Albania’s ancient traditions could play an incredible role in the development of community-based governance of natural resources. This possibility arises from the country’s ancient traditions of customary rules. Previously, we have analysed how not long ago, just before communism was established in the country, the pastures and forests were managed according to the unwritten rules of the ‘kanun’, which many, especially in the more mountainous region had guided themselves by. During the 1990s, the system of state ownership of the country’s natural resources collapsed, and during the transition to democracy, many regions and areas fell into chaos, or also known as a ‘free for all’ system. Despite such negative developments, the government and international agencies recognised the strength of the community management approach in maintaining the sustainability of the abused forest resources in the country. Thus, legislation was passed, which gave the communities back the rights to manage their local forest resources. Although a long-term process, and not lacking serious challenges, this transition has to a certain extent proven beneficial. Unfortunately, this was not the case of another common resource that was meant to follow suit in the decentralisation of governance from the national to the local community level, namely, the common ownership of fisheries.
It was the early 2000s when the government aimed to similarly introduce community-based governance systems for the country’s fisheries. Despite the setup of institutions that included, in theory, many theoretically beneficial rules, such as responsibilities over decision-making and conflict management, the Fishery Management Organisation’s aims had not translated well in practice, mainly due to local contexts in which the elites managed to capture the fishing resources during the period most people would remember in Albania as anarchy. During those times, the resources were severely damaged and abused and the new institutions, rather than facilitating more equality and equal access and sustainability only led to the entrenchment of the power that many had already accumulated and gave them the control over fisheries while excluding most other potential beneficiaries.
As in the case of the transfer of management rights to common property in Lake Ohrid, research points out to the mistakes that led to these negative developments:
-The development of the FMO and its founding documents were exclusively designed by an external consultancy firm from abroad, with little or no consultation with local stakeholders and their needs and knowledge were completely disregarded in the process
-In the process of development of the local fishery rules and projects, several ‘influential’ and skilled fishers were appointed as leaders, including in a Council, who would, therefore, be responsible for taking most of the decisions. However, these individuals were already wealthy persons who had accumulated many resources from previous fishing activities. Other, poorer residents were marginalised in the process
-Local residents have attested that despite legislation and licensing rights being brought into effect, illegal fishing continues, and despite the possibility of prosecution, the situation of overexploitation of fishing on the lake had in fact gotten worse
– The power dynamics of ‘influencial’ elites were not dismantled, but instead consolidated when not taking into the account recent developments post 1998, and thus those who did not have the means to engage in productive fishing, were on the margins of the organisation in insignificant decisions, while those who previously had larger shares of the resource, continued to maintain their privileges due to them being installed in position with power and influence.
-Years on from the foundation of the ‘local governance’ structures, many insist it is missing, resources are on a constant downfall, while the legislation is not implemented.
-Instead of the institutions addressing the aim of distributing wealth more proportionally, they instead worsened the process of elite capture, an issue which resulted and continued to be affected by the original representatives of the organisation who were chosen based on influence factors. This has led to preferential treatment being given to family members or based on nepotist practices, common throughout Albania.
-Information flows have also led to the system of abuse being maintained. While announcements of inspections, for example, are theoretically meant to increase participation and assistance, they are used to cover up illegal operations.
The case of the Albanian fisheries shows many patterns important for the process of community ownership of natural resources, not just in the country, but in all Eastern European countries currently still in transition. Corruption and nepotism are well entrenched informal practices whose contexts need to be carefully analysed and considered when giving management rights to local communities. Without carefully planning on avoiding the destructive potential of elite capture, a system of inequality and abuse is deemed to persist.
Klodjan Rama and Insa Theesfeld: The Strengths and Weaknesses of Albania’s Customary Rules in Natural Resource Management in the Light of Devolution Policies (https://ageconsearch.umn.edu/bitstream/155539/2/4_Rama.pdf)
Oscar Schmidt and Insa Theesfeld: Elite Capture in Local Fishery Management – Post-socialist Experiences from Albania (https://www.researchgate.net/publication/264441045_Elite_capture_in_local_fishery_management_-_experiences_from_post-socialist_Albania)