EU green lights Prespes lakes nature reserve

Two decades ago, relations between Greece, Albania and what is today known as the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM) were limited to differences on the subject of minority rights and illegal immigration. Things have moved on since then, and the three countries are now on the threshold of reaching a trilateral deal to create a nature reserve in the Prespes lake district, which is shared by the neighboring states, in what promises to be a landmark of regional cooperation.

The European Commission approved the proposal for the protection of the wetland in early January and it is now heading to the European Parliament.

A visit to the Prespes lakes provides plentiful evidence of the wealth of flora and fauna that prosper in the district by virtue of its diverse landscape of lakes, wetlands and alpine meadows. Rich in biodiversity, the area is said to be home to 260 species of birds, 1,500 types of plants, 23 kinds of fish and 60 different mammals, among which many are endemic to Prespes.

The rich biodiversity encountered in the district explains why the Prespes lakes are protected by a slew of national, European and international laws and conventions. The district as a whole contains four national parks, as well as an area protected by international pacts such as the Ramsar Convention. Administratively, Mikri Prespa (the smaller of the two main lakes that define the region) belongs to Greece, apart from a small part of it in the northeast that belongs to Albania, while the larger Megali Prespa belongs to all three countries, though the greater part of it is within FYROM?s borders.

Discussions on the creation of a cross-border nature reserve began in the mid-1990s, though no steps were taken until 2000, when the area was declared to be under the protection of all three countries. Over the following years, Athens, Tirana and Skopje have worked on building trust through joint programs, while local municipalities and nongovernmental organizations from all three states have launched a series of joint initiatives.

In early 2010, the leaders of the three countries met in Prespes and signed an agreement outlining their individual legal responsibilities.