Protecting the Carpathian Mountains

European brown bear

The Carpathian mountain range is one of Europe's most closely guarded secrets. It is a region of extraordinary beauty, stretching from Romania in the south-east, through Ukraine, a small part of northern Hungary, Slovakia, parts of southern Poland, the far east of the Czech Republic and even a tiny section of Austria, just above Vienna. David Vaughan reports.

The Carpathians boast one of Europe's most unspoilt environments, and according to Andreas Beckmann from the Environmental Partnership based in Prague they are of world importance.

"The Carpathians are exceptionally rich in species, the last European stronghold of large mammals including brown bears, wolves and lynx, for example. There are about four thousand wolves in the Carpathian region. In Scandinavia, for example, there are about fifty to sixty individual wolves. There is also a rich variety of plant species. In the White Carpathians in Eastern Moravia, for example, there are about forty different kinds of orchids. For all these reasons, the Worldwide Fund for Nature (WWF) has selected the Carpathians as one of their top two hundred eco-regions in the world. So it's an area of global importance in terms of nature."

I've come to the small town of Valasske Klobouky in the heart of the White Carpathians, the low range of hills that straddles the Czech-Slovak border. This is the westernmost outcrop of the Carpathian range. It's an area that has long been settled, and is mainly a man-made landscape, where farmers from the small villages in the valleys, have made a modest living for centuries. It is also a place where folk traditions and traditional ways of life are better preserved than anywhere else in the Czech Republic.

But there are also many threats to the fragile harmony of the Carpathians, both here in the Czech Republic and elsewhere. Here in Valasske Klobouky, Miroslav Janik has been working to preserve the unique network of hillside meadows above the town.

"Seventy years ago we can say that all meadows were natural meadows, but now only around ten percent remain. We can say that the other meadows were changed to fields, were changed to intensive agricultural cultures, and now we are at the start of the process of revitalization of the countryside to make a new harmony, to make more ecological stability, and to protect the gene pool of the White Carpathians, of the meadows."

"Here we are standing at the start of the natural reserve. It's a typical flowering Carpathian meadow, and the diversity of this meadow is seven hundred species. Now we can see two species of orchids. One is "orchis morio" and the other species is "orchis mascula". There is a very special programme on this meadow because it is something like a gene pool of flowers, and we have a special scientific programme on this meadow. We cut in three terms and we use the seeds for the renovation of meadows. All the work is based on volunteers. For example on this meadow it's about twenty to thirty people who come to help us."

In all the countries of the Carpathians, enthusiasts have ensured that hundreds of small projects like the work of Miroslav Janik have developed since the fall of Communism. They are working to protect flora, fauna and architecture, and seeking means for sustainable development. While the Carpathians cover only 8% of Czech territory, in Romania, they cover over a quarter of the country's landmass, including some of Europe's last areas of virgin forest. Ovidiu Ionescu has played a central role in a project to protect wolves, bears and other large mammals in the mountain forests of the Piatra Craiului National Park in Romania.

"We have different components in this project, starting from a research and management plan for carnivores, but also rural development and education. We want to have an integrated approach to the problem to maximize the chances of success."

And the large carnivore project is proving a genuine success. Populations of all large mammals in Romania are either stable or increasing. This success is in part thanks to a new international partnership for conservation, the Carpathian Ecoregion Initiative, which has been facilitated by the Worldwide Fund for Nature. It aims to coordinate environmental projects throughout the vast Carpathian region, where individual countries are often short of both money and expertise. Ovidiu Ionescu again.

"We realize that we cannot conserve nature on a local level. We have to have a regional approach. This is why countries from the area of the Carpathians came together - governmental organizations and non-governmental organizations, to make plans and action plans to make an assessment of bio-diversity in the area and to try to conserve the richness of the area - not only the natural richness but also the cultural richness of the area."

Within the Czech Republic Andreas Beckmann has been one of the main coordinators of the Carpathian Ecoregion Initiative.

"The Carpathian Ecoregion Initiative has been established essentially in response first of all to the great value of the Carpathians on a global scale, but at the same time, in response to some of the new threats that are beginning to appear. One of the major ones is increasing development, particularly with the move to a free market since 1989, but also with the move towards accession to the European Union. We expect that development will increase and as a result threats to this region will increase as well.

"Another threat in the opposite direction is abandonment of certain areas, which for a lot of these landscapes, which have been farmed and cultivated for hundreds of years, means the loss of valuable eco-systems - so valuable meadows and fields that are home to rare orchids for example in the White Carpathians. The Carpathian Ecoregion Initiative began about two years ago, and one of the first things it did was to do a general study of the biological features. So we're trying to find the most valuable areas, but also the socio-economic threats to the region, in a sense to try to find the hotspots that we need to protect the most. Now we're moving into a phase where we're trying to develop and support a lot of initiatives - local initiatives - across the region."

To look at one of these initiatives I've come to Hostetin, a typical village in the heart of the White Carpathians on the Czech-Slovak border. It may be a quiet place, but if you visit the local apple-juice producing plant, you can see plenty of activity.

This plant, producing 164 000 litres of high-quality biological apple juice annually, enjoys the support of the Carpathian Ecoregion Initiative, and is an example of the attempt to combine ecology with economic interests. Radim Machu is deputy mayor of Hostetin.

"Orchards and fruit trees are an important part of the landscape of the White Carpathians and orchards actually create the landscape structure here, so that's why it's important to preserve the fruit trees and also the gene pool of local fruit varieties. So that's why we decided to preserve this richness, and we would like to do it through economic ways and economic measures. So we are offering to the people the opportunity to gain some profit from their harvest. We are buying their harvest of apples and making a traditional regional product, which in a final way also creates a kind of regional marketing of the White Carpathians. We have our local apple juice which is coming from the White Carpathians."

Similarly the Carpathian Ecoregion Initiative has been encouraging the modest development of tourism in the Carpathians in Romania. "Eco-tourists", says Ovidiu Ionescu, are attracted by the presence of rare species.

European brown bear
"People discover that they don't have to travel to Africa or some exotic places to see species which are quite rare and charismatic, but they can travel to the Carpathians, and they have the opportunity to see not only the animals, but also the culture of the area and the natural habitat where they still exist - a big richness for Europe."

To accommodate these tourists the Carpathian Ecoregion Initiative is helping to establish a network of small hotels and bed-and-breakfasts, bringing money directly into the local community.

At the end of April a high-level conference took place in Bucharest, aimed at giving a boost to international cooperation in the Carpathians. It was attended by the presidents of several countries in the region, who signed a declaration on conservation and sustainable development. Such gestures from above are little more than symbolic, but they do give a boost to people working on the ground to preserve a unique, but delicate environment for future generations. Ovidiu Ionescu sums up.

"This was a kind of green light for the conservation activities in the area. So this political willingness encouraged a lot of people, a lot of initiatives to start actions for the conservation of nature and for developing programmes in the area of the Carpathians, and it was very important that this declaration was signed by so many important persons."