The experience of a traditional rural community with conservationists (my exaggerated perspective)

By Tibor Hartel

Once upon a time, a group of conservation biologists and architects visited a traditional rural landscape for holidays. They were fascinated by its beauty. Many protected birds everywhere, orchids, wetlands, ‘environmental friendly’ land use… Nice, smiling and friendly people and beautiful landscape. Real ‘trap of hospitality’ – they told. And they make lots of pictures about local people and enjoy eating local food: bio products! ‘What a healthy life!’ Just a perfect human and environmental dimension.

Picture 1 – This is what our conservationists saw.

The most enthusiastic conservationists started to talk to people: ‘Ooo this spectacular worm and bird … are so rare in other parts of Europe and even Romania, and you have them in your yard! Unbelievable!’. Others say: ‘Dirt roads are critical for this toad and you have them everywhere. I don’t believe what I see, just like a toad paradise!’.

Picture 2. It is really impressive how traditional grazing can maintain species rich pastures. Sheep, cotton grass, six species of orchids, a plant called ‘Sanguisorba officinalis’ and hundreds of other plants and corncrake coexist in this landscape. Too beautiful. Quick protection is needed for this!

The architects were not less enthusiastic: ‘This building is absolutely beautiful and unique. You see the shape of that wall, and the corner: that is something particular…’. Our conservationists noticed sometimes – from the corner of the eye – that local people are just smiling and were not that enthusiastic as expected… ‘Well, we are not that smart as you, and we don’t travel around the world as you to realize this. So if you say, we believe you and we are happy if you are happy…’. Our ecologists also noticed that the knowledge of these people is both qualitatively and quantitatively very different from that of the big city people. They are not scared of mosquito, wind, dust (ps: they seem to not be allergic!) and dirt, and they know hundreds of species of plants, mushrooms and animals. When cold and rain comes, they say: ‘Just life’. And the ‘just life’ philosophy had some interesting nuance in this social context: it suggests also a kind of humbleness and the recognition that humans cannot and should not control everything. Some things can be controlled by God, and some things God knows better than us. Our ecologists give a name for this knowledge and attitude: they call it ‘traditional ecological knowledge (i.e. TEK)’ and were very happy – apparently – for this new concept they discovered! (‘We should publish this new concept…hmm…aham aham’)

After few nice and nevertheless inspiring days in the rural landscape, they left, smiling (and smelling, e.g. opportunities) and promising that they will come back, for sure!

And they do it. This time with more colleagues, big cars, all smiling and asking nice questions to villagers. They told that now they work within the framework of a research project – an FP7! They start to make lists using many strange names of plants and animals. And they told the villagers: ‘This beautiful landscape needs to be conserved with any price. It is so unique!’. ‘Look for example that little toad in the ditch on the front of your house!” – told the herpetologist to one villager. This is a legally protected species because it is endangered by extinction in Europe! You are so-so lucky to have it, and must take care of it!’ The villager looked at the toad, and at the scientist, and back at the toad and then at his wife. And smiled. He told his wife that these tourists (which call themselves research scientists) are very nice people, no doubt, but sometimes they behave strangely. But, the world is big, there is place for everybody here, so, ‘I go to make hay and they go to do their job to search flowers, birds and frogs…’.

Picture 3. Biologists demonstrated that these little dirt road ponds created by hors carts are critical habitats for yellow bellied toads. Theerefore must be protected…and the human activity in the landscape which maintains these ponds must be conserved.

Picture 4. Horse carts are important for maintaining dirt road ponds. These ponds (and there are tousands because people move everywhere in the landscape using these carts…) are crucial habitats for the yellow bellied toads. These toads are between the most common amphibians in the traditional rural landscapes of Southern Transylvania (picture made by Cathy Klein).

Picture 5. This picture shows three small parcels of land – owned by three families. This small scale agriculture with animals and no chemicals is the key for the high biodiversity of these landscapes – and need to be preserved!

And an other season and year passed. Villagers somehow got used to these researchers. Next year the researchers come back. With more cars, and many other representants called ‘officialities’. ‘These people are gentlemen, from high society and wise, not like us, analphabets’ – some of the villagers told silently – ‘therefore we need to listen them’. And they ask the villagers for a meeting to make for them a very important announcement. Some villagers go to this event and finally, a small group of 10 people was formed in the court of the priest. And they wait (and make this waiting more supportable with one glass of wine, and after that another one…). After some time an announcement was made by the group of 12 people: ‘This event, where you are now is called ‘community consultation’, ‘participation’. Within this event, we are happy to declare that as the fruit of our tremendous hard work the whole landscape and you guys are now protected because you are very unique and special. You have international importance from now! This is a huge opportunity for you, even if none of you may realize this right now…in time you will…at least this is what we hope’. Before all, you must know these important details:

(i) Development in modern sense is harmful for biodiversity of these landscapes, therefore, must be stopped. You must wait till the integrated management plan and strategy will be developed by and interdisciplinary team of experts in few years. (we may, therefore, come back, depend on funding!)

(ii) The traditional land management practices need to be continued to protect the rich biodiversity of this landscape. No land use intensification will be allowed, no machinery and no chemical use. And there are some potential sources of funding (through agri-environmental measures, for example) and all the details on this can be easily accessed on the internet. Yes, you must learn to use the internet…without that you cannot buy even an airplane ticket…so it is time for you all to get used with it. And, it is really practical, trust us!

(iii) If any “bad” intervention is made, from this time, the penalties are very “salty”.

After these declaration, the scientist team go home (in various major towns, far away from this place) like usually people do after a ‘well done work’, and probably will never come back. So many beautiful landscapes to be discovered and protected!

In this way, another protected area was delineated somewhere in the world, making an other traditional community happy and proud and full with optimism regarding their future!

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6 thoughts on “The experience of a traditional rural community with conservationists (my exaggerated perspective)

  1. Wonderful story. As a conservationist architect who had attended (organized!) a ”community consultation” for protecting a Saxon village, I hereby testify that Tibi’s ”once upon a time” story is not an exaggeration (at least in Romania). It is simply the reality. It makes us smile (for it’s paradoxical humor) and cry (for it’s bitter reality).
    But still, I don’t believe the solution would be the specialists to move there, or to be more present in the community life. Though I am sure that a better communication with local people could bring more successful solutions than ONLY the classical protection complex documentation. Until then, the meeting between the numerous specialists and the villagers will always be full of comical moments…

  2. Thanks Letitz! Yes – I also believe that specialists need to be part and present in the community. I read again this post and maybe the irony is a bit exagerated – but I also can say that everything here indeed happened in real life in different places of Romania.

  3. We discussed at the Leuphana Sustainablity Summit: Sometime scientists want to help people who do not need any help; we called it the no-stakeholder-problem. E.g. you try to conserve something that evolves ell/sutsainable by itself…
    And – how do you deny “modern” development to the people in the year 2012, while everything around them is changing? So what IS sustainable development? Putting people under a “cloche”?

  4. Tibi, I really appreciated this post.

    In your own wonderful style it is gently but deliberately thought provoking and goes to the heart of a subject that all of us would do well to think hard about, lest our methods and science end up subsuming our original objectives. We need genuinely “co-designed” research programs to develop guidance and solutions that are most relevant to the people we work with. This is yet another buzz word and a fancy way of saying what we all try hard to do but readers may be interested in a new initiative called Future Earth that is attempting to do this for sustainability research at a global scale. It was headlined at the Planet Under Pressure conference I attended in London two weeks ago:

    http://www.icsu.org/future-earth/home

  5. Pingback: ‘Species of Community interest’: but which Community? | Ideas for Sustainability

  6. Pingback: It’s carnival time | Ian Lunt's Ecological Research Site

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