Illegal and dangerous: Albania's risky new real estate

As officials struggle to reform the country, squatters set up homes in contaminated zone.

The abandoned Porto Romano chemical plant has no fences around it, no signs warning that it is one of the most severely contaminated places in the Balkans. Residents and visitors must draw their own conclusions from the puddles of yellow water on the grounds and mounds of Day-Glo yellow waste spread around the surrounding neighborhood.

But thousands of Albanians fleeing extreme poverty in the north of the country are now squatting in makeshift homes in and near the plant, where soil and groundwater pollutants are at 4,000 times the acceptable levels set by the European Union. Some have built homes from materials scavenged from factory structures. Their children use the plant as a playground, while family cows and sheep graze on weeds growing from the slag heaps.

"We know its bad for us here, but we have nowhere else to go," says Flutorime Jani, whose family lives in a former pesticide warehouse within the plant. "The authorities don't do anything to help us," she says before returning to her home.

The situation at the Porto Romano plant on the outskirts of Durres illustrates the distance reformers still have to travel. While some officials – like Edi Rama, the mayor of Tirana, who has implemented quality-of-life improvements in the nation's capital – have fought to win back public trust, there is still a long way to go. Many people are suspicious of anything the government says or does. Public property gets little respect, and people have grown accustomed to simply occupying any uninhabited space: city parks, rural land, even factories. The lack of public trust in state institutions has made it harder for this impoverished nation to build a viable economy, healthcare system, or even basic infrastructure.

At the Porto Romano plant, more than a year has passed since a team of United Nations experts alerted local and national authorities to the severity of the situation. But since the warnings, officials have failed to erect a fence or even place warning signs to ward off newcomers.

The plant produced pesticides and leather-tanning chemicals until it closed in 1990, along with most of Albania's industrial sector. A year ago, samples taken by UN Environment Program scientists revealed that the plant and its surroundings were contaminated with pesticides and heavy metals including chromium-6, a toxin well-known since the movie "Erin Brockovich."

An estimated 6,000 people now live in the contaminated zone, virtually all of them squatters who have moved to the outskirts of Albania's second-largest city during the past decade in search of a better life. Albanians were forbidden to move from their home villages under communism. Since 1991, hundreds of thousands of rural villagers have migrated to larger towns, creating halos of shantytowns around larger cities such as Durres and Tirana. Albanian officials haven't dared challenge squatters on state land because they feel it would be politically suicidal to take on a group that large.

New families continue to arrive at Porto Romano, according to Lushi Bajrami, a supermarket clerk who has lived on the plant's grounds since 1990. "People get sick here all the time," he says.

"Those people are not producing anything, but they are trying to keep the area under their control," says Durres Mayor Miri Hoti, who says the squatters are hampering efforts to privatize the factory for use as a petroleum storage site. "We lack the funds to fence the area and prevent new construction" by squatters there.

But Romeo Eftimi, a Tirana hydrologist who has studied the site, says the government could do more. "Even fencing the area with a simple fence just to show it's dangerous – this could be done without waiting for big money or [internationally funded] projects," he says. "This is an urgent situation."

But elsewhere in Albania, there are more hopeful signs, as inventive leaders have begun restoring public faith in government, despite very limited resources.

In Tirana, Mr. Rama is giving the capital a low-budget facelift. Gone are the hundreds of illegal kiosks that had taken over the city's public spaces. New trash bins are popping up around a city where many people previously dumped household trash out their windows. Treacherous sidewalks have been repaired, while drab concrete apartment buildings are being repainted in bright colors.

"Edi Rama is one of a new breed of politicians who are emerging throughout southeastern Europe who understand that effective reform isn't just a question of following through on ruthless austerity programs," says Balkan expert Misha Glenny. "Edi is trying to give something back to people so they feel they have a stake in the political process and the future."

Rama, a onetime Albanian basketball star, says it is essential to restore hope to ordinary people. "Albania is like a station where everybody is waiting for a train or a boat ... or a beautiful man or lady to take them away because they've lost confidence in the government and any possibility of a better life," he says. "We don't have the resources to solve all our problems, but at least we can change the colors of the buildings, to show them that something is happening," he says.

Rama uses unorthodox strategies to improve tax collection and reduce corruption. Instead of hiring more police and tax collectors, he simply made procedural changes that reduced civil servants' access to situations involving cash payments. "When you have people being paid such low salaries and facing such indecent quality of life, you can't ask them to all be honest guys," he says. "It's better to keep them far from cash."

Albania at a glance

Population: 3.5 million

Religion: 70 percent Muslim 20 percent Orthodox Christian 10 percent Roman Catholic

Gross national income per capita: $1,230

Economy: Agriculture, 50 percent; industry, 30 percent; services, 20 percent

Politics/history: Monarchy established 1928. Invaded by Italy, 1939. Communist state established 1944-91. The reformist People's Democratic Party of Albania held power until a financial 'pyramid' scandal in 1997 sparked a national crisis. The ex-Communist People's Socialist Party of Albania is now in power.

Sources: World Almanac; Encyclopaedia Britannica; World Almanac; World Bank; Political Handbook of the World.

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