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Balkan Vital Graphics

GREEN - Nature

Protecting the ecological value of a region ideally extends from its biodiversity through natural resources to human activities that contribute to the workings of the ecosystem. But at the same time it is essential to sustain vital resources for the resident population. Public opinion often sees nature protection as a luxury, particularly in areas where the main concern is satisfying human needs such as employment and security. But a closer look reveals that the issues are closely interconnected. Ultimately regional cooperation is the key to good results, whether in the joint marketing of regional products, sustaining rich biodiversity or dealing with shared threats such as forest fires. Furthermore, European Union membership is high on the southeast Europe agenda, either because individual countries, such as Bulgaria and Romania, have already joined or because there is a good chance they will do so in the near future. The promise of economic benefits goes hand in hand with improved environmental protection, which involves meeting strict requirements. All in all, environmental concepts that are relatively new to the Balkans are becoming increasingly relevant.

Ecosystems across borders

Southeast Europe boasts a wide variety of landscapes, ecosystems and endemic species. What is unusual is that such valuable areas, which fully deserve protection, should often be located in two or more jurisdictions, as is the case here.

The preserved biodiversity of border areas is often due to their peripheral location or political factors. Consequently, if special areas require protection, and they generally do, such responsibility is split between at least two countries. In a place such as southeast Europe where history has left a complicated political landscape, an issue as sensitive – and yet so relevant – as protecting the ecosystem, obviously has considerable potential for facilitating collaboration between neighbouring countries and building up trust. In this context it sometimes seems of secondary importance that unique areas should also benefit from such a process, but that remains the overriding goal.

Protected areas in the west Balkans

About six percent of the whole region is under legal protection. The extent of protection ranges from 0.8 per cent of the total area of the country in Bosnia and Herzegovina to 9.1 per cent in Albania and Croatia. Experience shows that it is only possible to protect viable wildlife populations in conservation areas of about 

100 000 hectares. Smaller territories are suitable for protecting landscape features or a single threatened plant species. Currently, the only large protected area in the west Balkans is the Stara Planina Nature Park, which covers an area of 142 220 hectares straddling Serbia and Bulgaria. Only 18 national parks protecting the Balkans’ mountain ecosystems exceed 10 000 hectares (see page 63).

Transboundary protected areas

It is often very difficult for a single country to establish a large protected area on its own, but if it can find one or more neighbouring countries to participate as partners, the whole initiative gains in efficiency, financially and in terms of protection.

As stressed by the World Conservation Union (IUCN), natural systems that straddle political boundaries can be most effectively managed as functional units at the scale of the regional landscape. They would consequently benefit from appropriate mechanisms for long-term transboundary cooperation. While establishing transboundary protected areas (TBPAs) for integrated conservation and development can enhance environmental protection, such areas can also reinforce political security and provide multiple benefits to local communities and indigenous peoples. The existence of TBPAs and their buffer zones can help reduce tension, rebuild divided communities, promote freedom of movement and create new opportunities for sustainable development, including low-impact regional tourism. Such areas can also make an important contribution to regional biodiversity-conservation programmes, especially when they are part of a coherent ecological network. Neighbouring states, which often have different levels of technical expertise, knowledge, capacity and financial resources, can benefit by combining their respective strengths through transboundary cooperation.

In southeast Europe there are several initiatives lobbying for transboundary nature protection. One of them is the Environment and Security Initiative (ENVSEC). Apart from encouraging regional cooperation and the creation of protected areas in border regions, the ENVSEC Initiative organizes training for community representatives to develop their skills for coping with challenges.

Because there are only a few examples of well-developed transboundary cooperation in the world, little documentation is available to help develop new projects of this nature. Against this background the ENVSEC Initiative has developed the first methodological guidance available for designing a feasibility study to establish a transboundary protected area, applicable to the Balkans, but also to other parts of Europe and further afield.

Draft code on transboundary protected areas in times of peace and armed conflict, by Trevor Sandwith, Clare Shine, Lawrence Hamilton and David Sheppard, (2001). Transboundary protected areas for peace and cooperation, IUCN, Gland, Switzerland and Cambridge, UK.

Balkan Peace Park

Peace Parks are transboundary protected areas formally dedicated to protecting and maintaining bio-diversity, natural and associated cultural resources, and to promoting peace and cooperation. The concept takes conservation as a land-use option to address poverty in the area caused by unemployment. One approach to achieving economic development in protected areas is to establish sustainable tourism. The basic idea behind the Peace Park initiative is free movement without borders inside the protected area, so border controls to prevent uncontrolled immigration occur on the park boundaries.

Non-governmental and environmental organizations from Albania, Kosovo, Montenegro and the United Kingdom have been working together since 1999 to establish a peace park in the border region straddling the three neighbouring countries. Supporters of the project nevertheless face several challenges, however attractive the idea of an area combining environmental protection, sustainable use and regional cooperation may seem.

There are already three national parks in the area proposed for the peace park: Thethi in Albania, Rugova in Kosovo and Prokletije in Montenegro. They are wild places, home to a huge variety of species and most people leaving there lead a traditional, rural existence. The idea is to manage the three areas in close cooperation with one other, pursuing common protection goals, and establishing free movement, disregarding national borders, for wildlife and visitors.

People living in the area react in various ways to the project. On the one hand, the commitment of local non-governmental organizations and environmental activists reflects local interest in a legal framework for protecting and developing the area. But on the other hand there is concern about the consequences of possible restrictions associated with the setting up of a national or transnational park on their land. Some people in the Balkans confuse the establishment of a national park with the nationalization process under which private assets are passed into public ownership. Naturally this is not the case.

Logging and hunting are forbidden, many forests in the area being state owned. However, regulations are not properly enforced. A national park, or even a cross-border peace park, would not only bring additional financial resources but also greater legal pressure to actively enforce protection. A key concern is to prevent private companies exploiting natural resources unsustainably and other illegal activities.

The governments involved are largely in favour of having a peace park. As for so many new developments in the Balkans, the prospect of European Union membership is the main incentive. Balkan countries need to identify new sites of ecological value for conservation in compliance with the Annexes to the EU Habitat Directive. The formal declaration of independence by Montenegro in June 2006, and the announcement that a national park will be proclaimed in the Prokletije mountains, marked a step forward for the project. The United Nations Interim Administration Mission in Kosovo supports the project in principle, but it is not clear whether the interim administration has the necessary competence to take such a decision. It may have to wait until such time as the final status of Kosovo is settled.

The peace park concept itself has often prompted controversy. Criticism has mainly focused on lukewarm support from local communities and uneven distribution of benefits between the authorities, non-governmantal organizations and the local community. Peace parks try to overcome this problem by creating added value through sustainable tourism.

But enabling local people to exploit this source of income more is needed than the simple proclamation of a protected area. In many places infrastructure and adequate local amenities need to be developed to attract visitors. In Thethi, Albania, for example, selected inhabitants were provided with materials to improve sanitary facilities and offer visitors better accommodation. Further steps include English-language courses and repair work on the hydroelectric power station left over from the socialist era and no longer in working order.

With regard to local communities, it is vital to provide clear information, this being the only way to achieve reasonable decisions that promote the interests and wishes of all stakeholders.

At present many people are leaving the highlands because they lack a sustainable livelihood. It is hoped that the Balkan peace park succeeds in giving people in the area new prospects, while protecting a unique landscape from degradation. If that can be achieved, then cross-border cooperation leading to good relations between neighbours would put icing on the cake.

Lunch in Brajcino

“There are three categories of meals we offer in Brajcino: simple, medium and large, in case you are very hungry. The medium one includes rakija (a local drink), salad, soup, a main course, dessert, coffee, wine and seasonal fruit and it costs eight euros,” explains Dragi Pop Stojanov from the Brajcino Society for Sustainable Development. In 2006, the people of Brajcino sold about 4 000 meals plus 800 overnight stays to tourists who came to visit their picturesque little village and its surroundings. 

What sounds like an average tourist venue for summer visitors is also a remote village near Lake Prespa in Macedonia, typical of the Balkans. The population in such places is generally older than the national average, there being little scope for earning decent wages. The promise of a better life elsewhere raises the hopes of young people and draws them away. With a relatively small amount of money, a project funded by the Swiss Development Agency and supported by the German Tourist Board started in 2002 to develop the area for tourism. 

The villagers identified what could be of interest in the area and what they would like to show to visitors. They developed tours accordingly, providing information and trained guides to show visitors round the Pelister National Park and the village’s architectural highlights. They also realised local food might justify a visit, so the women were taught how to calculate the cost of dishes and manage a business. Tourists obviously need somewhere to stay after all these activities, so some people were helped to adapt their homes to suit the demands of the average eco-tourist. It also made sense that visitors would only really appreciate clean beds and proper sanitation if local people were able to give them directions in a language most could understand, not to mention remaining polite regardless of how many times visitors ask whether the rooster could be prevented from crowing in the morning. Training consequently included courses in English and hospitality. 

Amazingly this whole concept was not only effective as a project proposal but really improved the lives of people in the community and continues to do so. Funding stopped in 2005 and the business has continued since then even without external support. For coordination, promotion, communication and other services that do not earn any money directly, participants pay 15 per cent of tourist earnings to the Brajcino Society for Sustainable Development, with a third going directly to nature protection measures. 

In 2002, out of Brajcino’s 120 inhabitants, 15 were taking part in the project, which covered almost everyone of working age. Five years later the number of residents amounts to 150 people and 45 are guiding, renting, explaining, promoting and cooking.

The European Green Belt initiative

The European Green Belt initiative aims to serve as the backbone for an ecological network running from the Barents Sea to the Black Sea. The green corridor will act as a bridge linking pasture, fallow and damp sites, dry grassland and mature woodland, to form a sequence of essential habitats. The Balkans are part of the picture, with an important ecological corridor for wolves, bears and lynxes. The Green Belt initiative, launched by the World Conservation Union (IUCN), is an ideal opportunity to promote protected areas as a tool for regional development in southeast Europe.


The Dinaric Arc initiative

The Dinaric Arc initiative aims to preserve heritage and identity by establishing a network of protected areas stretching from Trieste in Italy to Tirana in Albania. It includes parts of Italy, Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro, Serbia, Macedonia and Albania. The initiative also promotes intercultural dialogue and scientific cooperation between participating countries and helps to promote the Balkans as an attractive travel destination with rich natural resources. The initiative is backed by the World Wide Fund For Nature (WWF), the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization – Regional Bureau for Science and Culture in Europe (UNESCO-BRESCE), UNDP, IUCN, the Council of Europe, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), Euronatur and the Dutch Organization for Development (SNV).

Colour my Stara Planina

Adopted from Nelly Papazova, Green Horizot Magazine, Regional Environmental Centre (REC)

A folk tradition of making carpets coloured with natural dyes has united Serbs and Bulgarians in efforts to preserve their shared mountain environment.

Seated on a small wooden chair with his eyes staring out of the window at the autumn beauty of the forest, the man speaks quietly: “A leaf from the birch. A stem from nettles. A flower from buckwheat. Bark from the chestnut. There you have 10 hues of yellow.” The man is Nikola Nikolov and the place Chiprovtzi, a small town on the western slope of Stara Planina, Bulgarian for “old mountain.”

Nikolov, a chemistry teacher at the local school, says, “Here each house has a loom; each woman, no matter her other professions, is a carpet-weaver; each child grows up with the sight of carpet patterns and the smell of boiling herbs for colouring the wool. It is the wool, the herbal colours and the symbols that give the carpet healing power.”

For 20 years, Nikolov and his pupils have gathered bits of old folk wisdom about natural colouring. For the summer he asked them to find old recipes and in the winter his class experimented with them. The experience resulted in a book, Colours from Nature, a collection of recipes and legends published in 2003.

In June 2003, a three-day Bulgarian-Serbian festival was organized as part of the Regional Environment Centre’s (REC) transboundary activities on Western Stara Planina. It coincided with a roundtable for non-governmental organizations from both sides of the mountain determined to preserve the mountain’s natural environment and culture. It was here that Bilijana Ratomir, of the Association for Preserving Carpet Weaving in Pirot, discovered Colours from Nature, which has been translated into Serbian.

“In Pirot the tradition of natural colouring is being forgotten due to automation,” Biljana explained. “I found this book and made many friends in Chiprovtzi. It gives me hope that the tradition will be revived.” After the summer festival, children as well as adults from Pirot and Chiprovtzi visited each other and exchanged tips on colouring wool and weaving carpets.

These and other activities in the region were supported by the REC project on transboundary cooperation through management of shared natural resources. In 2006, the Stara Planina Euroregion was established to foster transboundary cooperation between border municipalities in Serbia and Bulgaria, and assist governments with planning, and implementing cooperation and regional development policies.

Sources: Image2000 from European Commission’s Joint Research Centre, ESRI.

The boundaries and names shown and the designations used on this map do not imply official endorsement or acceptance by the United Nations. Created at UNEP/DEWA/GRID-Europe, July 2007.

Forests on fire

The summer of 2007 brought another heat wave to the Balkans, with widespread forest fires. The extent of burnt forest may differ a great deal from one year to the next, but it is quite clear that over the past 20 years, the frequency of forest fires has gradually increased in southeast Europe. In Albania, NATO reported about 100 fires in a single week in July, affecting about 1 500 hectares of forest. The areas most severely hit were Kukes, Tropoja and Erseka. Over the same period, Kosovo suffered about 20 forest fires, primarily in areas bordering on Albania and Macedonia. In the course of July, there were occasional forest fires in Romania, Bulgaria and Serbia. 

Damage after forest fires is difficult to estimate from one country to the next, there being no international standards for such comparisons. But in terms of environmental damage, forest fires contribute to the destruction of valuable species and their habitats, to soil erosion, the spread of insects, greenhouse gas emissions and other impacts. For example, bark beetles are a serious threat to the pine forests of Macedonia.

But fires do not mean loss of life or livelihood for everyone. A burnt forest is not completely worthless because the wood can still be used for various purposes. The leftovers must be processed as soon as possible after the fires have been extinguished to prevent the bark beetle population from spreading. This makes work for the timber industry, particularly as wood prices are currently high and logging is not permitted in many forests. Hearing this, some people may wonder whether fires were not started deliberately.

Among causes cited for the fires are faulty power lines, agricultural practices, careless behaviour by people or lightning. Cross-border fires are a further problem since fires do not respect political divisions. A regional approach needs to be employed in the prevention of devastating cross-border forest fires, based on common regional strategy, which currently is not in place in the Balkans.

Source: AQUA satellite, 25 July 2007, 11:15 UTC.

“I didn’t even want to earn any money. I just wanted to get my school books. Seven kilograms of camomile was the price. Too high? ... Later I drank nothing but linden flower tea. No use. First, I definitely had to get hold of a good camomile-picker. This appliance, equipped with a rusty iron comb with twenty-nine teeth, was a primitively assembled box. The wooden box weighed almost two kilograms and could hold two to three pounds of camomile. Full of verve I swept the iron comb through the camomile, pulled the box up, and about thirty flowers fell into the belly of the wooden box. In three hours it was full. My arm had long since gone numb. I was breathing heavily, the strain made me sweat and I measured time in camomile-flower-gram-units. My summer was called “camomile” and weighed seven kilograms, from mid-June to mid-September.”

Translated extract from 7 Kilo Zeit by Rumjana Zacharieva.

Camomile summer

The Balkans are home to an outstanding number of medicinal, cosmetic and aromatic plants, with a longstanding tradition of harvesting them. The tradition is handed down from one generation to the next and most pickers know a great deal about harvesting methods, which plants are picked and for what purpose, and the best times to go picking. But such knowledge is declining, despite the fact that Balkan countries still harvest high quality products.

The area is remarkably rich with the potential to play an important part in the regional and global market for medicinal plants. In terms of quantity, Bulgaria and Albania are the two leading exporters in southeast Europe, the former ranking among the top 10 exporters worldwide. Harvesting wild medicinal and aromatic plants is also a major source of income in rural areas in all the countries concerned. Lastly, the Balkans are one of the most competitive sources on the world market.

However, stocks of many wild species have recently declined. Some species are now rare or endangered due to the loss of their natural habitat, excessive picking, soil erosion and other factors. Protecting wild medicinal and aromatic plants requires an effective management system to ensure harvesting is sustainable. Among others, the environmental awareness of pickers and their understanding of the stakes needs to be improved.

Organic farming: a progressive outlook in mountain ecosystems

Shelves in western Europe are increasingly laden with “organic” products and growing numbers of consumers are giving preference to quality food rather than standardized imported tomatoes and frozen chicken.

This trend could be very promising for the Balkans, but there is still a long way to go before their share of organic food production can rival with that of countries such as Austria or Switzerland. Although the natural conditions in southeast Europe – climate, soil and variety of plants – look pretty favourable, the market does not yet seem ready to accept organic products from the region. This may change in the future with increasing awareness and a wider range of products on offer, as has been the case in other parts of the world. It will take time for organic goods labelled “Balkan Produce” to establish consumer-loyalty but the strict certification systems already in force should make all the difference. Organic farming is more than just a source of healthy food and different production methods. It is a modern development model for agriculture integrating environmental, socio-economic and ethical factors. Southeast Europe is among the leaders of this trend, with plenty of capacity and high potential. The Balkans have a lot to offer. 

Organic farming in Croatia determined to shake off its backward, rural image 

On the road to European integration, organic farming is now on the agenda in Croatia. But producers are battling with a tough image problem. 

“Supermarkets, nice clothes, new cars and a computer: that’s what people here are interested in.” The market analysis offered by the friendly farmer’s wife is based on years of experience and might well be confirmed by specialist economic institutes with piles of survey data. The woman has a stall selling home-grown vegetables and dairy products at an organic trade fair in Zagreb. The term “ecology” is still little known here, she explains. Most consumers think organic products are something exotic, often perceived as remedies. Every now and then, mothers show up to buy organic carrots for their sick child.

Negative rural image 

The agronomist, Sonja Karoglan Todorovic, reckons organic farming reflects overall social developments, and, as the head of Ecologica, she should know what she is talking about. Launched eight years ago, the organization defends the interests of Croatia’s organic farmers and contributes to their training, a task that requires a lot of determination. The main problem is that in Croatia, much as in the rest of the Balkans, the rural community has a very poor image. In Croatian, the word for “farmer” is seljak, the same as for “villager”. And it is commonly assumed that seljaks do not achieve much in their lives because they stay at home, missing out on the rest of the world and any progress. In other words, being a seljak is not so much a career-choice as a pre-ordained destiny.

That image is a major problem for the development of organic farming, according to Ms. Todorovic. Success in organic farming demands considerable expertise and bags of enthusiasm. But it seems that the average Croatian seljak has a hard time with both of them. Farmers are gradually showing more interest, but the vast majority have the benefit of little or no education. They are bound to be deterred by the administrative and technical requirements a certified organic farm must meet in Croatia. 

A successful pioneering family  

The Sever family from Zagreb anticipated this trend more than 10 years ago. When their garden proved too small, the Eko-Severs, as they are now called, bought eight hectares of uncultivated land in the small village of Lepsic, about 20 kilometres east of the capital. The land, which had lain fallow for eight years, first needed to be cleared. Two years later they harvested their first crop. In those days, people thought they were very odd, explains Mario Sever, who gave up a job as an architect to become an organic farmer. For most of the people he knew, that was inconceivable. Only Mario’s wife, an agronomist by training, had the theoretical background to build up a farm.

Had he realised the amount of drudgery involved in the first years, he would never have started the project, says Mr Sever. It is hard to believe such a confession, coming from this hard-working, unassuming man. Be that as it may, the family business now covers 50 hectares and Mr Sever can barely conceal his pride at how much it has already achieved. The Eko-Severs are no longer considered weirdoes or idealists. Pointing the way forward for farming in Croatia, their farm now ranks as a model enterprise, certified by the local Bio-Inspekta institute. It complies with guidelines comparable to those set by the Bio Suisse organization. Apart from popular vegetables, the Severs produce several types of grain, eggs, goat cheese and kid meat. Jerusalem artichokes and sweet potatoes complete the range of products which some of the more conservative customers may see as a form of culinary provocation, despite the recipes provided.

At the Dolac market in Zagreb, one of the gems of Croatia’s capital, customers amply reward the risk the Severs once took. Compared to all the other stands, theirs is always the first to be sold out, and there is no need for advertising. Now Mr Sever also sells his produce on the Internet, an idea generally known but has not yet dawned on most villagers.