On Life and Survival: A tale of small farmers in an illicit drug crop growing region in Albania
To be thrown into life is like a lottery: you have no control over where or what conditions you are born into. Clearly, nobody is born a "drug crop farmer"; rather, a concoction of conditions and life events predispose one to such a fate. Between 2010 and 2019, Albanian courts have imprisoned some 5000 people for growing illicit cannabis, the majority of whom are men from rural areas. Some of those convicted came from Pult. This tale is an encounter with the reality in the remote mountainous region in northern Albania and its inhabitants. Their stories are about neglect, but also about resilience and willingness to change - and about how an Alternative Development project is helping them to improve their living conditions through their own efforts.
The small settlement of Kasnec in Pult lies just 140 kilometers by road north of prosperous Tirana, the capital of Albania. Yet, it seems as if it were in another country: in Pult, one third of the houses have no access to drinking water and the power supply is inadequate, with outages lasting for days. When the power is back, the light bulbs glow like fireflies in the dark. The scattered houses and fields high in the mountains are reached by roads, hardly paved or safe enough to be called roads. They consist of boulders and earth, stretch up steep slopes, and wind through gorges and rivers. Accidents on these paths are not exclusive to when it rains heavily and the rivers swell: dozens of crossings along the way silently warn of a non-functioning infrastructure. Development deficits are one of the main causes of illicit drug crop cultivation worldwide. In Pult, this fact is clear.
The hard work doesn't pay off
Pëllum Sera (41), lives in Kasnec. His Landrover, which is at least 30 years old, takes two hours to cover the last few kilometers between the point of paved road and his house. The car withstands the rocky roads and does not stop even when it crosses the river – the only way to the village – and the water in the car rises to the ankles. Pëllum Sera has lived in Kasnec all his life, now with his wife, Leze (40), his three daughters, Gabriela (16), Gerta (13) and Geralda (4), and his mother, Lena (62). His father died early, and his mother raised him, his brother, and three sisters, all alone. The sisters were married off far away, as tradition dictates. The brother stayed, living here with his wife, his daughter and young son. The ten family members live in a simple stone house. Around the house there are cultivated plots of land. On these, they grow what they need to live: the field with the corn for the flour and the vines for the raki, already harvested in late autumn. The granny herds pigs into a ruin. The dogs bark in front of the outside toilet. Laundry dries on the fence.. Apple trees are still full, and chestnuts fall to the ground. "We are just normal people," says Pëllum Sera. "We live a life like all the people here in the villages. We work hard."
The hard work does not pay off. The life that the men see on Instagram is not accessible with their means. The women do not own cell phones and can only guess at it. The everyday life of the families is characterised by scarcity, a life that most of the residents want to leave behind. The majority have long since left the area and migrated to the cities or abroad in search of a better life.
In 1991, after the end of the 45-year socialist era of Enver Hoxha, Albania was the poorest country in the Eastern bloc. Since the 1990s, the country has suffered a severe population decline of 15 percent. Today, it is one of the few countries in the world whose majority of its population lives outside their own country. Nearly 10 percent of the gross national product is money earned from relatives abroad. However, a new start as a stranger in another place without education and without a job is anything but easy. The old have no chance; the young try.
The promise of big money
The drug economy relies on the lack of prospects, especially among young men. In fact, it is part of the calculation of a successful business model and ensures that new human resources keep the sector going. With the promise of quick and big money, they allow themselves to be recruited as pickers in illegal cannabis plantations and greenhouses abroad; they work in the logistics of cocaine and heroin on the so-called Balkan route or, as in the Pult region, illegally grow cannabis on behalf of others. The northern Albanian mountains not only offer climatically ideal cultivation conditions, but the state is also largely absent, and the forested mountain region is uncluttered. Few "recruits" play a major role in organised crime, the often cited so-called "Albanian Mafia" by media. Most are simply a means to an end in the much larger drug business.
The school, an hour's drive away
Pëllum Sera is not. He's busy and, like the rest of the family, occupied all day maintaining the house and yard. In the neighborhood, Sera is the only one who owns a car. He drives the long way up to the asphalt road and back several times a week sometimes even a day during harvest time to deliver chestnuts, honey, fruits, and herbs from the woods to traders. His duties extend beyond work: he also drives his eldest daughter to school, an hour's drive away, and neighbors to the hospital when necessary.
From the Albanian state, the Seras, like the other smallholder families, receives a support of about 5000 lek per month. That is about 40 euros, or just 8 percent of the average income in Albania, which is 503 euros (2022). The Sera family, just like the other families in the region, lives from hand to mouth, from what they harvest themselves. "The farmers here produce to survive. They bring little to the market and receive little money for their products there," says Toma Marku (62). Marku used to work for Oxfam. Today, he is a local politician, head of the Pult administration, and an advocate for the residents' interests. He is originally from Pult himself. He explains: "Last year, farmers were getting 200 lek (1,60 euros) for a kilo of chestnuts, but by 2022 it was down to 60 lek (50 cents)." About 80 percent of agricultural products in Albania do not find their way to the market, even before the Covid-19 and energy crises.
For Toma Marku, the lack of infrastructure and lack of access to education are the main obstacles to development of the region. He collects money for the expansion of the roads, private donations from emigrated residents, and with such the community manages to widen the adventurous roads, to straighten them, during the months with less rainfall. After the rains in winter, there’s less of this to be seen. Meanwhile, the elementary school for the seven children of Kasnec is a crumbling stone building, green and black mold climbing up the interior walls. Colorful pictures of princesses on the wall testify to the fact that children dream here, and a cigarette pack on the desk to the fact that the teacher was present today.
Access to resources, rights, and representation
The smalholders of Pult are marginalised. Resources, rights, and representation have hardly been granted to them in the past decades, such as the right to the land that their ancestors have inhabited and cultivated for hundreds of years. Enver Hoxha and his regime expropriated all Albanians: a farmer did not even own the chicken that pecked the grains from the floor. After the collapse of the communist system in 1991, one of the most important changes for Albania was land reform. While land titles were returned to the former owners in most former socialist countries, land in Albania was distributed equally to the members of the former cooperatives and state farms. Land parcels were arbitrarily allocated on maps – regardless of whether the land was tillable or made of stone. To this day, 75 percent of the land in Albania has not been registered; in Kasnec this concerns 100 percent of the land. Those who want to have their land ownership recognised must be able to read and write; they must navigate paperwork, have sufficient time to do it, maintain contacts with the authorities, be on top of their affairs. A person like Pëllum Sera, who officially owns no land – despite the family having lived on and cultivated it for centuries – also cannot get investment credits for the farm. He has thus neither resources nor the rights to his land, fulfilled.
Community life – not granted
Vilson Peshkaj (32), who moved from Pult to Shkoder as a child and is now an administrative officer responsible for Shala, Shosh, and Pult, is also working to change this situation. He established contact between the GPDPD and the people of Pult. His childhood memories up in the mountains are happy ones: Playing soccer with friends, swimming in crystal clear rivers, school 5 days a week full of fun. "For me, Pult is the most beautiful place in the world," he says. Peshkaj sees potential everywhere, in the natural features and in the people, especially the children. With a Mitsubishi Pajero converted into a library, he drives through the villages on his days off, providing books to the children and educating adults on topics such as domestic violence and child protection. The jeep is brightly painted – with the drawings of the children from Pult. It is one of two confiscated vehicles formerly owned by organised crime which were converted into mobile libraries, the result of a joint initiative by the GPDPD and the Global Program Combating Illicit Financial Flows at GIZ GmbH, as well as the Albanian Ministry of Interior and two municipalities. The two converted jeeps transport more than books: they symbolise that education propels you further than illicit activities.
Considering their financial situation, it is clear that the farmers lack any kind of social or financial protection. Pëllum Sera's neighbor, Dedë Ulqerja (58), fell ill with a brain tumor years ago. After borrowing money for surgery costs, the family spent a long time paying back the sum. Dedë Ulqerja has not been able to work since his illness; his wife Dilë Ulqerja (53) has been working for two ever since. With every breath you can hear the rattling of her lungs – she has a severe asthma disease. Their son Gjon (27) has stayed to support them, but he too would much rather leave. The families have absolutely no reserves. Should something happen – like an accident or illness – there is only the community to help, and even then, it cannot be taken for granted.
A tough cultural legacy - the Kanun
About 1000 people still live in Pult during the warmer months. In the harsh winters – the first snow already falls on the mountain peaks in late fall – half of the households move temporarily to Shkoder, the nearest town, and live off what they have harvested and processed for their own use in the mountains. The rural exodus poses enormous challenges for Albania. Villages and entire regions are literally dying out. Meanwhile, the city dwellers do not like the "backwoods people”; there is social tension and a perception of increased crime in the cities.
Pult is also considered the birthplace of the Kanun of Lekë Dukagjini which dates back to a time when there was no state power. As a set of rules, the Kanun of Lekë Dukagjini organised everyone’s coexistence and its deterrent “blood revenge” law is meant to act as a deterrent, preventing people from enacting violence against one another. According to the Kanun, guilt is passed on: the relatives of somebody who’s been killed may take revenge on the first-born son of the perpetrator, whose relatives in turn have the right to take revenge on the first-born of the other family, etc… A perpetuum of violence was created. Victims hid in their homes all their lives. Even today, blood law prevails in some communities, and allegedly hundreds of firstborns throughout the country still hide in their homes or live hidden somewhere abroad to escape their fate. However, "In our lives, the Kanun no longer plays a role," says Dedë Ulqerja (60) older brother of Ndoc Ulqerja. The young hardly know what the Kanun means anymore, he adds. Nevertheless, the people of Pult are influenced by it, just as we all are shaped by our socialization and history. In Pult, the ongoing legacy of the Kanun means that trust in the community beyond one’s own family is not a given. When it comes to family, people stick together, but outwardly, people are cautious.
This attitude is also reflected in the architecture of the villages. In Kasnec, the families' houses stand far apart, out of sight of their neighbors. There is no communal place, such as a village square, where the inhabitants come together for festivities or after work, as is usually the case in the countryside. Each family has its own small cemetery. This is a legacy that a community must also navigate when they can only help themselves, given the lack of a safety net. Hence, in their willingness to establish an agricultural cooperative, a simple yet crucial fact is demonstrated: they must learn to trust each other.
Learning to trust and taking the first steps
The agricultural cooperative was established by the smallholder farmers of Pult in 2021 and is today supported by an Alternative Development project funded by the Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ) through GPDPD and supported by the Albanian government. The project in Pult is one of two pilot projects in areas prone to illicit cannabis cultivation, helping families achieve a decent standard of living through an alternative, legal income. About 100 smallholder farmers have since shared their hardships and knowledge, working towards building new knowledge together. In the case of Pult, the members of 20 families learned how to generate more yield and profit from their natural resources.The farmers are considering selling their products under a regional brand "Me dashuri nga Pulti", or “With Love from Pult” in the future and hope to achieve more sales. Yet, difficult access to the market remains a major obstacle, particularly due to the lack of infrastructure
Alternative Development is a holistic and participatory approach that aims at sustainable and equitable development and creates legal income opportunities for smallholder farmers so that they are more resilient to illicit activities and crises. The concept is based on environmentally friendly and diversified agricultural use. Those affected will be involved in the design of the measures from the very beginning. In Pult, families traditionally earn their income by selling chestnuts, honey, and herbs.
Flashlights into the future
In the summer nights, small lights flash occasionally in the distance. Pëllum Sera recognises that these are once again the flashlights of tourists who have lost their way. He drives off, collects them, and escorts them back to the city, where there are hotels. The region of Pult, with its untouched and wild beauty, is suitable for gentle agrotourism, providing a perspective for the future. The first trails have already been developed and marked as a measure of Alternative Development.
Within its lush woods, the area is especially famous for its high-quality chestnut forests and members of the cooperative taught themselves how to protect them from diseases. When a professor and bee expert came to visit the local hives and took samples, he identified a disease and the appropriate medicine. Now today, the healthy bees produce much more honey and the annual income of the beekeepers increased by 2000 euros on average as a result. The honey is among the best in the country and not only because there is no environmental pollution in the area: the flora of the mountain region is also particularly rich in many species. Wild herbs grow on the slopes, which attracts more than just bees: aromatic and medicinal herbs are also sought after, the latter of which by the pharmaceutical industry. Families in Pult learned to identify and gently harvest the various herbs and a solar-powered drying tunnel allows them to cleanly preserve the natural herbs and afterwards resell them to traders for a higher profit. These are the small, important steps that the families take which bring small but discreet improvements.
Solutions that fit into people's lives
"It's not about big innovation here, it's about finding solutions that fit into people's lives," says Erald Lamja, who has worked for many years in development projects in Albania and now with the farmers in Pult. “They lead a hard life. First, they have to trust," says Erald Lamja, speaking on the farmers’ constant struggle for survival. "People in the mountains have been used. That's their experience”, states Lamja, alluding to the drug traffickers who (mis)used them for their own purposes. Between 2010 and 2019, Albanian courts convicted 5000 people (94 percent of whom were men) for the illicit cultivation of cannabis. 60 percent of them live in rural areas or in areas like Pult and 92 percent of them have never committed a crime before. “The fact that there are tangible consequences to growing illegal cannabis has led to a shift in thinking among communities”, Lamja said, both for the men and for the families who then had to survive without the men's labor. "When they hear that through different and legal practices, they can earn more and at the same time work less by learning the right practices, you gain their attention, over time their trust, and eventually their conviction." Through the new knowledge and tools farmers have gained through the development project, they realise, "They can do something. They have a voice. They have knowledge. They have rights," says Lamja.
If these paths are crowned with success, if the small farming families of Kasnec can achieve a standard of living through their labor that is adequate in the years to come – and if they can free themselves and subsequent generations from the economic dependence of drug-related crime – then this can be an example for the entire region.