theater.
"It is a challenge, it really is, sometimes it is thought that increasing fees is the best so that few can access these places. But is it fair? If the majority of the citizens of a country could not pay the fare to enter and know their origins, their history" ... I agree with Auron’s punctual and eloquent words he ironically answered to the large American group when they gave some feedback on the matter.
The sustainability of the Western Balkans is put at stake not by the management of the destination or the behavior of their government or the income that tourism provides, no. Nor can we condemn the traveling tourist who wants to vaguely know everything in a hurry because he only has eight days for a vacation; the problem is in the background. We have been taught that more is better: therefore more places, more things, more experiences, more hotels, more temples, archaeological sites, monasteries, bridges. What we bring back home is the photo opportunity, not the real history of what they lived.
I invite you to approach how you travel critically because the sustainability of a destination depends on slow tourism in all aspects. It requires and will rely on the conscious traveler.
The true meaning of sustainability: involving locals
"Planning for the sustainability for the next 3,000 years, that’s the challenge we have for those who are dedicated to tourism, but how to start." - Nancy Tare
There are different macro factors that we must take into account when thinking about opening a site for tourism: the speed with which technology advances, the environment and its conservation, and the globalization that reaches us and makes us homogeneous in many ways. The latter, globalization is really important and a tricky one because if there’s nothing that makes us different, we can not preserve the cultural or natural identity of a place, and everything ends up being the same.
We came up with this reflection while we were walking through Butrint with Nancy Tare, Regional Director for Albania of the Western Balkans Geotourism Network "Tourists start a journey because they want to know how life is in another place", she affirms to the camera. So to be able to think about the sustainability of a place you must first have "something" unique to preserve. If what we see in every destination is gray color, what is the point in looking for some contrast?
That's why Nancy says the most important thing for the creation of a sustainable tourism management plan relies in the local people. "They are the only ones who can give sustainability its true meaning, they are only ones that can preserve what is theirs", Nancy tells us as we end the tour around the complex.
"So simple is that you can see ruins in this place, but a local, a local must see its history, feel proud of it and want to preserve it forever", Nancy's words echo and return us to Nivicë where their locals are people who love their land and feel proud of their landscapes, goats, gastronomy, culture, traditions, home, the raki they produce, and their morning coffee.
This is Nancy's reflection. The sustainability of the Balkans will depend to a large extent on the strength with which the locals see in their cultural traditions and natural blessing the true ancestral value that they represent so as not to change it for a souvenir made in China for the cost of a Euro.
Auron Tare's definition of sustainable tourism.
We have been here for several days and today, after having traveled with Auron the Director of Project Nivica, we openly and frankly asked in front of the camera, what is the sustainability of a destination for you? "Sustainability is to preserve the essence that made a place relevant over time", he responds while making us think about all the tourist destinations that have lost their authenticity; the ones that have welcoming protocols for tourists. The ones that have converted their culture into a show and that have, unfortunately, achieved for its popularity to be an impossible place to be inhabited by the locals. Auron continues explaining that in order to achieve sustainability, the following five elements are needed: leadership, vision, passion, commitment and a lot of patience. To reeducate is complicated when people only want to make quick money with tourism. Quick money. That concept leaps into our ears. Greed and despair are two medular factors that can destroy any tourist destination. These two anti-values lead to corruption and envy, and what was once unique is vitiated by the most negligent attitudes of modern and "developed" society. The theory that Auron proposes sounds challenging. It is clear that the model village of Nivicë has been thought, studied and designed with care to preserve the culture, history and nature of the region, but the only ones that will be able to overcome this challenge are the locals who will protect it.
Sarandë and several hypotheses.
"I can give you tours of how you successfully ruin a town"... - Auron Tare.
When entering the city, Auron tells us it "only took twenty years for urbanization to destroy the villas of the port of Sarandë". It’s a fact. When thinking of the mediterranean Albania, the classical architectural beauty of the place has been lost. The white stone has been transformed into multicolor buildings of no particular aesthetics nor style. It’s as if a huge wave of unplanned development hit Sarandë and washed away its past.
The following day, while having breakfast at the downtown hotel, the industrial butter packets were an emotional shock while we remembered the taste of Dyshe’s home made butter in Nivicë. The following question crossed our minds: how can the soul of a place be lost?
We came up with several hypotheses: ignorance, corruption, greed, lack of planning or simply the regular customer’s unconscious wish for having a non-regional product for breakfast….No, it’s not sustainable to import those types of products for the banal desires of its mouth. The list can continue, but if any of these hypothesis are presented, the sustainability of a destination may disappear into the common noises of a city.
The sustainability of South Albania: Project Nivica, a look towards the future.
Albania is in a crucial economic and political moment in which it is learning to establish a capitalist economy and a democratic political system. For this reason, this small and unique country is pursuing sustainability through two means; the first is a route for travelers in southern Albania and the second is an agrotourism model in northern Albania.
This entry will focus on explaining the route in the south. For this I will quote Jonathan Tourtellot, a National Geographic Explorer: a world with tourism tends to be more peaceful than one without it. You are less likely to throw bombs in a place where you have had a nice vacation. I quote him because it’s so accurate. People do not hurt what they love, they treat it with care and seek to preserve it. This seems to be the central bet of the Nivica Project, where they’ve placed various elements in the tourist equation seeking to unleash emotions in travelers crossing a route composed of eleven villages in southern Albania.
Travelers can start anywhere along the route. The 22 villages have no connection with each other, they only share one geography, Auron tells us while pointing to a map that explains the location of the villages between Gjirokaster, Maja e Këndrevices and Leskovik. These villages will really work as stations, so that travelers who are making their way through the area can have an authentic approach to local lifestyles. Nivicë is the model village and the first of the project. The Management Plan of the area is being created with Auron Tare leading the direction of the project. Some of the villages are under reconstruction and are a true archeological gem for those of us who love history. Moving slowly and with caution is without the most important goal so that the developing guidelines created to protect culture, society and economy will enjoy a natural balance moving forward.
The reconstruction plan of Nivicë is the beginning but each of the villages: Qeparo, Borsh, Kuedhës, Çorraj, Kuç, Gusmar, Proganat, Lekdush, Bënç, Tepelenë, Dragoti, Peshtan, Leskaj, Dëshinicë, Hoshteva, Konckë, Nivani, Sheper, Poliçan, Skore, Sopik along with Nivicë will have their own growth model that seeks to protect the history and culture of Albania from the accelerated development that comes with mass tourism.
By 2018, the roads are already set to be traveled by hiking, biking or horseback riding, I do not list motorbiking or similar motorized means because it would really ruin the silence or the history of the landscapes. There are a few inns currently for sleeping or camping but the habilitation of the project will progress slowly and consciously in the next years.
When walking the route you will be able to see dramatic changes in the landscape every seven or eight kilometers. Touring the 22 villages would take a minimum of five days, says Auron. But after experiencing a little bit of this route we could say that you must travel with the local avash, avash philosophy, going slowly, slowly through each area to really be able to live it.
Faced with many challenges, let's see what the future holds for the south of Albania. They are like a white canvas waiting to be painted and that gives them the advantage of starting with the purity that other destinations have already lost. The most notable challenges they face are the recovery of natural spaces, tackling sensitive, social issues such as greed, or the problems that tourism brings with waste management and use of resources.
In the video you will see a historic day for Nivicë, October 12, 2018, that started midday where villagers gathered and discussed for the first time the future for their village with tourism.
We will have to wait some years to know the results of the promises we make to the future today, and carry the hope for travelers to visit with consciousness and moral values to safeguard this tourism model.
A traveler is not a tourist, a traveler starts a journey and keeps a knowledge journal. The tourist drinks beer on the beach. - Auron Tare.
Sustainable tourism is slow, a lesson by Arturo.
In order to generate sustainable tourism, the proposal of South Albania is to create routes or trails between different villages that can be traveled by various means. We prefer hiking and walked a few kilometers on the road between Kuç, Nivicë, Gusmar and Progranat.
On the way, Auron told us that "an important part of developing tourism in South Albania was to create roads". Auron refers to "creating roads" in two ways, the literal and the metaphorical. The literal is on a physical plane. "A few years ago, many of the roads were not accessible, we had to create the trails along with the army so that people could connect between villages and walk the mountains in a simpler way", said Auron, breaking the silence that comes with the beautiful landscape.
The Western Balkans now have trail markings that signal international standards and guide travelers to appreciate places of scenic, cultural and social interest. In South Albania we were guided on the road by yellow signs indicating how many kilometers away we were from the next village, and every so often the follow-up white and red stroke signaling we were headed the right way.
On our short route, we met Arturo. While shepherding his 250 goats he spoke to us in fluent Italian that we were able to understand since we speak Spanish. While we listened, we gazed at the sun rays that moved among the clouds in secrecy. We understood that the true value of traveling is in these trails or ‘roads’ that can bring travelers a slow, quiet and unhurried tourism. It was here, far from the masses and the on-schedule tours, and closer to the soul of Albania where we began to appreciate the rhythm of the orchestrated bells of Arturo’s herd. Another incredible way to travel these paths is by horseback. Auron talks about it in the next video.
A personal perspective of the soul of Nivicë.
The Nivica Project houses two small villages in Albania that seek the connection of other sites with the country, the settlements are: Nivicë and Rexhina. To talk about these places there must be an explanation of history, orography, climates, fauna, flora and sublime landscapes. This is because Nivicë is located in the Kurvelesh region, which is part of the Mali I Gribë mountain range, one of the highest peaks of these southern mountains.
The mountains provide a magic to everyday life in Nivicë: "Awakening in this place is to return to the past, to the origins of humanity, regardless of nationality, skin color or language, Nivicë invites you to return to the past." - Petrit, local villager (Translated to English by Vilson, one of our guides).
How is the current sustainability of this place? The hours are long and pleasant in Nivicë. Its inhabitants get up early to milk cows, make dairy products, bake bread, distill a local beverage made out of grapes called Raki and prepare the meals of the day. "Everything is organic, everything is homemade, there are no pesticides." – Dyshe, local villager. (Translated to English by Vilson)
The families here are self-sufficient. In the same yard the vegetables grow and the chickens, cows and goats live. This is how they show us that nothing else is necessary. No supermarket, pharmacy nor stores are nearby, "no, there's nothing like that until Tepelenë that is about an hour and a half away" - Vilson, guide.
And everything is fine without the "comforts" of today's world? No, it's more than good, it's perfect. The inhabitants of Nivicë are the clear example that quality of life comes with tranquility, peace and dedication to the care of their land.
A traveler can preserve this by embracing local culture that is lived, "It is important to conduct yourself in Nivicë understanding that money is not the currency of exchange. If a villager invites you to his house, you must give something of yourself to him, of your region. This is how it has worked for centuries, we do not to want to alter it", Auron Tare, Nivica Project’s Director, tells me after an invaluable approach I had with the residents Dyshe and Petrit.
When an elderly woman invited me to her house, she received me with sweets, drinks and hugs. I could understand through her eyes that it was not necessary for me to speak her language or for her to understand my words. We were united by human kindness.
The soul of Nivicë is found in its people, in the traditions and care that they have towards the land that saw them born and today take cares for them. If you ever come, do not forget this, please respect and embrace it´s simplicity.
Dyshe and Petrit`s Bed and Breakfast is named “House on Canyon” and you can find it www.guesthousecanyon.al
Dallendyshe and Petrit Merjo owned a home in Nivicë but moved away in the early 1990's when the village was abandoned. Though they still owned their home in Nivicë, they lived in a town called Vlorë. In 2017 when Auron Tare started the Nivicë project, he approached them with the new plan of renovating Nivicë and the idea of Dallendyshe and Petrit returning to open a B & B. Auron spoke with them about the benefits of tourism and small business. Though they were scared in the beginning, they believed in the opportunity.
Auron helped them to receive basic training of running a B&B, were taken to see how other guest houses were run around the country, and did light renovation on their home which they now call 'Mejro House on the Canyon' where guests would be staying.
Now, they love that they are able to live back in their home and village in the mountains where it is quiet and peaceful. They are a model of sustainability making their own bread, butter and cooking with vegetables from their garden behind their home along the cliff's edge.
Meet Dallendyshe and Petrit Merjo in the video below and fall in love with them like we have.
South Albania’s first village for a new, sustainable model
Which is the most forgotten place you know? Where were you the last time you were only astonishingly surrounded by silence? When was the last time you took a breath of clean air? Which place makes you feel humble with it’s vast history? For Auron Tare, all these questions have a single answer: Nivicë, Albania.
I sincerely don't know if we are doing good or bad in the attempt of making Nivicë our pilot village for the tourism model we want to create, he repeated several times off camera. We truly understand his concern. In the few days we stayed in this small village, that has no more than 50 families spread around the town square and countryside, we fell in love with the fragile authenticity and pureness of Nivicë.
Its silence is as deep as the canyons that protect the village. It is a place that connects you with your inner self. Maybe it's the Sacred Oaks Temple that protects it from the other side of the canyon, or the starry sky that embraces Nivicë with peacefulness. It shouldn’t be just the landscape that attracts travelers. Here the paths connect with ancient culture’s history, Auron told us while walking towards an apple orchard that was planted during the 1960’s communist period and today feeds free, wild horses.
Nivicë is the new sustainable tourism promise for the South of Albania. The goal that Auron is looking forward to, along with the local people and the Government of Tepelenë (the province in which Nivicë is located) is to connect the coast of Albania with mountain villages like Nivicë that have remained forgotten due to the political circumstances that Albania went through in recent past.
With the aid of universities in Europe, the vernacular architecture of the area was researched and the town’s square was rebuilt with a total 5,000 square meters of white stone that will attend the basic needs and services for the travelers that can arrive by trekking or horse riding.
A great merit was to maintain the school within the town square’s perimeter. With this action the kids will get to know that its small village promises to be a successful model to the world where travelers like us will cross thousands of miles just to experience it. A final long-term hope is to decrease the migration problem of people leaving Albania to live elsewhere that is latent to the region. The number increased to 1.5 million Albanians in 2010 estimated by the Pew Research Center’s Forum. Here is the link for the study’s methodology
The model of Nivicë is planned to start operating within the next few years. By slowly moving forward, it will involve the locals in order to preserve inherent methods of food preparation, architecture and traditions. One of the most important challenges is to remind the villagers that they have an exceptional place that has amazing value. If one day investors come with the will to buy the land, at least there will be a management plan that they will need to attend first. But our hope is in making the locals so proud of their village that their land will always stay with them, says Auron while Bora, his Labrador, goes back to the stones she’s been playing with during our interviews in the square.
The Sacred Oaks "Temple"
The area where we're traveling was called the Epirus region in ancient times. We're less than 100 kilometers away from the Acheron River which extends along the border of southern Albania border and northwestern Greece. In ancient Greek mythology, Acheron was known as the "river of woe", and was one of the five rivers of the Greek underworld. Charon or Kharon was the ferryman of Hades who carried souls of the newly deceased across the Acheron river that divided the world of the living from the world of the dead.
Nivicë, the small, mountainous village where we're staying is full of ancient beliefs which even Christianity and Islam have not managed to wash away or destroy completely. People in this region still believe in the evil eye, fairies, thunder, and the sacred oaks. It's not witchcraft but an ancient belief the people here still hang on to today.
Listen to Auron's words ...
The start of our expedition What does Auron Tare have to say?
After a drive from the busy streets of Tirana, we reached the mountain region of the south, not far from the coastline. We journeyed through beautiful landscape touched by history along the way. After crossing river Vjosa (Ancient Aoss), the only free river in Europe, we entered the remote mountain region, passing goat and sheep herds with bells making music along the hillsides. We arrived late into the small, once abandoned village of Nivicë.
The Nivicë project for Auron Tare, project coordinator, this is a personal endeavor, passion, and challenge to create a model for sustainable tourism. Click the video to hear from Auron himself.
Keep watching our exploration into ancient trails bringing new life to southern Albania.
Hi World! 🌎
Here we are, three explorers wanting to understand three countries and one objective: their sustainability.
We’re not sure what we’ll see but what we‘re sure about is with this minimal gear we'll maximize our efforts.
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The global surge in tourism growth is so out of control in places that it has spawned a new term: overtourism. In the western Balkans, natural, historic, and cultural sites are now at risk from unconstrained, insensitive development. The coastlines of Montenegro and Albania are already succumbing to crass commercialization. World Heritage sites like the Greco-Roman ruins of Butrint, Albania, must contend with swelling, uncontrolled numbers of sightseers.
Yet tourism, if done well, has much to offer both residents and visitors in these countries. Well-managed tourism can help fund preservation and conservation of World Heritage sites, even cultural landscapes. Struggling rural places such as Nivica, Albania, want the kind of tourism that’s responsible, educational, and mutually beneficial.
I’m a video producer who’s been exploring and telling stories of people working to protect the planet since 2007. Teaming up with Jonathan Tourtellot, originator of the geotourism approach and director of the Destination Stewardship Center, I work to share inspiring stories of people working to protect their nature, culture and heritage around the world. Geotourism as defined via National Geographic refers to “tourism that sustains or enhances the geographical character of a place.”
Our expedition in the western Balkans seeks to find out and video what’s working and what isn’t—the places that are lost, the ones that are threatened, and those where tourism offers opportunity. In Albania, Montenegro, Bosnia and possibly Kosovo, we’ll interview the heroes who fight to keep these places authentic and make tourism constructive, not destructive.
Our research goal: Find out whether they can help save unspoiled areas of the western Balkans before it’s too late.
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