The Regional Environmental Center for Central and Eastern Europe
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Mihallaq Qirjo

Mihallaq Qirjo

Mihallaq Qirjo, who holds a PhD in applied ecology, has been involved in the environmental field since 1990. He has participated in the design and implementation of more than 40 environmental programmes on a national and regional scale, focusing on environmental policies and institutions, capacity building, environmental education and awareness raising, and a multi-stakeholder approach to project management. Qirjo has been teaching a full course in ecology at Tirana University since 1990, while at the same time leading research on such topics as the dynamics of arthropod populations, the effects of pollution on soil fauna, and environmental education tools. He has served as director of REC Albania since 1994.

With the emergence of new environmental issues and proposed solutions (such as the SDGs, Paris COP etc.), what special roles do you see the CEE region playing in a Europe-wide and/or global context?
In the 1990s, countries in the CEE region began to focus specifically on democratic changes. While the dimensions of these changes included the environment, they were also much greater. Even so, environment-based concerns and solutions were used frequently to develop and facilitate dialogue between countries, stakeholders and the West. Now, 25 years later, it seems crucial and necessary for this region to continue making a contribution towards addressing both European and global environmental challenges. Effective solutions are based on processes and innovations, and the CEE region has the capacity to offer both. Our countries are helping to speed up the European integration process in the Western Balkan region by combining energy issues with democratic processes and reforms. Furthermore, this part of Europe has a historical legacy of conserving its natural wetlands, mountain habitats and rural areas — and also of preserving its cultural and historical traditions.

What first pops into your mind when you hear the name “REC”?
In my mind, the REC is linked to its unique corporate identity: the green colour, the logo and spines of the print publications. Then there’s the series of “Who Will Remember Me?” animal drawings, which have appeared on items from t-shirts to coffee mugs. These images, in their beautiful, natural colours, make me feel how thousands and thousands of REC people and beneficiaries of REC programmes are working to preserve those threatened species.

Please can you share a memorable experience involving the REC or the CEE region?
The first transboundary project I was involved in with the REC, in 1999–2000, was “Sharing Common National Values of Shkodra/Skadar Lake”, which aimed to restore connections and communication between Albanian and Montenegrin experts, authorities and NGOs. We had to implement a transboundary project at a time when there was no border crossing point between the two countries, when each country applied a visa regime toward the other, and when formal communications had been non-existent since the end of World War II. In order to bring together people that knew each other only from scientific papers published by universities, we organised the first meetings in Hungary at the REC head office, or in Italy. People living just 60 kilometres apart were travelling hundreds of kilometres to discuss, plan, pass the time, share jokes or sing common regional songs during the social events. Largely as a result of this project, the first memorandum of understanding between the two countries was signed in Podgorica in 2002. One travelling in the CEE region today could hardly imagine the hurdles that had to be overcome during the early days of working here!

How did you come to hear about and be interested in the Young Environmental Leaders Programme?
As soon as I graduated from university in 1991 I got involved in the first environmental group established in Albania — just after the democratic changes started in the country.

And I just happened to be part of the very first group of REC junior fellows. Early in 1993 the REC was extending its operations to the Western Balkan region, so my university asked me to accompany and translate for the first REC country mission in Albania, which was to be held in the spring. It was at that time that I was informed about a new programme that would start in September, and I was encouraged to apply. I didn’t give it a second thought: here was an opportunity to be trained on some topics that were completely new.

Please could you describe your participation in the programme and share something about what you learned and the people with whom you interacted during that time?
The six-week programme combined theoretical training with practical sessions. The course was held at the old REC premises in Budapest. This was not only a new experience for programme participants, but also for REC staff, which at the time was small in number. We were assigned to work with them on certain days. I still have the feeling that they knew at the time they had invented a great programme — one that represented a breakthrough in the environmental movement by supporting younger generations.

Apart from obtaining basic information on running an NGO, writing project proposals and organising campaigns, I learned how to type on a computer! I didn’t have the chance to have one all to myself back at university, so that was part of the fun and learning experience, too.

What have been the lasting impacts of your participation in the programme?
It would be hard to find stronger evidence than the fact that I have continued to work for the REC since returning home from the programme. As we needed to increase the membership of the country’s NGOs with young and fresh members, in 2000 the staff of REC Albania and I designed a one-week programme similar to YEL. We’re still running it, one course each year. The most recent took place this year on February 2–7 and drew 20 young, energetic environmental leaders.

Bela Kuslits

Bela Kuslits is a Hungarian interdisciplinary scientist working mainly on environmental issues. Currently working for a PhD in ecological economics, one of Kuslits’s main fields of study is resilience, which has been his main connection over the years with the Sustainable Development Academy (SDA), the current incarnation of the original Junior Fellowship Programme. After participating in a number of SDA workshops, Kuslits applied for a Tom Garvey Fellowship and did an internship at the REC for half a year, during which he worked on capacity-building projects, including the Living Labs course in Venice. He later gave a simulation workshop to YEL participants.

What have been the lasting impacts of your participation in the YEL/SDA?
My first encounter with the international world of sustainability was definitely my experience with the REC. The culture, the players, the methods — basically everything was new. I learned a lot about the type of large-scale activism that the REC does.

As a scientist, what role do you think the CEE region can play in addressing the world’s environmental problems?
To be honest, I am very sceptical about the global processes. There is always a "next meeting" that is supposed to make history, but they never actually do it. I tend to prefer local solutions. The CEE region has great biodiversity and strong economies compared to the global average, which is a highly advantageous situation to be in. The problem, however, is that environmental awareness is at very low levels in our societies, which means that it’s hard to put sustainability on the political agenda. Despite these problems, I think this is an area of the world where alternative ways of development could be implemented: the necessary resources are accessible and the issue of development is a central topic of local politics. Why not do it in a sustainable way?

What first pops into your mind when you hear the name “REC”?
My first thoughts about the REC are memories about the great workshops in which I participated. This was the place where I met world-famous professors, where I first encountered the topic of resilience — which became an important aspect of my work later on — and where I had fruitful conversations with people from the CEE region. The REC is an important source of knowledge.

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