NEWS REPORTS regularly highlight pressing environmental troubles that require immediate and drastic remedies. Proactive prevention of such problems may not be as exciting a story, but sustained environmental protection often costs only a fraction of the amount it takes to rebuild vital ecosystems after they have been destroyed.
This proactive approach has been put into practice in the Western Carpathian Mountains of Romania, a country where history collided with environmental concerns. When the people of Romania reclaimed their freedom in the Revolution of 1989, they also elected a new democratic government. Previously ruled by the communist party for more than six decades, Romanians suddenly faced a distinctly different social, political and economic configuration. As the Romanians seized their new-found freedom in the turbulent times after the fall of communism, natural resources were in danger of being plundered. Romania faced losing its history, land and plentiful wildlife.
Foreseeing the growth of a potentially widespread problem, Christoph Proumberger founded the Carpathian Large Carnivore Project (CLCP) and enlisted various national wildlife organizations to educate people about the important role of animals like the wolf, the bear and the lynx in the ecosystem. “With the sudden social and economic changes, it was clear that in the long run habitat destruction would increase and large carnivores would become threatened,” says Proumberger. As part of CLCP’s initiatives, several wolves, bears and lynx were radio-collared and monitored to help researchers better understand their interaction with the local people and recognize any signs of concern. Additionally, an ecotourism program called “Wolves, Bears and Lynx in Transylvania” educated community members and international visitors about the significance that large carnivores have for nature and humans. The program’s success showed residents that interest in wildlife could be used to stimulate the economy.
A similar model was followed for the protection of another key wildlife species and export commodity, the endangered Arnica montana plant. With the fall of communism, the market for cultivating and collecting wild plants collapsed, as did the once-enforced guidelines for harvesting such valuable medicinal herbs. Weleda, along with the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) and the University of Freiburg in Germany, recognized the growing misuse of natural resources. To not only stop this decline but also improve the situation for the future, they developed an action-oriented project involving the local community. “By teaching the collectors [how to collect wild plants in a sustainable way] and helping them develop an infrastructure for doing so, we secure long-term supply and fair market prices for these natural resources,” states Barbara Michler, a biologist and ecologist who has worked with Weleda and the WWF in developing the sustainable arnica project.
Florin Pacurar, a researcher who has spent the past four years exploring the landscapes of the Carpathian Apuseni Mountains in Romania, has also seen tangible results from the arnica project. “In past decades the people were ruled under a dictatorship but greatly desired personal freedom. People only looked out for themselves,” says Pacurar. “Now things have begun to change. In the early summer of 2006, the local farmers and collectors developed a forward-thinking solution [for preserving their personal livelihood and land] by forming a cooperative.”
To ensure that such initiatives are carried through in the future, Pacurar and Dana Bâte, manager of the farmer’s cooperative, regularly teach local schoolchildren about healing plants and the value of the precious resources that lie outside their doors. On tours of the meadows, the children also learn how to collect the bright arnica blossoms in a gentle, sustainable way.
Proactive management creates a sustainable balance between humans and nature. The local people have come to realize the importance and economic benefits of protecting their environment.
In doing so, they achieve the very thing they always sought: the freedom of a promising future in a healthy environment. jb and ml