About Malësorë Shepherds

A quick introduction to the life of Malësorë Shepherds in Kelmend, northern Albania

In the region of Kelmend, deep within the "Accursed" mountains of northern Albania, the descendants of the autochthonous Illyrians inhabit the land and uphold a unique way of life. Known as the Malësorët, these proud people have protected their lifestyle for millennia, which boasts a rich cultural heritage still mostly untapped by modernity. Until the somewhat recent construction of a winding asphalt road in 2011, this was one of Albania's most isolated parts and, in fact, quite encapsulated itself in time. What the people lack in superfluous modern comforts, they make up for their acute self-sufficiency and incredible synergy with nature, thanks to the figures who exist at the heart of this society, the shepherds.

Often taking on roles as leaders, healers, and even historically as fighters, it is the shepherds who act as the gatekeepers of this traditional lifestyle and pass on the region's rich cultural heritage. They bring environmental balance to the area through their pastoral, transhumant movements and the social order. The presence of these individuals provides grounds for an alternative relationship with the natural environment, compared with that of the industrialised, "developed" world—one which is sustainable and enhances its environment and all creatures within it. Through the work of the shepherds, the region maintains its status as one of the most biodiverse habitats in Europe, where plants and even the shepherds' ecological products boast remarkable healing properties.

However, despite the importance of protecting this lifestyle and the vast wisdom that the shepherds in this part of the world possess, their way of life is threatened on multiple fronts. Historically, the Malësorë have withstood numerous attempts to disrupt their way of life, from Slavic and Ottoman invasions to secretly upholding their traditions even during suppression from the communist times. But now, the pressure of modernity may prove an impending hurdle too challenging to overcome.

From a non-sustainable, profit-led increase in tourism to the poorly planned construction of hydropower dams in an attempt to exploit the region's resources, negative influences on the local environment create an even more significant strain on an already difficult way of life. But this is just the tip of the iceberg. Frustrated by unemployment, the labour market, wages, bureaucracy, lack of educational opportunity, and their current government's socio-economic policies, many residents, especially the youth, see leaving their country and lifestyle as their only hope for a better future. At the same time, the growing influence of globalisation and the sometimes-misleading appeal of the modern "American or European dream" (as seen through the lens of the internet and social media) creates an economic "pull" that bears, arguably, an even heavier burden on the traditional Illyrian way of life.

The Shepherd's Way Albania serves to shed light on the rich eco-cultural heritage that still exists in Kelmend, find ways to support local shepherds who believe in sustainably continuing this way of life, raise funds for development projects in the region and encourage a healthy cultural exchange between local shepherds and foreigners that benefits all.‍