Ermelinda Mahmutaj joined Albania’s Environmental Center for Development, Education and Networking (EDEN Center) in 2005 as part of the Nature Guide group. In September 2009 she became an EDEN staff member as project coordinator for best environmental management practices. She became the EDEN Center’s executive director in February 2011. Prior to joining EDEN, which has enjoyed many years of close cooperation with REC Albania, she worked as an assistant researcher for the Botanical Gardens of the Faculty of Natural Sciences of Tirana University. Ermelinda has a degree in biology and a master’s degree in botany from Tirana University.
Please can you tell us a little about the EDEN Center?
EDEN was established in 2004. Drawing on its collective experience at the time, the organisation started its work in environmental education and capacity building. I joined in 2005 after completing my biology studies. In 2007, EDEN expanded its work to include public information and participation. Through a partnership with the CEE Bankwatch Network we were involved in watchdogging related to a special case study involving the Vlora Thermal Power Plant, which was a highly controversial project. Expanded watchdogging efforts and greater involvement in public information and participation earned us a place on the Aarhus Convention advisory board. Later on we became active in monitoring the implementation of environmental legislation in Albania.
How many people are involved in the organisation, and what are you working on now?
We currently have five people on the staff, all full-time. There are an additional 16 trainers who, while not official staff, are experts from different fields. These people offer their assistance from time to time. Our team of trainers helps in our ongoing capacity-building efforts, which mainly target groups of local government personnel and other organisations. We also work with communities and educational systems, focusing primarily on environmental education [EE].
As part of our EE-related work we are coordinating a group of nature guides and an environmental education centre, which is situated at Tirana Zoo and serves as a lab for open classes. With financial support from GEF, it is now also an eco centre that works with solar panels and so forth.
Also coordinated within the EE sector is a group of 40 volunteers who work on a rotating basis. They can implement and test their project ideas within the organisation, but they also help EDEN with project implementation.
Another working sector of EDEN is environmental management practices, which focuses mainly on waste management issues such as urban waste, hospital waste, and the storage and disposal of used lead-acid batteries. Some of our main activities are national awareness campaigns and assisting local authorities in waste management plans, assessment studies and things like that.
Do you generally favour a bottom-up approach or a top-down one?
We like taking a bottom-up approach, but you have to combine them both. It’s from the bottom that you gain an understanding of what the real needs are. Once we have an understanding of how to best address these needs, we’re then able to take advantage of our long experience and involvement with government authorities. Within the Green Agenda initiative in the Balkans, EDEN started its work by providing implementation assistance to six local authorities in order to develop a local agenda action plan. We did our most immediate and important work with local authorities, and then worked to expand the network of relationships with other “communes”, a technical term we use in Albania for communities that are smaller than municipalities. It’s through this type of work that we were able to establish good relations and secure a good reputation for ourselves. And the fact that many of these communes have asked us for assistance with waste management–related problems is proof of our good reputation.
What do you think makes for an effective project proposal and a successful project?
My general ideas about project proposals are closely related to the types of situations that people face here in Albania. Environment is a really wide topic, and it’s also a cross-cutting sector, so you need to be careful from the outset to be clear and to address specific issues. While we make ongoing efforts to address general awareness, this takes a long time. Any specific short-term action, in order to be effective, needs to raise the type of awareness that really engages CSOs and other professionals with the public itself — that takes public opinion and perceptions of policy into deep consideration. This is how you can come up with good, long-term projects — ones that are carried out over two or three stages. But, again, you need to have a clear vision and be able to assess who you really are as an organisation. You can push civic activism all you want, but you can’t win anything concrete in the name of environmental protection if you don’t specifically ask for it.
There’s a current REC Albania programme that I like — SENiOR-A [Support for Environmental Civil Society Organisations in Albania], which is funded by Sida. What I like about this project is that it helps to assess needs, and then acts on those needs. Insofar as it’s based on actual needs, it’s able to bypass the more conventional donor-driven approach. Three years into the project, we’re still free to choose how to go on with our strategies and activities, based on needs assessment. I think it’s worth bearing in mind that civil society first needs public support in order to win financial support for initiatives. If I’m working on a project proposal, I’m thinking in terms of what will be good for citizens, and not so much in terms of what kind of a project will be good for potential donors.
What comes to your mind when you hear the name “REC”?
For me, the REC is mostly related to REC Albania, which I associate in turn with sustainability, professionalism and enthusiastic support. REC Albania not only works as an international organisation, but serves as a model in this country for organisational issues, and its rules of management should apply more or less to all organisations, whether big or small. And because REC Albania enjoys a high profile within Albania itself, this raises the overall profile of civil society. I’m grateful that REC Albania over the years has proved very supportive, not only with money, but with advice — and not only where projects are concerned. They are friendly and easily approachable, and there’s a general philosophy that they bring to the table. As for the REC as a whole, it impresses me as one huge family, working year after year to achieve its goals and fulfil its mission.
What are the greatest environment-related challenges facing the CEE region today?
I think the most important challenge for the region in general is that EU rules and regulations need to be applied in non-EU countries. These latter countries are in a rush to transpose legislation and to carry out administrative changes, but on the other hand there are still policies in place that allow projects — energy projects related to coal, for example — that are environmentally harmful. When it comes to the EU investing in would-be member countries, they sometimes don’t follow their own rules, which isn’t fair because the target countries will be in a big mess following EU accession. The focus here is on decision makers, whether they represent member states or non-member states. While public awareness and community needs are always important, this particular issue is related at heart to policy implementation — so, again, the focus of concern is on government parties and decision makers.