In the run-up to the local elections, the statements made by the mayor of Tirana regarding the flora situation in Tirana, especially the planting of 1 million trees in 5 years, raised strong doubts about the credibility of these claims. Reports on social media by the leaders of the Municipality of Tirana about tree planting and afforestation continued throughout the entire election campaign. However, once the election day passed, and in addition to the figure of 1 million trees, a promise of another million was added, the official figures from the Municipality of Tirana contradicted these claims.
Author: Klevin Muka
If we really had as many trees in Tirana as were reported by the mayor Erjon Veliaj on Facebook, today the citizens of the capital would have a hard time seeing the buildings where they live, because of the foliage.
Veliaj’s promises for a green Tirana started in 2015 when in his television appearance during the campaign, he publicly promised that if he became mayor, he would remember the parks he built, while also announcing the moratorium on the towers.
The first 3 years at the head of the Municipality were lukewarm in relation to tree-planting campaigns by Mayor Veliaj, while the new towers flourished undisturbed in the capital. And as a means of overcoming the negative image of the towers, in 2018, Veliaj spearheaded an idea that would be the envy of every green party in the world.
“The city of Tirana will be surrounded by 2 million trees very soon,” said the mayor, Erjon Veliaj, in 2018, when he first presented the “Orbital Forest” project. Through this project, he envisioned the establishment of green borders for the capital, which would be defined by forests located at the edges of the urban area of Tirana.
After the presentation of the initiative, the number of declared planted trees increased significantly, at least on the social networks of the Mayor.
Almost every day, on Facebook and Instagram, the Mayor updated the public with the new initiatives of the municipality that he leads on tree planting efforts. The most numerous posts are about personal donations of individuals who donate mainly from 1 to 3 trees. Then are organizations or businesses that donate from 20 trees, up to 400 reported in one case.
Apart from donations when citizens plant the trees themselves, in other cases the Parks and Recreation Agency handles this process. In the year of its creation, in 2015, APR estimated as an achievement the planting of 5000 trees in 3 months, but after 4 years in operation, this figure was exceeded by 5 times in just one day.
At the same time, through Facebook, the number 1 of Tirana declares that within one day, not a few, but 25,000 trees had been planted in Vaqarr.
According to EcoAlbania’s expert, Olsi Nika, this figure is worthy of a world record. “These are records, which are very difficult to be true. 1 tree takes at least 10 minutes, in case the pit has been opened before. 25,000 x 5 minutes = 125,000 minutes, we divide it by the number of workers and it turns out how long it really takes to get it done.”
From the photos of Mayor Veliaj, which he has attached to his posts on social networks, the number of workers does not exceed 50 people. According to the accounts, each of the workers must work 41 hours without interruption to achieve the record.
Similar records, but not at these levels, Veliaj vows to have achieved in other cases, when he declares that 10,000 trees were planted in one day.
Although on Facebook, Veliaj’s campaign for planting trees in Farka continues, in reality, the only ones that have flourished in the area are the constructions.
The work of planting trees, at least on Facebook, did not stop. In October 2022, the Mayor declared that a total of 550,000 trees had been planted in the capital since the creation of the APR in 2015.
The number of trees in the Artificial Lake Park in Tirana is about 32,000. Based on the figures declared by the Mayor, this means that in the capital, there are supposed to be at least 15 other parks the size of the Artificial Lake, scattered in different spaces, but which are nowhere to be found.
According to the expert Olsi Nika, apart from the fact that this flora is not evident in the city of Tirana, it is also impossible to achieve mathematically, at the levels claimed by the Mayor.
“Regarding the figures provided by Veliaj, 550,000 trees in 4 years, this is impossible. It is possible to plant 188 trees every day in Tirana, for every day of the year. However, the trees work with seasons that are spring and autumn The planting periods are February, March and October, November,” he adds.
He goes on to explain that another element that makes this number impossible is the space required for each tree. A tree needs an area of 5 square meters, if we calculate it, the green area in Tirana exceeds the urban area of the city, i.e., 31 km2, but we would have dense forests when we left Tirana, but in these forests how do we see each other Tirana is the least shopping city in Europe.”
In fact, the Mayor’s figures raise doubts about the feasibility of such an action. Asked about afforestation campaigns at the territory level, the Ministry of Tourism and Environment told ACQJ that in the period 2011-2021, this ministry, through its initiatives, has planted over 1 million 100 thousand trees, rehabilitating a total forest area of 683 hectares. Based on this figure, it seems that the Municipality of Tirana, in recent years, has created a green area of at least 300 hectares, or at least 3 km2 of surface, dedicated space for trees.
The Lake Park, today, when it has seen over the years a great contraction due to construction permits approved within its historic limits, has an average area of 1.8 km2. Meanwhile, based on the claims of the Mayor, it seems that a new area of more than twice this park has been planted.
Likewise, the Mayor’s claims regarding the trees planted in Tirana are rejected by the Tirana municipality itself through the Parks and Recreation Agency, which in an official response to ACQJ says that in total in Tirana, for the last 6 years, they have been planted almost 97 thousand trees, tendered by this institution, with an invoice of 136,925,656 ALL. However, to ACQJ’s question about how many trees planted over the years have been donated, APR has responded by emphasizing that over 98 thousand trees and shrubs have been donated.
No matter how the numbers are read, the APR’s response was again far from the claims of Mayor Veliaj. At the same time, in a parallel response from the Municipality of Tirana regarding APR’s work, the latter states that for the period of 2015 to March 2023, a total of 228,046 trees have been planted by the APR. This raises strong doubts about the calculation and inventory methods of this institution, contradicting previous statements and the official position of the Mayor, Mr. Veliaj. When asked by ACQJ about how many of the planted trees were donated by third-party institutions or private individuals, the Municipality refused to answer. ACQJ made a detailed observation of the official Facebook page of the Mayor, collecting all his statements about the trees planted in Tirana, from the beginning of 2019 until March of 2023. On Facebook, about 42,300 trees have been reported (approximately by calculation, since in 6 different initiatives it has not specified the number of trees planted)
The number of trees reported on Facebook is different from the figure that the Mayor declared in October 2022, of 550,000 trees planted, and different from what the Parks and Recreation Agency say.
However, the approach of the May 2023 election campaign brought another change in the rhythm of Mayor Veliaj’s statements regarding tree planting. Through a social media status update in March 2023, he declares that 1 million trees had been planted in Tirana, even though just 5 months earlier he stated that only half of that number had been achieved. The work, which took the Municipality of Tirana five years to complete, was now accomplished in just 5 months.
Veliaj himself regularly reported on his social media for this period accompanied by photos, only for 1390 planted trees. The traces of the other 448,610 trees are nowhere to be found. The forestry specialist from PPNEA, Ilir Shyti, tells ACQJ that for planting such a number of trees, an area that exceeds the urban space of the capital is needed.
“If they are planted with a distance of 2 meters, for 1 million trees, 4,400 ha of surface are needed as a minimum. The green surface of the artificial park is 156 ha.” In this reasoning, the green surface of Tirana should exceed its urban space. The capital is located in the urban area, 40 km2. For 1 million trees, an area of 44 km2 is needed. If there were really 1 million trees in the capital, only the green of the trees would stand out from Dajt Mountain and not the concrete of the towers, which surpass each other in every corner of the capital.
The Orbital Forest, just on paper
The Orbital Forest Project, an ambitious plan of the Municipality of Tirana in 2018, defines it as an instrument for curbing land consumption (agricultural and natural), urban sprawl identified as the physical limit of the development and expansion of the urban system in the natural environment.
This project defines 5 different environments that are part of the entire project, more precisely: Dajti National Park, a protected area, consisting mainly of forests; The area surrounding Lake Farka, the point where the green belt penetrates the city, connecting the park with the fourth ring and the urban environment of the south-eastern part of the capital; The area between the former municipality of Vaqarri and Farka, which constitutes the natural connection between the Erzen River Park and the Lake Park; the area bounded by the Tirana-Durrës axis, part of a large agricultural territory consisting mainly of wood-fruit forests; and the Tirana River Park, consisting of the newest green space of the northern part of Tirana, part of the natural riverbank system.
However, despite the efforts and ambitious declarations of the Mayor of the time, almost the entire initiative, with the exception of the planting of decorative trees in the parks of Lake and Farka, has remained on paper. Even the website of the Tirana municipality dedicated to this initiative has anemic content, with no information, except for the initial plan.
Following an audit conducted by the State Supreme Audit Office, an inability of this institution to implement this plan was observed, emphasizing that “The Orbital Forest Project for planting trees, due to the financial impossibility of budget support, as well as problems related to the lack of spaces necessary for planting and ownership issues, results in a low level of realization, although a significant part of the period of implementation of this objective has passed.”
According to urban planner Rodion Gjoka, the idea of the Orbital Forest is fundamentally wrong, if it is not accompanied by afforestation in the inner-city area, with parks near residential areas.
“What I see as the problem with this approach are two things. The first is that it is used as a propaganda and aesthetic instrument, but it should not be seen as such, at least for a city like Tirana. Another thing for me, as an expert who monitors the quality of the environment in the capital, is that there are no urban parks within residential areas, but citizens must access suburban parks. The idea is that a family needs at least a park within walking distance every afternoon, to have daily recreation, then if there are activities or other more substantial things, then they can access these parks outside their residential area,” he adds.
The Orbital Forest Initiative not only lacked in achieving its objective, but it failed precisely because its development plan was based on geographical areas designated by the Municipality of Tirana for urban development, starting from the area of Liqeni i Thatë (Dry Lake) and the Farka area, where villa complexes are flourishing, as well as the slopes of the Dajti National Park. The Municipality of Tirana itself, in response to ACQJ’s request, admits that only around 228,000 trees have been planted for the Orbital Forest initiative, about 1/10 of the optimistic target.
While the electoral campaign for the local elections has already ended, with the chairman of the Socialist Party declaring that the campaign funds will become trees, the only obvious park in the capital is that of the Artificial Lake, which, although modest in the number of trees it contains, only 32 thousand, manages to stand out alongside its rivals with a full 1 million of them. Now Tirana is preparing for the next ambitious objective of the Municipality, which is to plant 2 million trees by 2030, even though five hundred thousand were planted in just 5 months, at least according to social media reports.
Beyond the massive tree planting highlighted in social media by the Municipality of Tirana and its Mayor, the residents of Tirana observe a significant increase in concrete buildings, with 382 construction permits for new buildings, covering a total area of 1.8 million square meters, for the year 2022 alone, contrasting with the “1 million trees” planted in over 7 years.
This article was published in the framework of the Investigative Journalism Lab project, an initiative of the Albanian Center for Quality Journalism, supported by the U.S. Embassy-Tirana, which aims to increase the capacity of journalism and mass communication students and young professionals in the field of investigative journalism.