Forests in our traditional culture and deforestation trends

Nature was, is and always will be inseparable from humans. It is the key to the development of life on Earth and it is the very source of life. Nature provides us with fresh air, drinking water and food. It is our sanctuary, a place of peace and tranquillity, a place where one can be oneself. So, everything that touches human’s life on Earth revolves around our Mother Nature.

The Albanians are known for numerous legends that they’ve passed down from one generation to the next. The Albanians have remained faithful to them, making them part of their daily life. Legends are oral traditions and our country has many legends that have been diligently preserved. The stories that these legends communicate are usually about characters or events characterized by supernatural power. Legends have had such a great impact on the Albanians that they’ve become part of their culture. The Albanian legends are rich in diverse themes, they truly display the character, faith and virtues of our community. However, in this article, we will be focusing on those legends that tell stories about the relationship of the Albanians with mountains, forests and nature itself, how they took care of them and their superstitions about forest and nature protection.

There are many legends that tell the magnificence and ‘magic’ of forests, there are legends that tell that cutting trees or damaging natural resources was considered a huge sin and that these kinds of actions would bring misfortune to those who acted this way. There are other legends that talk about trees that were considered to be sacred and therefore people took good care of them. Among the most famous legends are Vildasus, Mrize e Burime, Ora e Maleve, Lisi i Artë and Bjeshkët e Nemuna.

Vildasus was considered to be a deity and of great importance for the Illyrians. Vildasus was a deity that protected the forests, fields and springs. His wife was Thana, and they were both worshipped by the Dalmatian tribe, who were engaged in livestock farming. According to mythographers, Vildasus has almost similar characteristics with Silvan, who in Roman culture was the guardian of forests, springs and fields, whereas Thana was given similar attributes as the Roman goddess Diana. So, the figure of Vildasus-Silvanus has also found a place in Roman lands, which shows the influence of the Illyrians outside the Balkans.

Mrize e burime. The Albanian Language Dictionary defines ‘mriz’ as “a shady place where the cattle rest”. Moreover, Mark Titra describes ‘mriz’ as “a natural protective shelter, a place of rest”. According to the eldery of our country, mrize would become invulnerable when the cattle spent time there for more than 2 years in a row. The Albanians believed that if forests were to be cut down in these shady areas, then a calamity would befall the person who cut them down. Thus, not a single branch of any of the trees was allowed to be cut down and thus trees were considered sacred.

The legend of Ora e Malit. Ora e Malit is a figure that has supernatural powers and that lives in forests, mountains, fields and springs. Ora e Malit brings good luck to people who behave good and bad luck to people who don't behave appropriately. According to Mark Titra, Ora e Malit has been given similar attributes to Zanas, that is, deities of the mountains.

Lisi i Artë (The Golden Oak). The legend of Lisi i Artë tells that cutting this tree down was considered a huge sin. It is the story about a man who had decided to build his own house right next to this tree. Then, he had called another man to cut this tree down as he didn’t have the guts to do it himself. When the lumberjack made the first move to cut the tree down, a small piece of wood hurled to his eye, making him blind. This way, the word was spread that he was blinded because of the sin that he committed. Thus, this legend was passed down to generations with the belief that cutting down this ‘golden’ oak would bring misfortune to everyone who tried to do so.

As for Bjeshkët e Nemuna, many people are curious to know the reason why they are called so. In his article Kush i nemi “Bjeshkët e Nemuna”?, Mehmet Elezi came to the conclusion that these mountains are called ‘të Nemuna’ (cursed) because this term was translated from slavic languages, prokletija - meaning ‘cursed’. At the beginning, it was used just as a nickname but gradually it started to be used more often, and this way these mountains came to be known everywhere under this name. Then, with the advent of communist rule in Albania, this term was completely Albanianized. It began to be used everywhere, as in schools and other public institutions. The Albanians accepted this term although they did not know its etymology. Veer said that since these mountains have similar characteristics to Europe’s Alps, then let’s call them “The Albanians Alps’ or “The Northern Alps”.

In these old legends we see that the Albanians have been quite attached to their faith that has led them to the protection of the natural spaces. They have been careful not to disturb our Mother Nature. But now numerous data show that the level of deforestation in Kosovo is staggering and getting out of control.

Forests in Kosovo cover a large area with about 41% of the territory. These areas start from the lowest areas of altitude (below 300m) and extend to the alpine area (above 2000m altitude). They have a rich floristic composition, which represents about 25% of the flora of the Balkans and Europe. The region with the highest diversity is the region of the Sharr Mountains and the Albanian Alps. These rich natural resources of our country are significantly affected by uncontrolled deforestation every year, as a result of this phenomenon, in the national parks "Sharri" and "Bjeshkët e Nemuna", there are 59,600 ha of forests left, out of a total of 115,957 ha on their entire surface.

What is deforestation?

Deforestation is the process of cutting down forest or groups of trees which then, that area is turned into non forest use. Usually these spaces are then used for agricultural lands, farms or utilized for urban use. This phenomenon has been accelerated in recent years by human activity in Kosovo, which has negatively affected natural ecosystems, biodiversity and climate. Forests, since ancient times, have been an important natural resource, but according to data published by Sustainability Leadership Kosovo, as a result of deforestation, Kosovo has lost these resources with over 1 hectare of forest space every day. (Use the map to see deforestation in Kosovo). If we continue with this trend of forest area losses, it is expected that by 2035 the forest areas of our country will be out of their primary function, which will leave irreversible traces in nature.

Causes of deforestation: Why is deforestation happening?

The main causes of deforestation are agriculture, urbanism, uncontrolled mass use of wood, illegal logging and climate change.

Agriculture - is the main cause of deforestation (about 70-80%), with 33% of deforestation caused by local agriculture in developing countries. Industrial or commercial agriculture causes about 40% of forest losses, which are constantly looking for spaces to grow food associated with various traditional methods used for agricultural development, such as cutting and burning forests to cultivate various food products. In Kosovo, the method of deliberate arson is also used and it has often happened that deliberate fires get out of control and cause great damage even in places where they should not be spread. Another factor which contributes to deforestation is also livestock, as a result of the needs that arise with the increase in the number of livestock and the cultivation of their food.

Urbanisation and new infrastructure construction have also fostered the loss of forests through: transport, relocation and population growth from rural to urban areas - which is leading to exponential growth of places of residence and consumption. As a result of these phenomena they challenge the natural boundaries that surround them, often leading to large-scale deforestation.

Due to the widespread use of timber in construction, in the wood industry and as a fuel, illegal logging has become a very common practice and spread everywhere. This has influenced the development of various business networks which every year destroy forests largely for personal economic gain, without regard to nature.

Another factor of deforestation is climate change, which comes as a result of the constant rise of temperatures and that causes fires in many forest areas, an effect which affects the future composition of trees and the loss of forests. Therefore, forest conservation is one of the forms that would help keep climate change constant, while on the contrary if we continue to destroy them, the loss of forests will be a factor that will affect the growth of these changes. Lack of trees harms the release of large amounts of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. Healthy forests absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, while deforested areas will lose this ability.

Effects of deforestation - How does deforestation affect the environment?

Biodiversity loss - Biodiversity includes the diversity of life on our planet! But, the destruction of forests is affecting the loss of habitats and various species which have forests as their home and consequently will affect the reduction of these irreplaceable natural values.

Erosion is a widespread process in Kosovo, because the natural protection that comes through the forests is minimal. Where the forest is degraded, there is a high probability of erosion.

Great care should be taken especially in the protection of forests in high and steep areas as they are rich in organic matter, but also more resistant to erosion and bad weather. In this case, deforestation will cause the soil to weaken, leaving the area most vulnerable to natural disasters such as landslides and floods. Erosion also plays a role in the ever lower food yields, the soils used for food production are severely affected by erosion as a result of large-scale deforestation.

Forests are also an inexhaustible source of medicinal plants, an important value as they grow plants which have healing properties in preventing various diseases. Most of these plants are also part of our tradition, such as the preparation of teas that have high nutritional properties.

What can we do to stop deforestation?

So, how can we help to stop deforestation and preserve the natural values that possess these spaces so important to us?

Various movements around the world are working every day to preserve existing forest ecosystems and reforest areas that have been affected by forest degradation and deforestation. So forests can be restored by planting trees in areas that have been cleared or simply by allowing the forest ecosystem to regenerate over time. You can also be part of this movement, joining the #MoseMerrMalin campaign, the main goal of which is the prevention of deforestation and the preservation of forests in Kosovo. For more visit our website. In June, SLK will run two fundraising campaigns on forest regeneration in Kosovo, in which you can contribute as a nature lover.

Using sustainable practices is always a good idea, like using recycled products, then recycling them, and by buying certified wood products.

Together we can make a difference by supporting companies, organisations and campaigns that are committed to reducing deforestation.

Raise awareness in your neighborhood and your community.

For more forests tomorrow than there are today!

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