Central Europe Review: politics, society and culture in Central and Eastern Europe
Vol 2, No 3
24 January 2000

E N V I R O N M E N T:
The Upside of Top-down

Andreas Beckmann

The beautiful patchwork landscape and picturesque villages of the White Carpathians in eastern Moravia present a stark contrast to the sickly forests and industrial towns of the so-called "Black Triangle" in northern Bohemia, which are much more fixed in the Western image of post-Communist Central Europe. Patches of orchards, fields, forests and brilliant flowering meadows cover the rolling countryside that straddles much of the Slovak-Moravian border. The centuries of human settlement that helped create this colourful tapestry developed a rich and varied culture, extending from the scattered settlements of Wallachian immigrants and their shepherding in the north to the clustered, often brightly painted villages surrounded by orchards and traditional fruit-drying houses in the south.

Natural and cultural treasures

Few people west of the former Iron Curtain are aware that besides appalling environmental and cultural devastation, the former Communist regimes in Central Europe also left behind some remarkable treasures of natural and cultural heritage.

Seemingly paradoxically, the top-down organization and sheer inefficiency of Communist regimes also served to preserve many historical landscapes, with their traditional patterns of human settlement. The centralized effort to exploit coal for energy and increase industrial production ravaged northern Bohemia but left the White Carpathians, the Jura Highland of southern Poland, parts of the Baltic coast as well as other areas of the Czech Republic, Poland, Slovakia, Hungary and other Soviet countries relatively untouched. As a result, the distinctive features of these landscapes and local cultures have remained better preserved than similar areas in Western countries, which often bear heavier marks of modern civilization.

The challenge since 1989 has been to find ways to preserve these distinctive landscapes and their cultural and natural heritage in the face of disruptions accompanying the rapid transition to free-market capitalism. The changes have served to weaken, and even break, the traditional links between people and the land. In the process, centuries-old traditions and cultures are being lost and ecosystems disrupted. In areas such as the White Carpathians, the sudden exposure to market competition has served to undermine local economies, sapping the vitality of local communities and threatening ecosystems. At risk are not only traditional economies, but also communities, environments and ways of life. Fortunately, a number of promising initiatives are suggesting some options for finding a new balance for local economies while preserving cultural and natural heritage.

Traditions of the White Carpathians

The disruption of local markets and land-use patterns is threatening the tremendous diversity of fruit species in the White Carpathians and with them a major feature of the region's landscape and culture. For centuries, orchards have spread out like fans from the villages that dot the region. Hundreds of wooden-plank fruit-drying houses once dappled the southern part of the region, and fruit produce - from apple cakes to plum brandy - has shaped the area's cuisine as much as its festivities. However, cheaper, mass-produced and chemically treated imports are undermining demand for the local produce; as a result, area residents have less incentive to care for their orchards, and native species are disappearing.

After years spent mapping and protecting the 250 varieties of plums, pears, apricots and especially apples that are native to the region, environmentalists are now turning to the market to assure the long-term preservation of this biodiversity. Together with area farmers, businesspeople and local authorities, they have established an association to turn the local produce into high-quality natural products - such as juices, jams, alcohols, and dried fruit - which can be sold throughout the region and beyond.

The first of several juice-extraction plants planned for the White Carpathians will be completed this summer in the village of Hostětín and will produce pure, unfiltered juice from apples grown in the area. The potential for such high-quality products is indicated by marketing studies as well as by the experience of Zdeněk Ševčík, a local fruit farmer from the village of Pitín, who even after the addition of another fruit-drying oven has had difficulty keeping up with the demand for his products.

Ševčík sells his dried fruit in specialty stores and through the mail under the "Traditions of the White Carpathians" label, a marketing brand that the association has developed to market high-quality and natural products from the region, including not just dried fruit, juices and jams but also traditional handicrafts. "The idea is to develop a clear association with the White Carpathians region and its qualities," explains Miroslav Kundrata of the Environmental Partnership, a Czech foundation that has been closely involved in developing many of the projects in the region. The brand will create a special connection for tourists who have visited the White Carpathians and also support a sense of regional identity and pride among area residents.

"Traditions of the White Carpathians" is one of dozens of small-scale, grassroots initiatives carried out by a broad coalition of partners, seeking to ensure the long-term sustainability of the region's economy, culture and environment. Other initiatives include renovation of some of the hundreds of traditional fruit-drying houses that once covered the region and that in recent years have fallen into disuse. Environmental groups and area farmers have combined forces to re-introduce sheep and cattle grazing, which for centuries was a mainstay of the local economy and culture and maintained the unique meadow ecosystems that are the region's hallmark.

Certainly one of the liveliest and mostcolourful of these initiatives is the annual St Nicholas Day celebration that has taken place for the past six years in the small town of Valašské Klobouky - not far from the Slovak border. The vibrant celebration of Wallachian culture, local products and handicrafts and plum brandy attracts more than 10,000 visitors annually and has become an important focus for the development of regional pride and identity.

The Jura Highland

The challenges facing the Jura Highland in southern Poland, though very different from those experienced in the remote White Carpathians, also stem from the pressure of changes since 1989. The beautiful karst landscape - with its forests and fields and the historic monasteries, churches, fortifications, manors and rural cottages associated with it - is now threatened by the rapid development of the Kraków-Silesia conurbation. The dynamic development of the area since 1989 is bringing with it new green-field developments and changing life styles of people living on and using the highland, especially through pressure for construction in suburban areas. Many Jura villages are becoming attractive residential areas for urban dwellers and are progressively losing their rural character. Degradation of valued resources - natural, cultural and recreational - is gathering momentum. Yet at the same time, demand for recreational areas is growing. The number of individual and group visits to existing protected areas is increasing rapidly. These are especially concentrated in Ojców National Park - which is particularly vulnerable, as it is just 20 km from Kraków.

In an effort to stem this development, a broad range of partners and local stakeholders have come together to develop and preserve the Jura's natural and cultural treasures. One of the initiatives, undertaken by the Polish Environmental Partnership Foundation in co-operation with Jura Landscape Parks and eight communities, is focused on developing a tourist route in the Jura Highland, which would alleviate recreation pressure on sensitive landscape resources - notably those protected by Ojców National Park - and encourage local communities to preserve the unique cultural and natural heritage of the area. The Jura Ring project serves as a framework for tangible projects along the route, such as the renovation of cultural monuments and development of hiking trails, which can develop the local economy while creating a climate of public support for the natural, cultural and landscape heritage of the Jura as a whole.

Another initiative seeks to promote appreciation for the importance of conserving natural areas of the Jura landscape by actively engaging local schools in learning about and caring for nature. Small grants (averaging USD 1300) have been offered to schools in the region to develop schoolyard conservation projects. Through the schools, the message of caring for the Jura landscape reaches a much larger population. Over 2000 teachers, parents and children have participated in the initiative to date, and plans are in place to develop a more formal Association of Schools-based Nature Stewards.

Living landscapes

It is clear that viable development solutions have to treat areas such as the White Carpathians and the Jura Highland as living landscapes - not as fossils to be pickled and preserved. Environmental and cultural conservation that does not take into account the needs and aspirations of local populations is doomed to failure. The best chance of preserving cultural and natural treasures is by sensibly exploiting them, harnessing new market forces in the service of preservation. Unfortunately, though, local communities seldom recognize the value and potential of revitalizing local economies on the basis of the natural and cultural capital of heritage landscapes that surround them. Moreover, they seldom possess the tools, expertise and knowledge to take best advantage of the heritage resources within their reach. Initiatives in the White Carpathians and the Jura Highland offer hope but are still the exception rather than the rule.

The challenges faced by heritage landscapes east of the former Iron Curtain are, of course, not unknown in similar areas of the West, which are similarly buffeted by the persistent crisis in agriculture and the increasing impact of globalisation on rural economies. The difference in Central Europe, though, is the speed at which change is taking place and the local communities' lack of preparedness to grapple with these new challenges.

Andreas Beckmann, 24 January 2000



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