Knowledge types and conservation biology in complex rural landscapes

By Tibor Hartel

This post is a continuation of the ideas mentioned in the previous entries: “Thoughts about rationality” and “Knowledge or wisdom?

A local leader working with farmers once said that farmers were unable to comprehend that people actively go into the countryside for the purposes of recreation. For them, being in the landscape, being in the fields, necessarily means to do something there, to work. To make hay, to plough, to maintain a pasture, an orchard a wine yard etc. With other words: to extract basic resources for their everyday life and maintain those (ecological) systems providing these resources.

I am lucky to work as ecologist in a beautiful rural landscape in Eastern Europe, the Saxon area of Transylvania (we should admit: the names themselves are seductive!),Romania.

Without exaggerating, the natural and semi natural vegetation cover (forests, grasslands) is “never ending” in this area. And extremely heterogeneous. Look for example at the pictures below.

Photo 1. Heterogeneous landscape with hay meadows, pastures, wetlands and forest

Photo 2. Traditional hay making

Photo 3. Cow pasture

Photo 4. Grazing with cows maintains amphibian ponds, where the endangered Yellow Bellied Toad reproduces

 This heterogeneity is not the result of a landscape planning carefully projected by qualified and certified expert academics and/or managers. It is “just” a consequence of the low impact (which eventually became traditional) land management, maintained through the centuries. When the upper limit of human impact on natural systems was represented not by machines and chemicals but the capacity of the human and animal body.

This heterogeneity is the result of the spatially and temporally continuous work and presence of people in the landscape. These people, individually and together work according to a knowledge, tested by time. This knowledge was and is extremely diverse, very practical, rarely or never written and it is always shared and fed back with others from the community. Ethnographers and ecologists aiming to describe this knowledge are very busy: it is much more complex than they thought (as we know for example from the work of Dr. Zsolt Molnár who spent more than 10 years with traditional communities from Eastern Carpathians to realize how much these people, basically without much schooling, know).

Now the problem.

Protected areas are delineated in a top down way in many of these landscapes, including the Saxon area ofTransylvania.

These protected areas may have a huge size (e.g. > 150,000 hectares in the Saxon area).

And now, to be in line with the western fashion, research is made to develop what we, specialists, like to call (mostly for ourselves since no-one else seems to understand it and need it): “integrated management plan”. This means hundreds of pages of shortly gathered, written knowledge, gathered mostly by researchers having no historical connection with such landscapes and societies.

And that document called integrated management plan, approved by a series of formal institutions till the ministry, will be eventually declared as ‘example case study’ by some officialties.

That integrated management plan will contain, in a written way everything which needs to be done to maintain the heterogeneity and those thousands of species which live in these landscapes – according to some realities of some researchers and managers (in a previous post I highlighted some issues about rationality, and how this can change with the change of ‘best knowledge’ parameter).

From this point, possibly wildlife should be happy: they are inventories, part of a plan, a written, official plan.

With this ground, here are some questions:

Can ever a written management plan compete with the very complex, time tested applied and rarely written knowledge of local people? We researchers know what is a written information – and also know that we often forget (details of) what we write, especially if we write about many things in our life. What we basically do, is to ‘save’ information into papers and hard disks. Unwritten knowledge persist in peoples minds for generations because it is useful, and applied. Richard Dawkins called these information ‘memes’.

Can that written management plan capture the complex current and historical interactions occurring in these socio-ecological systems? (and I am aware that it may look that I may deliberate complicate the situation. Not my intention, but some things may be really complex)

Is it possible to govern these landscapes according to a written plan? Even if that document (the “integrated management plan”) contains so many hundreds of pages? Is this the good way of doing things?

I really feel that something is not good and not fair here. And somehow indirectly, under the umbrella of conservation biology, we step by step contribute to the destruction of these landscapes…This thought eventually will be developed sometimes later.

Thanks to Laura Sutcliffe for corrections and useful suggestions.

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