The Balkans is a rich repository of biological diversity. More than a third of Europe’s flowering plants, half of its fish species and two-thirds of its birds and mammals can be found in the former Yugoslavia alone. The area around the borders of Albania, Montenegro and Kosovo is one of the least-touched alpine regions on the continent. Its environmental assets benefit from varied climates, geology and topography and to an extent the continuation of traditional low-intensity agricultural practices. However, the shift towards industry-scale logging and merchandise farming is straining the natural environment, and increasing urbanisation is making metropolitan environments more fragile than before.

The Land

A wide belt of mountains parallel to the Adriatic coast covers about 60% of the region; this strip is usually made of limestone and has long valleys, dramatic gorges, vast cave systems and oddities such as disappearing rivers. The Dinaric Range along Croatia’s coast has partly sunk into the sea, creating an incredibly convoluted network of islands, peninsulas and bays. A knot of fault lines in the southern part of the region sometimes causes shattering earthquakes, such as that in 1963, which demolished Macedonia’s capital, Skopje. The region’s highest mountain is Triglav (2864m) in Slovenia’s Julian Alps, while the second highest is Korab (2751m) on the border of Albania and Macedonia. The Pannonian plain along the Sava and Danube rivers in Croatia and northern Serbia was the floor of an ancient sea around 2.5 million years ago.

An interesting venture is the Balkans Peace Park project, which aims to create a protected park area cutting across Montenegro, Kosovo and Albania. For more on national parks in the region, see individual countries.

Wildlife

The Balkans is a refuge for many of the larger mammals that were almost eliminated from Western Europe 150 years ago. Rugged forests of the Dinaric Range from Slovenia to Albania shelter wolves, red deer, roe deer, lynx, chamois, wild boar and brown bears. Forests are roughly divided into a conifer zone, beginning between 1500m and 2000m, and including silver fir, spruce and black pine; broad-leafed beech forests, which occur lower down; and a huge variety of oak species below this again. Birds of prey found in the region include griffon falcons, kestrels and peregrine falcons. The great lakes of Ohrid and Prespa in the far south are havens for Dalmatian pelicans, herons and spoonbills.

The more populated shores of the Adriatic coast have endangered populations of golden jackals, red foxes and badgers, while bigger predators such as wolves and brown bears have largely been eradicated. Classic Mediterranean species such as junipers, heaths and olive trees grow well in the high summer temperatures of this area. The Adriatic shore also used to be home to the endangered Mediterranean monk seal, but now all the seals are gone. On a happier note, the number of bottlenose dolphins seems to be growing in Croatia’s Kvarner Gulf.

Environmental Issues

The Balkans was almost entirely agricultural until after WWII, when communist central planners decreed rapid industrialisation on a massive scale. Between the 1950s and the 1970s, the rate of industrialisation and urbanisation was amongst the highest in the world. Use of energy and raw materials put pressure on natural resources, decreasing forested areas, deteriorating water quality and increasing air pollution. Economic stagnation and UN sanctions imposed during the 1990s contributed to a dramatic slowdown in economic activity; a positive side effect of this was the reduction in air and water pollution, but negative consequences included increased use of low-quality fuels, deprioritisation of environmental policy in industry, and the suspension of international cooperation on environmental management of shared assets. The need for cohesive environmental cooperation has taken on new complexity since the emergence of new Balkans states following the break-up of Yugoslavia, with more states now required to cooperate.

Air pollution is a concern in large cities such as Belgrade and struggling cities such as Pristina. Providing reliable power to Kosovars has often been at the cost of fresh air; time will tell how future decisions fare. Similarly, the flurry of construction taking place in cities throughout the region is not necessarily planned or controlled with respect to its environmental impact.

Sewerage outflows in coastal resorts can be a problem when tourist crowds descend in summer. Dumping of sewage is a problem in Durrës (Albania), and a controversial rock-wool factory has been built in Croatia.

Litter on land and water throughout the region can be severe, especially in the south. Some steps have been taken to remedy this, but on the whole the locals who contribute to the problem haven’t had the benefit of strong ecological education to help them understand the long-term environmental and economic impact of their actions. While you’re in the region, take your litter with you (and don’t do it subtly – why not try to start a trend?).

Impact of Communism

Towns and cities all over the Balkans have problems with air, soil and water poisoned by messy industrial plants introduced during the communist era. Pollution from lignite (brown coal) power plants and other industries remains the biggest environmental concern today. Albania’s communist party had a particular proclivity for seriously big industrial plants; the humongous Steel of the Party metallurgical plant in Elbasan emitted so much filth that it made agriculture impossible in the surrounding valley. Authorities also terraced thousands of hectares of hillside in a bid to mould hills into fields, an endeavour which had predictable results for soil erosion. As in other communist-controlled regions, damage caused by industrial waste wasn’t recognised until much later.

In some instances, communists did go green; the Yugoslav authorities could be surprisingly sensitive to environmental issues. Nomadic sheep and goat herding was banned in 1951 in a bid to prevent soil erosion. Tito’s regime also created a network of national parks and protected areas.

The fall of communism introduced new environmental problems. In Albania, uncontrolled logging – previously prevented by the threat of a life sentence in a chrome mine – is now a concern. After the ban on fishing in Lake Ohrid was lifted, the Ohrid trout’s numbers dropped perilously, though the Macedonian government has now declared a fishing moratorium.

Impact of the Wars of the 1990s

Though it’s churlish to compare the environmental damage caused by the wars of the 1990s to the human cost, some lingering issues should be flagged. Landmines have meant that areas of BiH, Croatia and Kosovo have become de facto wilderness areas, albeit unexplorable ones.

The NATO air strikes of 1999 used depleted uranium and heavily targeted industrial areas, causing the release of hazardous substances into the atmosphere and the high-impact movement of people as refugees from rural areas sought safety in cities. Unplanned growth in cities such as Sarajevo, Tuzla, Belgrade, Pristina and Tirana increased demand on already stretched sewerage, waste-disposal and water-supply systems. In addition to the movement of people, the conflicts caused some unusual movement of fauna; wolves wandered into Croatia’s Dalmatia region, where they hadn’t been seen in decades, after unprotected herds of livestock abandoned by farmers in the Serb-populated Krajina region presented them with an unusual feeding opportunity.

To end this section on a positive note, look to Macedonia’s tree-­planting day. On 12 March 2008 more than 200,000 Macedonians planted two million trees (one for every citizen) to heal patches of forest devastated by fires. This initiative of Unesco Artist for Peace Boris Trajanov is expected to plant 30 million trees in the next 10 years.