By Benet Koleka
TOC, Albania (Reuters) - Environmentalists, kayakers, villagers and politicians called on the Albanian government on Wednesday not to spoil one of the last wild rivers in Europe by building hydroelectric dams.
Ending a tour of Balkan rivers that began on the Sava in Slovenia a month ago, more than 30 kayakers paddled along the Vjosa river to join villagers in launching a petition to Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama to turn the Vjosa into a nature park without dams.
The government says it will stick to its promise not to build dams upstream from a planned, but as yet unbuilt, dam at Kalivac in southern Albania. This would meet its growing power needs and protect nature on the upper reaches of the river.
"It is not possible to do both," Gabriel Schwaderer, the executive director of German environmental group Euronatur, told the crowd. "We have a clear message for the government: reclaim a natural park from the mountains to the Adriatic Sea. This will be unique."
The economic benefits of a park would be greater, he said.
A group of villagers protested against a second hydro power dam to be built on the Vjosa at Pocem.
"It will flood our lands. No one asked us, but we shall not allow it," said Luan Merkaj, as other villagers carried placards vowing to fight to the end.
The slogan "Vjosa No Dams" was displayed in large letters on the grass as singers in traditional dress welcomed the kayakers.
Encouraging the villagers to fight for the beauty of the valley and the river, Ulrike Lunacek, the European Parliament vice president, said Albania was a candidate to join the EU and must respect its environmental rules.
To chants of "No Dams", she said Albania should ensure its energy grid worked properly before building dams.
(Reporting by Benet Koleka; Editing by Giles Elgood and Alison Williams)