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'Nature needs to be an integral part of all decision making'

September 28, 2020

Ornela Cuci participating in a bird census at Kune-Vain Lagoon in Lezhe, Albania
Ornela Çuçi participating in a bird census at Kune-Vain Lagoon in Lezhe, Albania. Photo courtesy of Ornela Çuçi

Albania’s Deputy Minister of Tourism and Environment Ornela Çuçi serves as her government’s official liaison to the Global Environment Facility and also represents a constituency of 12 countries at the GEF Council. In an interview, she reflected on the ways Albania is raising awareness about environmental protection as a vital part of economic growth, and shared life lessons from her career in public service.

What do you do for a living?

I feel lucky to have an opportunity to use my background in environmental engineering to work for Albanian society and for humanity as a whole. Before starting my career in government, I received a Ph.D. in environmental science and technology, specializing in integrated waste management. Today, I am Albania’s Deputy Minister of Tourism and Environment and for the past three years have been my country’s Political Focal Point for the Global Environment Facility and National Dedicated Authority for the Green Climate Fund. Since December 2019, I am also the GEF Council representative for a constituency including Albania, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Bulgaria, Croatia, Georgia, North Macedonia, Moldova, Montenegro, Poland, Romania, Serbia, and Ukraine. I enjoy the work and consider it also a passion and a mission, which requires a great deal of commitment and motivates me every day.

What are Albania’s biggest environmental priorities?

The topic of the environment is both interesting and challenging in my country. Albania inherited very poor public services such as waste management, water supply chains, roads, and other infrastructure. Rapid urbanization over the last few decades have also contributed to a lack of public services in some newly urbanized areas, and uneven coverage in others. Even today, most Albanian households rely on water tanks for potable water, and only 70 percent of households have waste management coverage. We are in the early stages of an integrated waste management service, early steps on recycling, and these are priority areas of engagement and investment for us. Air pollution from the use of old cars, construction, and from the use of wood for heating in winter, is also a major concern.

I have observed increasing awareness, as we work to address these challenges, that environmental issues are closely related to economic ones. I am very happy to see that individuals as well as politicians in Albania are recognizing more and more that in order to grow economically we need to care for nature – and where we do need to use natural resources, that we need to do so wisely and with caution – cutting, pruning, and planting.

Could you describe a typical workday for you?

My typical workday starts in the office, with a morning meeting with close staff. Depending on the agenda, and in cooperation with colleagues from other ministries on certain issues, we deal with decision-making and implementation of environmental legislation, environmental standards, and continuous communication to increase environmental awareness. Our Clean and Green 2020 campaign occupies a lot of my fieldwork time. I also work in close cooperation with local governments and with civil society. Several days a week, I am engaged as a lecturer of Environmental Protection in the Hydro Engineering department of the Polytechnic University of Tirana.

How has the COVID-19 outbreak affected your work?

I think COVID-19 has showed us all that we are closely connected to nature. There is now greater recognition that nature needs to become an integral part of all decision-making. The health, economic, and social crises associated with this pandemic have made it clear we need a more sustainable bridge between human, environmental, and economic activity. At the same time, it is a challenge to manage environmental standards with reduced staff and virtual communication, so we are working hard to keep up the momentum in these priority areas.

Is there an environmental initiative that you are especially proud of?

Small countries like Albania have more impact on the environment through changes to behavior than through investments. I am proud of several efforts we have undertaken to protect wildlife; particularly birds and marine species, which have had a significant impact in a short time.

We put in place a moratorium on hunting in 2014. This policy had a nearly immediate effect on reducing the number of Illegally-killed birds, particularly game species, passerines, and skylarks in lowland areas near the Adriatic coast. We have also seen an impressive recovery of the Egyptian vulture (Neophron percnopterus) in Albania, which is now found in 11 of our country’s territories, as well as the threatened Dalmatian pelican (Pelecanus crispus), globally endangered loggerhead sea turtle (Caretta caretta), globally endangered monk seal (Monachus monachus), and many other species.

Another project that is close to my heart is a Ministry of Tourism and Environment initiative on sustainable land management, which the GEF has supported in partnership with UNEP and the Urban Research Institute. This project has helped us draft a new law on forestry management and identify new legal and policy instruments that can help bolster investment where we need it most. I was very happy to see farmers and households participate in training and awareness-building events about how ecosystem restoration and improved land management can help us all, in multiple ways. 

Ornela Cuci with people holding reusable bags
Albania banned the use of thin plastic bags in 2018. The campaign "Smile Albania" encouraged children and adults to rely on reusable bags, promoting a cleaner Albania for tourism. Photo courtesy of Ornela Çuçi

Is there a person you have met through your work who had a lasting impact on you?

Yes, Altin Prenga is someone I am continually inspired by. Altin is an emigrant who returned to work in his northwest Albanian village of Fishte after spending 20 years away. His soul is connected to the village, and he is passionate about organic food and about the land. All of this inspired him to build the Mrizi i Zanave guesthouse, which has the philosophy of “eat local, think global!” I have been impressed by his dedication to work and to improve the future of the village he feels so connected to. He turned his dream into one of the most successful agri-tourism operations in the region.

What environmental changes do you hope to see by the time you retire?

I hope to see clear legislation, infrastructure, and urban services to protect the environment from pollution - including from cars, agricultural chemicals, and industrial waste. I would like young people, who are already an influential force within their families and in society, to help raise public awareness about alternatives to plastics and ways we can work together to address climate change. I hope the country develops a good, efficient system to break down and recycle urban, organic, and industrial waste, and to purify water. I would also like to see greater use of clean and renewable energy, moving from coal-fired power plants to more efficient generation sources, including solar power wherever possible – this is an area of great potential given we are a Mediterranean country.

What life lessons has your work taught you?

Public service has taught me a very important lesson: that political decisions have a direct impact on people's lives. I think this reality is often not understood. In this sense, I believe that even though politics may not have a very good reputation, it is an essential instrument to improve the life of a society, if it is exercised with responsibility and love.