April 28, 2020
Author: Frosina Pandurska-Dramikjanin, Macedonian Ecological Society
Shar Planina is situated in the furthest north-western part of the Republic of North Macedonia and extends into the adjacent territories of Albania and Kosovo. As part of the Balkan Green Belt, it is an area with exceptionally high biodiversity, represented by a large number of endemic, rare and relict plants, animals and fungi. Shar Planina also possesses valuable cultural heritage reflected in the specific landscape formed for millennia by traditional forms of land use. It is expected that the initiative for proclamation of Shar Planina as a national park, launched in 1999, will finally reach its goal in 2020 as a result of joint efforts, work and devotion of both local and international organizations along with the continuous involvement of the Government and Ministry of Environment and physical planning.
At the same time, Shar Planina is under strong anthropogenic pressure resulting in depletion of its natural resources and gradual degradation of biodiversity and its characteristic landscape. The Shar Planina mountain range is an outstanding part of Macedonia’s natural heritage. It is one of the largest and highest mountain ranges on the Balkan Peninsula, reaching an altitude of 2,747 m on Titov Vrv. The mountain range is characterized by an extraordinary variety of geological formations and habitat types ranging from alpine calcareous grasslands and glacial lakes at high altitudes to karst rocks and large contiguous beech forest at lower elevations.
In addition, large and unfragmented forest areas still provide habitat for species like brown bear, wolf and lynx that are protected under European conventions Bern Convention and EU Habitats Directive, as well as under national law.
Shar Planina also functions as an important freshwater reservoir providing a constant flow of clean water for larger human settlements (e.g. Gostivar, Tetovo) located in the foothills of the mountain.
Proclamation process in North Macedonia
The initiative for proclamation of Shar Planina as national park in the Macedonian part has come a long way since its onset back in 1999. In the recent period, a draft law for proclaiming a part of Shar Planina as national park was motioned in the Macedonian Parliament, but it was never put on the agenda.
Based on individual public feedback given during the activities in the region until 2015, it is assumed that the initiative failed because the locals felt insufficiently involved and informed about the procedure and thus opposed the official proclamation.
Being aware of the paramount importance of Shar Planina as part of the Macedonian natural heritage, the Ministry of Environment and Physical Planning placed the proclamation of Shar Planina as national park of high national priority in the National Biodiversity Strategy and Action Plan in 2003.
A study about the economic values of Shar Planina conducted in 2010 by the Macedonian Ecological Society and the Ministry showed that the majority of the local population was aware of the area’s natural values and its importance for the provision of natural resources. The study also indicated that most local people were in favour of protecting Shar Planina in North Macedonia. 61% of the respondents even declared their readiness to pay a small amount from their family budget (average EUR 4.5 per month) for safeguarding nature.
In February 2015, three months before the official formation of the local action group Friends of Shara, the Government reviewed the information for the procedure for declaring a part of Shar Planina as national park and instructed the Ministry to secure funds from domestic or international donors for preparation of a valorization study of the natural values of Shar Planina in North Macedonia.
In parallel, many other initiatives for protecting Shar Planina took place at local, national and international level by different non-governmental organizations. Besides Macedonian Ecological Society and EuroNatur, other prominent organizations took part in the initiative including UNEP, Plantlife International, The German Federal Environmental Foundation (Deutsche Bundesstiftung Umwelt – DBU), Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ) GmbH, Regional Rural Development Standing Working Group, as well as some individuals and state faculties in North Macedonia.
Current actions for proclamation of Shar Planina as a national park are implemented under an UN Environment project funded by the Global Environment Facility, in the scope of which the study on the valorisation of the natural values of Shar Planina in Macedonia was finalized and in process of adoption from the Government.
This will be followed by a preparation of draft law for proclamation of a national park which the Ministry, with the complete documentation, will send to the Government. The process then is expected to be in its final stage of the procedure – voting in the Parliament of Republic of North Macedonia. According to the law, the national park will be managed by a public enterprise formed for this purpose.
Friends of Shara – local civic movement that represents voice of local population in Shara region
Friends of Shara platform was formed in 2015, within a project funded by the German Federal Environmental Foundation (DBU) and implemented by EuroNatur and the Macedonian Ecological Society. The idea was to have a proactive approach to the initiative for proclamation of Shar Planina as national park and to join local voices.
The platform is represented by four organizations: one national – Macedonian Ecological Society, and three local organizations from three different municipalities from Polog region, located in the foothills of Shar Planina –Ljuboten Mountaineering Club from Tetovo, Centre for Education and Development from Tearce, and Initiative for Civil Integration from Gostivar.
Their first step in 2016 was to conduct a public survey for the attitudes of the local population about the future national park. The results were impressive – 83% of the local population stated that they were for the proclamation of national park. The survey also showed that local population is concerned with nature devastation and mismanagement of natural resources.
The mission of Friends of Shara is to proclaim Shar Mountain as a national park, and also to involve local population in the process informing them about the procedure of proclamation, presenting the rules for management of a national park, and explaining the possible benefits from living inside or near a national park.
According to Sunčica Filipovska from the Initiative for Civic Integration, Gostivar, during the last few years their organization has witnessed illegal logging on Shar Planina and massive construction works, and therefore, the need for proclamation of Shar Planina as national park is of paramount importance in order to save what is left from its natural resources.
Metin Muaremi, Centre for Education and Development and President of the Friends of Shara platform
“It is very important during this crucial process to involve and to hear the voice of people. The most important thing is for the local people to become aware of the process and the future management of the park, because these people will live inside or near the park. We think that only in this way they will contribute to its values and protection of natural resources. It is also important to maintain comnunication alive and work with them all the time. With this they will appreciate what they have and in future will contribute by educating the next generations. One of the topics that we will need to work in future is entrepreneurship and raising awareness for mountain tourism. This we can achieve through direct work with the local people and increase their capacities. So, it is not possible to promote future protection, if we don’t involve the local people.”
In the last five years the platform has become the voice of the local population that lives not only in the bigger towns, such as Tetovo and Gostivar, but also of the people living in high-mountain villages that are among the last inhabited mountain villages in all of North Macedonia. Their supporters are different stakeholders from mountaineers, hunters and livestock breeders, to tourist providers.
Jovan Bozhinoski, President of Ljuboten Mountaineering Club
“It is necessary to collaborate with and involve local people, and this is a long process of educating them and building trust. We know that local population is aware of the natural values of Shar Mountain, but they are not educated enough about possible benefits of the future protected area. Mountaineering Club Ljuboten has almost one-century long experience with mountain tourism and it was natural to be part of Friends of Shara family. Shar Planina is known for mountain tourism for the domestic and foreign tourists. By being aware that local population can feel the benefits from tourism activities we create joint plans for tourism development in the rural areas by education activities for start-ups (opening the houses for tourist, local guides, transporters, local food producers and etc.), as tourism added values”.
According to Bozhinoski, it is essential to work on improving tourism infra- and superstructure on Shar Planina by planning and supporting certain projects for different aspects.
“Actually, the aim of Friends of Shara is to support the future management body after the proclamation of Shar Planina as national park. We will be happy to work in different areas as nature protection, tourism development and education in the future national park.”
Support from Open Regional Fund Implementation of Biodiversity Agreements, provided by GIZ
In the last 4 years the Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ) GmbH has had a significant supporting role in transboundary Shara/Sharri/Korab-Koritnik region with the well-known Open Regional Fund Implementation of Biodiversity Agreements – ORF BDU, GIZ, for biodiversity actions.
In 2018, the local population of Shara region with the support of GIZ created a vision for 2038 and spread their voices for the future of their region (6 municipalities were involved and more than 160 different stakeholders). The vision of the local population was presented on a joint regional conference when a Joint Advisory Body for Shara/Sharri/Korab-Koritnik region was established by representatives from the three countries from institutions and local stakeholders.
Friends of Shara were part of many capacity-building actions in the region and in Germany, and currently they are working on a project for establishing and supporting new similar platforms in Kosovo and Albania. Their final idea is to have a network of likeminded CSOs and individuals in the region Shara/Sharii/Korab-Koritnik in order to implement joint actions for biodiversity conservation and local people involvement in the transboundary area. This project is implemented by EuroNatur, Friends of Shara platform from North Macedonia, FINCH from Kosovo and PPNEA from Albania as country partners.
If in 2020 or 2021 Shar Planina is proclaimed for a national park, it would be the fourth national park in the country and the percentage of protected areas in North Macedonia will increase by about 4 %, i.e. from 8% to 12 %.
Moreover, this mountain will become part of a vast transboundary protected area as there are already protected areas in Kosovo and Albania (Sharri National Park and Korab-Koritnik Nature Park). With the proclamation of Shar Planina as national park we will have one of the biggest transboundary protected area in Eastern Europe.