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8. The Shifting Geopolitical Ecologies of Wild Nature Conservation in Romania



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Politics and the Environment
in Eastern Europe
Edited by Eszter Krasznai Kovács
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Cover image: ‘People before coal’ action (Warsaw, 18 November 2013). People from around
the world gathered in front of Poland’s Ministry of Economy in protest of the World Coal
Association’s International Coal and Climate Summit organised on the sidelines of the
19th UN climate change conference. Flickr,
Cover design by Anna Gatti
Acknowledgements vii
Contributors ix
Introduction: Political Ecology in Eastern Europe 1
Eszter Krasznai Kovács
Part I
1. The Dismantling of Environmentalism in Hungary 25
Eszter Krasznai Kovács and György Pataki
2. The Making of the Environmental and Climate Justice
Movements in the Czech Republic
Arnošt Novák
3. The Construction of Climate Justice Imaginaries through
Resistance in the Czech Republic and Poland
Mikulás Černìk
4. Gaps of Warsaw: Urban Environmentalism through Green
Jana Hrckova
Part II
5. Far-right Grassroots Environmental Activism in Poland
and the Blurry Lines of ‘Acceptable’ Environmentalisms
Balsa Lubarda
6. Contorted Naturalisms: The Concept of Romanian
Nationalist Mountains
Alexandra Coțofană
vi Politics and the Environment in Eastern Europe
7. A (Hi)Story of Dwelling in a (Post)Mining Town in
Imola Püsök
Part III
8. The Shifting Geopolitical Ecologies of Wild Nature
Conservation in Romania
George Iordăchescu
9. Domesticating the Taste of Place: Post-Socialist Terroir and
Policy Landscapes in Tokaj, Hungary
June Brawner
10. A Geographical Political Ecology of Eastern European
Food Systems
Renata Blumberg
11. What Is Not Known about Rural Development? Village
Experiences from Serbia
Jovana Dikovic
12. Failure to Hive: A Co-narrated Story of a Failed Social
Co-operative from the Hungarian Countryside
Éva Mihalovics and Zsüli Fehér
Concluding Thoughts 307
The Contributors
List of Figures 315
Index 319
George Iordăchescu
Recent debates about biodiversity conservation and habitat protection
in Europe—from state governments and Brussels—favour a turn
towards strict protection, wilderness frontiers and untouched nature
narratives. These raise serious concerns about social and environmental
justice. Although there is no clear consensus on dening wilderness
for policy-making, many initiatives converge around this aim. Many
of these proposals have found fertile ground for experimentation and
development in eastern Europe. This chapter explores how newly
discovered appreciation for wilderness is set to transform nature
conservation in this region by rearming older forms of economic
dependency and unequal environmental exchange. While zooming
in and out on such transformations happening in Romania, the
state/conservation nexus is used as a lens to understand the creation
of ‘Eastern Europe’ as a green internal periphery. This chapter will
scrutinise the ‘Eastern European wilderness momentum’ by eshing
out the ongoing creation of a private wilderness protected area in the
Southern Carpathian Mountains.
Over the last decade, various MEPs and ocials from the European
Commission have worked together to advance the protection of
wilderness in the Union, issuing soft laws such as the Guidelines
for the Natura 2000 protected areas (European Commission, 2013)
© 2021 George Iordăchescu, CC BY 4.0
186 Politics and the Environment in Eastern Europe
and a dedicated resolution (European Parliament, 2009). In parallel,
prominent environmental NGOs initiated concrete actions to identify
the last areas of ‘unspoiled’ nature, to lobby for their strict protection
as part of domestic legislation and to turn wilderness conservation into
a protable business through its commodication within ecotourism
operations and as part of climate change mitigation strategies. A new
re-valuation of old-growth forests and other intact eastern European
landscapes have made the region a prime focus for new nancial
mechanisms for carbon sequestration, biodiversity conservation
strategies and new economic growth models (European Commission,
These new developments target large areas of the eastern EU member
states. However, surprisingly, ‘wilderness’ is not mentioned in any of
the national legal frameworks in the region. Rewilding Europe, the
Endangered Landscape Programme, EuroNatur and other important
civil society conservation actors have concentrated much of their eorts
around supporting local initiatives celebrating ‘wild’ nature, or have
started top-down wilderness conservation projects. At the political
level, some states have championed this approach to conservation from
its infancy (e.g. the Czech Republic as discussed in Petrova, 2013), while
others have been somewhat reluctant to value their natural heritage as
‘untouched nature’ (e.g. Poland as discussed in Blavascunas and Konczal,
2019; and Gzeszczak and Karolewski, 2017). As civic campaigns and
high-end political negotiations around wilderness protection turn the
issue into a recurrent topic on the public agenda, the geopolitical nature
of this conservation approach becomes more critical in redening the
ways borders and peripheries are understood and acted upon in the
region (Wild Europe, 2019). Although very heterogeneous, all these
projects and initiatives share a few standard features: they come as a
response to degradation narratives or land abandonment, and propose
wilderness conservation as a way to x these problems; they present
a strict protection approach opposed to an allegedly failing marginal
agriculture; they legitimate the interventions by appealing to Western
scientic knowledge; and lastly, they glorify past ecological riches that
western Europe has lost, augmenting the urgency to act. Through a
political ecology approach, this chapter discusses power, knowledge
production, environmental justice and hegemonic conservation
1878. Geopolitical Ecologies of Wild Nature Conservation in Romania
narratives associated with the re-valuation of wild nature in eastern
Europe with a focus on Romania.
This chapter does several things. First, it shows that wilderness
protection is gaining momentum in eastern Europe and that this process
enjoys the blessing of various governments. Second, it details this relation
by scrutinising an ongoing establishment of a private wilderness reserve
in the Southern Carpathians in Romania as well as the negotiation of a
legal frame for the strict protection of ‘virgin’ forests by a technocratic
government. Finally, it shows that wilderness conservation in Romania
reinforces unjust dependencies and new forms of accumulation as wild
nature becomes an environmental x.
Emerging from civil society struggles or as private projects, wilderness-
related enterprises have been championed by state and regional
authorities throughout the entire eastern European region. As a new
Common Agricultural Policy and a European Green New Deal are
implemented, conservationists have suggested that a growing interest in
conserving ‘untouched’ nature will mark a new era in intergovernmental
cooperation and will conclude with the introduction of ‘wilderness’
values in sectors such as agriculture, energy and infrastructural
developments (Wild Europe, 2019). Intensely lobbied for by a coalition
of environmental NGOs, scientists and philanthropists, wilderness
debuted on the EU political scene with the adoption of a resolution by
the European Parliament on 3 February 2009 (European Parliament,
‘Wilderness’ as a concept of concern for environmental law and
policy-making in the EU is very young (Egerer et al., 2016). The current
wilderness momentum needs to be historicised and investigated against
contemporary global conservation debates. I join others in reconsidering
the regional specicities of wilderness preservation in the European
context (Lupp et al., 2011; Lupp et al., 2012; Kupper, 2014; Kircho and
Vicenzotti, 2014). I argue that the local historical and socio-political
context makes eastern European wilderness protection signicantly
dierent to other, similar movements. Far from adopting a globalised,
Yellowstone fortress-type of narrative, European actors propose many
188 Politics and the Environment in Eastern Europe
interpretations of wilderness, each with profound political and social
implications (Saarinen, 2015; Bastmeijer, 2016; Schumacher, 2018).
While public attitudes to wilderness vary (Bauer et al., 2017), most
of the recent legal developments champion a strict separation of wild
nature from human history and use (Martin et al., 2008; Wild10, 2015;
Egerer et al., 2016).
Read as part of a global attempt to strictly secure large areas of land
for nature to develop according to its own rules, the European wilderness
momentum appears as a process of re-territorialisation on the one
hand (Adams et al., 2014) and as the creation of a new resource on the
other. The new resource has become of utmost importance amongst EU
strategies for green growth and climate change mitigation. The making
and maintenance of these resources have involved the establishment
of strict boundaries between domesticated nature and the areas in
which (mostly white male) scientists and conservationists ‘discovered’
an autonomous nature that has evolved independently of any human
inuence. These boundary-drawing dynamics will be investigated
through the Carpathia Project in the Southern Carpathian Mountains.
The project under scrutiny changed not only local socio-environmental
relations, but also the wider political economy of the area.
There is one particular process of capitalist transformation of nature
into a commercial value that is more prevalent than others in the creation
of the eastern European wilderness frontier. This is the ‘cheapening of
nature’, a process of control and devaluation of nature as a source of
essential inputs for the development of global capitalism (Moore, 2015;
Moore and Patel, 2018). Adapted to local realities, the ‘cheapening
of wilderness’ is a foundational moment for strict conservation
initiatives in eastern Europe. This process is intimately imbricated
within recent historical events such as land restitution and reform, the
devaluation of the forest by illegal logging and deforestation, the top-
down establishment of protected areas and a constant depreciation of
traditional livelihoods.
The Romanian forests of the Făgăraș Mountains are heavily impacted
by extractivist processes and are considered to be of particular ecological
value by non-state conservation programs. The Carpathia Project is
legitimised by its promoters as undoing some of the environmental harm
done by recent ruthless timber exploitation. While stopping commercial
1898. Geopolitical Ecologies of Wild Nature Conservation in Romania
logging and hunting, the Foundation Conservation Carpathia aims
and succeeds to buy as much land as there is available, claiming that
exclusive (private) ownership is the safest strategy for strict protection
in perpetuity.
This case study is informed by interviews with people working for
the implementing organisation, direct observation, eld visits and the
study of legal documents, grey literature, technical reports, wildlife
documentaries and several other media productions. As the project is
situated within a highly political eld of negotiating new values attached
to nature, I follow the Foundation Conservation Carpathia (FCC) as an
actor involved in building the rst eastern European private wilderness
Over the last ten years, the protection of ‘wild nature’ has gained
increasing momentum in Europe. From the extensive mapping of
remaining wilderness to progress with EU legislation, proposals for
the strict protection of nature have set the ground for many continent-
wide alliances and permeated national and institutional boundaries.
Although merely a decade old, such conservation approaches have
triggered important changes in socio-environmental relations. I argue
that these wilderness protection projects have predominantly targeted
the outer regions of the EU, creating an imagined green periphery. As I
am focusing on such processes developing in eastern Europe, I propose
to call this green internal periphery ‘The New Wild East’.
The New Wild East represents a politico-environmental frontier
whose importance goes beyond nature protection and is underlined
by spiritual values, productive aesthetics and a lot of experimentation.
As it is read from the ‘West’, this wilderness frontier was revealed and
subsequently discovered after the fall of the iron curtain. The ocial
storyline goes like this:
the fall of the iron curtain, […] revealed large, intact areas in central
and Eastern Europe, primarily along the east-west border, and created
signicant opportunities for government-protected areas (Martin, 2008:
190 Politics and the Environment in Eastern Europe
Since the wild nature of eastern Europe and the wilderness in the
periphery have been ‘discovered’, threatening degradation narratives
have proliferated. Overgrazing, intensive use, deforestation,
overhunting, highway and infrastructure development, are all elements
of a sudden attack on Europe’s last wild areas. For example, damming
in the Balkans is destroying Europe’s “blue heart” (EuroNatur, 2016),
illegal logging is a threat to the last “remaining wilderness” of Poland
(Gross, 2016). On the other hand, these threats are rapidly turned into
opportunities for conservation:
Conservation organisations today have the unique opportunity to acquire
large areas of land to secure in perpetuity. Ecological and evolutionary
processes can be allowed to convert landscapes that still possess
wilderness qualities and ecological richness back into true wilderness for
the benet of biodiversity and the people alike. (Promberger, 2015: 242)
If we aim to interpret this eastern European wilderness momentum as
a creation of a green internal periphery, it is essential to ask ourselves
whose periphery would the New Wild East be relative to? Who are the
human and the more-than-human winners and losers of this process?
And what can political ecology say about it?
Land abandonment is an opportunity to move towards a
new wilderness. In this narrative, the processes underlying land
abandonment are unquestioned and rewilding comes as a restorative
process “in which formerly cultivated landscapes develop without
human control” (Hochtl et al., 2005: 86). Within this new conservation
ethic, land abandonment is productive (Jørgensen, 2015: 484), but the
underlying causes are always left unaddressed (Tănăsescu, 2017).
In eastern European countries land abandonment is often a result of
rural under-development, a lack of infrastructure, healthcare, education
opportunities and jobs, huge rural-urban investment and livelihood
divides and a steady devaluing of agricultural work combined with a
lack of outlets for selling the fruits of this work (Fox, 2011).
Closely connected to land abandonment is the issue of rural
depopulation. Many wilderness protection projects celebrate so-called
wildlife returns across the continent. Leaving aside the fact that only
‘charismatic’ species seem to return (brown bears, wolves, lynxes), such
processes happen predominantly in areas aected by out-migration,
ageing populations and other negative demographic trends. From the
1918. Geopolitical Ecologies of Wild Nature Conservation in Romania
Fig. 1. Abandoned land in the Southern Carpathian Mountains. Photograph by
George Iordăchescu (2019).
Alpine communities to the Spanish comunales, depopulation seems
a critical process negatively aecting environmental stewardship. In
eastern Europe, one of the rst rewilding projects in the early 1990s
was the reintroduction of Konik horses in the Pape region of Latvia,
an area marked by massive outmigration, an ageing population and a
total absence of markets for local products (Schwartz, 2006). Previous
Soviet rule had transformed both the rural economy and the cultural
landscape around Runcava village. While pre-Soviet shing practices
were abandoned as the area became militarised, families moved to the
bigger cities, leaving the land almost deserted. When a rewilding project
started to be considered as feasible, locals still present were (re-)trained
to see the land in terms of sustainability, biodiversity and restoration.
However, donors chose Pape not only for its ecological riches and sparse
population, but also for its low wages and prices. At the same time,
the region was close enough to countries like Sweden and Germany,
from where potential tourists could come once the new wilderness was
established (Schwartz, 2006: 159).
192 Politics and the Environment in Eastern Europe
It is important to note that, except for Finland, no EU member
country has so far adopted explicit legislation for wilderness protection
(Bastmeijer, 2016). Moreover, local grassroots support for wilderness
protection in eastern Europe has been weak so far, even if the concept
is widely popular in the West (Urban, 2016). Nevertheless, the eastern
part of the continent occupies the centre stage for some of the most
notable and well-funded strict protection projects, nanced by private
actors or through public-private partnerships. A quick overview of the
European Rewilding Network, a pan-European movement connecting
all rewilding initiatives since 2013, shows that twenty-three out of
around sixty rewilding initiatives are located in former post-socialist
countries (Rewilding Europe, 2020). Moreover, Rewilding Europe, the
agenda-setting actor in this eld on the continent, has so far established
ve of their seven rewilding areas in eastern Europe.
Another example is the Endangered Landscape Programme, a recently
launched program aimed at supporting remarkable environmental
restoration projects for an extended period to secure their success.
Financed by the Arcadia Foundation and managed by the Cambridge
Conservation Initiative, the programme announced its rst round of
projects from March 2019. Five out of a total of eight projects receiving
support are located in eastern Europe or its immediate vicinity, and their
central long-term goal is “to give space back to nature” (Endangered
Landscapes Programme, 2017).
EuroNatur, Germany’s oldest and most important foundation
advocating for wild nature protection, is involved in nineteen projects
across the continent, of which thirteen are located in eastern Europe.
One of its most ambitious initiatives is the European Green Belt, an
initiative aiming to protect and promote the strip of land formerly known
as the iron curtain. Stretching over more than 12,000 km, the former
demarcation line between east and west is allegedly Europe’s “precious
natural pearl necklace” consisting of “pristine forests and swamps, wild
mountain ranges and river landscapes that cannot be found anywhere
else in Europe” (European Green Belt, 2018). In Romania, EuroNatur
is one of the leaders and a generous supporter of an environmental
campaign for the protection of ‘virgin’ forests.
These projects attempt to dene wilderness uniformly to build
scientic coherence and homogenise tools and indicators by assembling
1938. Geopolitical Ecologies of Wild Nature Conservation in Romania
pan-European standards, reference indicators and a uniform set of
criteria. The strict separation of the newly discovered wild nature from
managed landscapes and socio-historical natures is another facet of the
same process. This strict separation is necessary and directly impacts
on local strategies for rural development, frames imaginations for the
future of humans’ relations with the environment, and often contradicts
locals’ aspirations and perspectives (Schwartz, 2006; Petrova, 2013).
This review has tried to demonstrate the apparent abundance of
wilderness to be saved in eastern Europe. Since Romania is widely
regarded as containing the highest percentage of ‘virgin’ forests
(UNESCO, 2017), charismatic wildlife (Schlingemann et al., 2017;
European Parliament, 2018) and ‘intact’ landscapes, it makes for a good
example to study the European shift towards wilderness protection.
Over the last couple of years, the Romanian government, environmental
NGOs, and other actors involved in conservation have actively
promoted the country as a biodiversity hotspot and an untouched
nature destination. In terms of legislative developments, these eorts
have been mirrored by proportional developments that reached a peak
while a technocratic government was in oce between 2015 and 2016.
For almost a decade the country’s touristic brand played on narratives
of wild nature and adventurous discovery (Iordachescu, 2014), and the
government used various diplomatic occasions to portray Romania as
the “green heart of Europe” (Romanian Presidency of the EU Council,
This new valuation of wild nature comes after two decades during
which a Carpathian timber frontier has gone from boom to bust (Vasile,
2020), leaving behind an inability to halt illegal logging and deforestation
(Iordachescu, 2020). An immediate eect of post-socialist land reforms
related to forest privatisation was an increase in timber exploitation.
Dorondel describes how both legal and illegal forest exploitation
mushroomed within patronage networks (2009), resulting in what he
calls “disrupted landscapes” (2016). According to Vasile and others,
this post-socialist timber frontier was marked by extensive corruption
and violence (Lawrence and Szabo, 2005; Vasile, 2009; Vasile, 2019).
194 Politics and the Environment in Eastern Europe
These transformations impacted the region not only from an ecological
point of view but also visually. Many forest plots were clear-cut as soon
as they were returned to owners. As the timber frontier was coming to
an end, wilderness protection became the new hegemonic narrative.
The current grim prospects for nature conservation in Romania were
preceded by a series of positive developments under the technocratic
government in oce between November 2015 and January 2017. That
period was marked by signs of progress in laying down the legal
framework for identifying and protecting the old-growth forests
(referred to as ‘virgin forests’), curbing the extent of illegal logging
and unwavering support for the creation of wilderness reserves in the
Southern Carpathians.
The protection of virgin forests in Romania is a perfect case for
understanding regional and even international attempts to conserve
wild nature under strict protection regimes. As has been explored
above, the abstraction of wilderness is a political project that continually
changes the geographies of conservation, where virgin forests represent
a proxy of this transformation (Iordachescu, 2021).
Beyond constituting a hot public debate for several years, ‘virgin
forests’ have been the object of detailed political discussions ranging
from national security to the development of big infrastructural projects
(Wild Europe, 2018). It is important to contextualise this process within
a broader eastern European interest for the protection of old-growth
forests as part of a sustained international eort to identify and nd
ways of conserving wild nature under strict protection mechanisms.
The Romanian legal framework for protecting virgin forests started to
be developed only after the party states of the Carpathian Convention
signed the Protocol on Sustainable Forest Management in May 2011. The
Forest Protocol follows up on Article 7 (paragraph 5) of the Convention
and refers to the designation of virgin forests and the need to protect
them strictly. During the technocratic rule, ministerial ordinances set the
criteria and detailed the instruments suitable for the strict protection of
these iconic wild values (Ministry of Environment, 2017).
Along with strong governmental support for the denition,
mapping and strict protection of old-growth forests as ecosystems
“developing without any direct or indirect human inuences” (Ministry
of Environment, 2012), the technocratic period was marked by an
1958. Geopolitical Ecologies of Wild Nature Conservation in Romania
explicit endorsement of a private initiative aiming to turn large areas
of the Southern Carpathians into a wilderness reserve. Popularised
in the media and political discourse as the ‘European Yellowstone’,
this initiative is emblematic for the current transformations of nature
protection in eastern Europe. Enclosing nature for the protection of
biodiversity, whether by public or private actors, has international
ramications and is considered by many to be a global phenomenon
(Peluso and Lund, 2011; White et al., 2012; Corson and MacDonald,
2012). The phenomenon is considered a sort of green grabbing, and it
supposedly takes nature out of an extractivist logic and reserves it for
ecotourism and the development of green businesses that are purported
to be friendlier to the environment (Fairhead et al., 2012; Ojeda, 2012).
The Carpathia Project is a representative example for understanding
how wild nature emerges within the region as a cheap resource. In
the aftermath of the Romanian forest restitution, the proponents of
the country’s most iconic wilderness conservation project wrote to an
international audience that
Private owners want to sell, and what happens after a sales contract is
rather irrelevant to these new owners. What if conservation organisations
step dynamically into the picture? (Promberger and Promberger, 2015:
Similarly, proponents of rewilding approaches advocate explicitly for
the articial cheapening of land to promote conservation initiatives:
We propose to disconnect subsidies for marginal land from farming
activities. Doing so will make farming less economical to owners
of marginal land, which will reduce land prices, and hence reduce
competition for land with other societal players, bringing opportunities
for ecosystem restoration(Merckx and Perreira, 2015: 99)
The Romanian case shows that after the cheapening of nature and its
subsequent securitisation, ecotourism is frequently advanced as the
silver bullet for many types of problems, from habitat degradation to land
abandonment and rural poverty. So far, ecotourism has been presented
to the general public as the only development alternative possible, as
it is a fair economic model not only for nature but also for locals. In
196 Politics and the Environment in Eastern Europe
the Făgăraș Mountains, part of the Southern Carpathians, ecotourism
initiatives have been sustained by a logic of securitisation. This captures
the processes of capital accumulation as they are bound to a vast array of
resource enclosures and dispossessions (Kelly and Ybarra, 2016; Masse,
2016; Masse and Lundstrum, 2016; Hu and Brock, 2017). The Carpathia
Project is a good illustration of various processes at play in the creation
of the eastern European wilderness frontier: the project is proposed
by a conservation foundation that secures an entire territory for future
accumulation by concomitantly taking over the roles of exclusive owner,
custodian of Natura 2000 sites, administrator of hunting grounds, and
as a member of historical forest commons. The project aims to be an
example and blueprint for future initiatives in the region (Promberger,
2019). This case is relevant not only for its pioneering vision, but also
for its ambition to become a model for other initiatives on the continent.
FCC’s founders are the leaders of the wilderness movement in Europe.
Some of them pursue their rewilding projects; others put great eorts
into lobbying for wilderness at the EU institutional level.
In this light, the wilderness conservation project acts as a veritable
new frontier of land control. While enclosures have a long history in
Europe and elsewhere, this specic enterprise stands out through its
mechanisms. Peluso and Lund (2011) appreciate that what is dierent
in the contemporary wave of enclosures are the alliances backing the
project, as well as its general economic rationale. The FCC’s conservancy
allegedly takes nature out of an extractivist commercial logic and includes
it in a non-extractive circuit (for ecotourism or contemplation). In other
words, the Carpathia Project is justied as an attempt to repair the harm
done by humans (i.e. former owners) by giving the land back to nature
(i.e. wilderness). This new way of drawing boundaries between the
human and the wild is seen here as a ‘territorialisation’ process (Peluso
and Lund, 2011: 668). As this process includes dispossession, rights
transfer and securitisation of resources, its losers end up being pushed
towards a ‘systemic edge’, where expulsion from the economic, social
and natural landscape is so advanced that it becomes hardly visible
(Sassen, 2015).
Foundation Conservation Carpathia (FCC) is the most important
private conservation actor in Romania and aims to be a leading example
at the European level. Over the last ten years, the FCC has sought
1978. Geopolitical Ecologies of Wild Nature Conservation in Romania
to protect and restore large forested areas in the eastern part of the
Southern Carpathian Mountains. Their approach has centred on using
private and public money to buy as much land as possible and ensure
its full protection. Leasing hunting rights, acquiring custody of Natura
2000 protected areas and cataloguing virgin forests complemented
their approach towards the strict protection of an allegedly untouched
nature. By the end of 2019 the foundation and its commercial companies
owned and administered over 22,000 hectares of forests and alpine
pastures, and are considered one of the biggest private forest owners
in the country. Besides buying land for strict protection, the foundation
has acquired the custody of two Natura 2000 protected areas, a further
almost 15,000 ha. Another strategy to ensure strict protection of wildlife
within the project area was to bid for and acquire exclusive hunting
rights. Buying land, being a custodian of protected areas and managing
the hunting grounds are the strategies through which the FCC builds
the future ‘European Yellowstone’. If Africa has Serengeti and Kruger,
and North America has Yellowstone, the time has come for Europeans
to have their own, emblematic Yellowstone. This comparison is not
fortuitous, however ‘the European Yellowstone’ has become common
parlance among conservationists and nature lovers alike, frequently
being adopted by policy-makers (, 2016; Rear, 2018).
Carpathia is a concrete example of how and where internationally
discussed ideas about the strict protection of wild nature, understood as
separated from human use, are put into practice. To achieve conservation
objectives, the FCC proposed and followed two strategies. First, it
worked to restore forest and aquatic ecosystems by reforesting barren
slopes, covering old eroded forestry roads and reconstructing riparian
alder habitats (Alnus incana). A generous LIFE+ grant and several other
projects contributed to the successful implementation of this approach,
resulting in more than 1.8 million trees being planted. Second, the
foundation aims to reintroduce two missing species, considered of great
value for an area aspiring to be a ‘world-class reserve’. The beaver (Castor
ber) and the European bison (Bison bonasus) are the usual suspects in
many rewilding projects on the continent, and scientists have devoted
particular attention to the practicalities of these projects (Tănăsescu,
2017; Tănăsescu, 2019; Vasile, 2018b). Here they are expected to
recreate mosaic landscapes and restore the natural ecosystems as they
198 Politics and the Environment in Eastern Europe
are abandoned or are not adequately managed. A grant of 5 million
USD, awarded to the FCC by the Cambridge Conservation Initiative in
early March 2019, is currently dedicated to this process (Endangered
Landscapes Programme, 2018).
If in the early years Carpathia was merely a project aimed at stopping
illegal logging around Piatra Craiului Massif, it has evolved over the
years, at times with the state’s help, into an enterprise for creating an
iconic national park around the Făgăraș Mountains, considered the last
unfragmented mountain range in Europe. The areas that the foundation
currently controls are expected to constitute the strictly protected core
of the future national park. At the peak of its governmental support the
park was expected to be operational by the end of 2020.
Such a daring project would not be possible without direct
governmental endorsement manifested in moral and legal support
(Iordachescu, 2018). Over the last decade, important political gures
from various parties have shown their appreciation for the wilderness
reserve. This peaked in 2016 when Romania was ruled for about one
year by a cabinet of technocrats led by the former EU Commissioner
for Agriculture and Rural Development, Dacian Cioloș. Previously, in
February 2014, the FCC received for the rst time conrmation that the
central authorities backed their project. The liberal Lucia Varga, holding
oce at the Ministry of Environment and Climate Change, signed a
collaboration protocol with the foundation oering them full technical
support for stopping the illegal logging and developing the conservation
initiative in Făgăraș.
Towards the end of 2015, an unpredictable change of executive
power took place in the country. The social democrats, led by Victor
Ponta, resigned in the middle of a massive corruption scandal that
triggered large public demonstrations. President Klaus Iohannis invited
the non-aliated Dacian Cioloș to form a government until the next
parliamentary elections. Two FCC board members were appointed as
state secretaries in the Ministry of Environment. Upon taking oce,
both of them announced an interruption of their roles in the FCC for the
period of their appointment.
Two months after her appointment, the Minister of Waters and
Forests went on an ocial visit over Făgăraș accompanied by the FCC’s
directors. The trip, nanced by the FCC, also included the BBC’s Wild
1998. Geopolitical Ecologies of Wild Nature Conservation in Romania
Carpathia documentary presenter Charles Ottley, and involved several
other national celebrities in ongoing environmental campaigns. Both
the minister and the FCC posted social media pictures of deforested
mountain slopes in the middle of endless virgin forests. They reminded
their followers about the urgency to save these wonders by supporting
the creation of the ‘European Yellowstone’.
Later that year, in September 2016, the government announced
publicly that a new memorandum for establishing the Făgăraș Mountains
National Park had been proposed for public consultation. The very rst
page of this ocial document advertised the proposed park as Europe’s
own Yellowstone: “Thus, Făgăraș Mountains National Park could
become the most important national park of Europe regarding its rich
biodiversity and extended area, a veritable ‘European Yellowstone’”
(Guvernul României, 2016: 1). The public consultation, on the other
hand, did not go as expected, so for the time being the 2020 target for
the park being operational remains a missed target.
According to the document, the proposed development vision for
the area revolves around green businesses and ecotourism enterprises
such as low impact visitations, wildlife watching facilities and animal
tracking tours catering to an auent Western audience. The locals
are expected to propose business plans and develop their initiatives
under the direction of the FCC and its partners, Conservation Capital,
Romanian Association for Ecotourism, and others (Iordachescu and
Vasile, 2016). Extractive processes such as commercial logging, domestic
grazing, foraging and other traditional land uses are mainly excluded
from this vision.
Securing and controlling access to local resources, enclosing the
commons and commodifying charismatic wildlife are facets of this
attempt that draw strict boundaries between ‘wild’ and ‘domesticated’
nature around the Făgăraș Mountains. Not everyone has experienced the
same impact on their livelihoods by the strict conservation regime. Most
of the villagers who privately own pastures and forests felt the arrival of
the FCC to a lesser extent. At the same time, Roma communities, who
possess no land, have no stable jobs, and live in precarious settlements,
felt the impact the most. Between these two polarised categories are the
shepherds, farmers, foresters, guesthouse owners, hunters, and many
others who either had asked for their interests to be represented by the
local authorities or opposed the foundation directly themselves.
200 Politics and the Environment in Eastern Europe
Yellowstone is an important brand within the global conservation
movement: while the park played an essential role in framing the
spectacle of wildlife as part of a standardised, commodied experience
(Rutherford, 2011), its foundation was marked by brutal dispossessions
and genocide (Cronon, 1996).
The most decisive impact of the Carpathia Project, the ‘European
Yellowstone’, has been felt in the historical region of Muscel, situated on
the southern side of the Făgăraș Mountains. Most of the municipalities
here are composed of several villages whose agricultural lands and forests
extend from the hills to the alpine pastures. Historically, the area was
relatively well o, situated between the rst two capitals of the medieval
Principality of Wallachia. Animal husbandry, forest exploitation, and
commerce across the mountains between Transylvania and Wallachia
have been the basis of this region’s economic development. As almost
all villages retained their privileges from medieval to modern times, the
landscape and most natural resources have been governed by commons
and customary rule until the land was nationalised from 1948 onwards
(Vasile, 2018a). From 2000, a new restitution law allowed former
historical owners to take back their lands, so the common ownership
of forests became a source of pride and collective action throughout
the region (Vasile, 2009). Thus, localsstrong opposition towards the
wilderness conservation project did not come as a surprise for anyone,
and the rst years of the project were marked by rumours and suspicion
rather than by open consultations and dialogue.
Aside from various forms of everyday resistance that never morphed
into organised violent revolt, there have been dierent types of
mobilisation by local authorities concerning rumours about declaring
Făgăr Mountains a national park. Although the state government’s
memorandum mentioned that the population around the Făgăraș
Mountains was 73,000 inhabitants, it did not organise any consultation
meeting before or after the memorandum was made public. The
document’s preamble read:
The national park could attract over 500 million potential visitors from
Europe. […] through the establishment of Făgăraș Mountains National
2018. Geopolitical Ecologies of Wild Nature Conservation in Romania
Park, the local communities surrounding the mountains have the unique
opportunity of making it to the international map of tourism (Guvernul
României, 2016, translation my own)
Rather than attering local authorities, these words infuriated them. In
November 2016 a big meeting was organised in Șercăița, a village on
the northern side of Făgăraș. Representatives of thirty-three commons
were joined by twelve mayors who discussed the memorandum and
rearmed their opposition to the FCC’s plans to build a ‘world-class
wilderness reserve’. Together they signed the Resolution of Șercăița, an
ocial document that was submitted to the technocratic government.
In four points, they asked the government to stop the establishment of
the national park and to respect their property rights as granted by the
Romanian constitution. They also led a complaint to the National Anti-
Corruption Oce in which they accused the government of adopting a
private conservation project as a state project of public interest.
Fig. 2. Rudari permanent settlement. Photograph by George Iordăchescu (2018).
Another important group that has never been at the negotiation table
despite being directly impacted by the development of the wilderness
reserve is that of local Roma communities. In many hilly or mountainous
regions of Romania, dierent groups of Roma (calling themselves Rudari)
were engaged in patron-client relations around forest exploitation,
precarious agricultural work, scrap iron collection and other types of
informal livelihoods that proliferated during the post-socialist period
202 Politics and the Environment in Eastern Europe
(Dorondel, 2009; Dorondel, 2016). Around the Făgăraș Mountains, these
realities were not dierent. All seven Rudari communities that I visited
were economically deprived compared to nearby villages, in terms of
infrastructure and public amenities. An unclear land tenure situation
has been doubled here by precarious living conditions sometimes
involving a lack of safe drinking water, or a heightened probability of
ooding with the advent of severe rains.
For many of the interviewed families, their livelihoods were
seriously aected after their access to areas rich in mushrooms or to
nearby forests was halted. Until recently, they enjoyed customary access
to these resources. It is here where everyday forms of resistance were
most frequently performed: Rudari’s weapons of the weak involved an
entire set of actions, from petty rewood stealing to regularly breaking
the barriers and fences installed by the FCC. They have often been ned,
their carts, horses and chainsaws seized, and they were sometimes
beaten, or even imprisoned, by gendarmes. Most of the clashes were
with the rangers employed by the foundation to patrol the valleys alone
or accompanied by gendarmes. These clashes happened inside and
outside the protected forests.
During the last two years, the FCC has radically changed their public
relation strategy towards greater openness and inclusivity. They have
been very active in promoting their plans at local folklore festivals
and even organised a Forest Carnival for 300 guests in Rucăr in 2018.
Regardless of these attempts, locals’ mobilisation against the project has
remained strong. As the FCC started a set of consultative meetings in
April and May 2019, people gathered in signicant numbers in Râmnicu
Vâlcea, Sibiu and Brașov to express their concerns. Farmers and the
presidents of commons particularly voiced profound disagreement
with FCC plans. On the western side of the Făgăraș Mountains, as well
as on the eastern side, people have a recent history of conicts with
the administrations of Cozia and Piatra Craiului National Parks, both
established in the mid-2000s without adequate public consultation. The
discussions during the meetings convened by the foundation in May
2019 revolved more around the fears about future restrictions than
around issues related to the value of wildlife and the ecosystem services
oered by the future national park. As they have been reported by the
local media, none of the meetings ended in a constructive way (Nostra
2038. Geopolitical Ecologies of Wild Nature Conservation in Romania
Silva, 2019a; Nostra Silva, 2019b). As the summer started, Barbara
Promberger, executive director of the FCC, was invited to the National
Geographic Explorers Festival in Washington. Here she spoke about
how the foundation puts great eort into improving local communities’
economic situation but nds nothing but suspicion and distrust.
Being the ones to bear the costs of wilderness preservation, locals
fear that timber will be scarcer, grazing areas less bountiful and that
conicts with wild animals will increase. As they are oered promises
of signicant gains from the development of ecotourism, they also have
their own ideas and concepts about how tourism should be developed
in the area. Many locals, both persons with decision-making power as
well as guesthouse owners and small farmers, believe that mass tourism
and resorts with winter sports facilities would be more benecial for the
economies of their villages.
All of these forms of contention should not be seen as a rejection
of nature protection or as a disinterest or aversion to environmental
issues. People in the area feel a deep attachment to their mountains.
Through the historical institutions of commons, natural resources
have been used and managed in a sustainable way for centuries. These
concerns should be interpreted as a disapproval of a top-down, strict
conservation approach that attempts to ‘save’ a nature that is unknown
and unrecognisable to those who live there—the wilderness and its
narratives are totally separate from traditional use and local history.
As intact landscapes, old-growth forests and strictly protected
wildlands are considered an essential element in recent EU climate
mitigation and biodiversity strategies (such as the New Green Deal),
I see the development of wilderness protection in the region as a
process of unequal ecological exchange between a wealthier, Western
core and a periphery, where the decision-making processes, hegemonic
conservation knowledge and nancial mechanisms of the former are
concentrated and deployed to x, restore, reconstruct and sustainably
use the ‘nature’ discovered in the latter, which is characterised by
backwardness, subsistence, land abandonment and depopulation. This
process unfolds as the creation of a green internal periphery, mainly
204 Politics and the Environment in Eastern Europe
to achieve EU and member states’ ambitions to sustain green economic
growth and lead the global ght against climate change.
These various wilderness conservation projects are bound together
not only by strong political and ideological support, but also by the
similar socio-economic local contexts that enable them. Local conditions
such as declining rural population, actual or relative land abandonment,
the demise of traditional land-use practices and ‘cheap’ nature, are all
features of this new green internal periphery represented by the eastern
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... A private project heralded as a model for the future of conservation in the region is already taking shape in eastern Europe, advertised as the European Yellowstone and supported by global green philanthropists (Iordăchescu 2018(Iordăchescu , 2021. Mandatory targets for strict protection will inevitably clash with centuries-old traditional land uses. ...
... Seen as an attempt to give "nature the space it needs" (European Commission 2020: 1), the Strategy did not offer any details on the socio-economic impact of such a proposal, but suggested nevertheless that "there should be a specific focus on areas of very high biodiversity value or potential" (Idem: 5). Coupled with the proposal to set mandatory targets for ecosystem restoration and enact the complete protection of all remaining old-growth forests, but without offering adequate financial or legal mechanisms, the Strategy risks to set the ground for increased restrictions to affect traditional land uses and marginal agriculture in areas which are rich in biodiversity, but affected by poverty and economic inequalities (Iordăchescu 2021). The practical aspects of translating these targets into domestic legislation fall on Member States' shoulders, potentially widening the biodiversity protection gaps across Europe's biogeographic regions. ...
... As a new Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) and a European Green New Deal are implemented, conservationists have suggested that a growing interest in strictly conserving 'untouched' nature will mark a new era in intergovernmental cooperation and will conclude with the introduction of 'wilderness' values in sectors such as agriculture, energy, and infrastructural developments (Wild Europe 2019). In various peripheral regions of the EU or its close vicinity, notable wilderness-related initiatives are already drawing critical financial resources, from the establishment of Cabo de Gata-Nijar National Park in the south of Spain (Cortéz Vásquez 2012) to the emerging 'European Yellowstone' in the Romanian Carpathians and beyond (Iordăchescu 2021). Although very heterogeneous, these projects share a few standard features: they come as a response to degradation narratives or land abandonment and propose wilderness conservation as a fix; they advocate for a strict protection approach as opposed to an allegedly failing marginal agriculture; they legitimise interventions by appealing to western scientific knowledge; and lastly, they glorify past ecological riches which western Europe has lost, thus augmenting the urgency to act. ...
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This is the introductory chapter of the book Wilderness Protection in Europe. The Role of International, European and National Law, edited by Kees Bastmeijer and published by Cambridge University Press in 2016. It explains that in the past the Western human-nature relationship and broadly acknowledged legal principles on State sovereignty and private property were stimuli for the active transformation of the ‘wilderness’ into cultivated lands, and rendered the protection of wilderness against human impacts illogical. Next, the chapter sketches the process of changing appreciation of relatively untouched natural areas since the beginning of the nineteenth Century. Against this backdrop, the chapter discusses the position of the wilderness concept in international and European nature conservation law and policy.
Concerns over deforestation are growing along with the climate crisis. This is particularly unsettling in relation to the rise of populist authoritarian regimes. In this article I reveal the connections between forests, neoliberalism, authoritarianism, and cronyism, through an in-depth ethnographic study of the Romanian Carpathian forests after the fall of socialism in 1989. The study examines the intricate entanglements between forest extraction, party politics, and informal territorial governance that emerged over the last thirty years. It argues that unruly coalitions shaped forest history. It focuses on the central figure of the timber baron, who ran businesses in connection with state office politics and maintained provincial authoritarian control over resources by tapping into paternalist dependencies of rural mountain dwellers. The article uses the analytic tools of political ecology and the conceptual framework developed by studies on resource frontiers and political forests combined with the anthropology of postsocialism. I draw on field research from 2004 to 2016, in which I collected data through systematic fieldwork, interviews, and surveys, complemented with official reports and media coverage. The article uses a narrative ethnographic writing approach.
This paper engages with rewilding practice in the particular case of European Bison reintroductions to the Southern Carpathians. In doing so, it questions traditional notions of species purity implied in wisent conservation so far, and shows how these can be problematic. The argument takes animal agency seriously and explores how incorporating the animals’ view can challenge and modify rewilding practice. It proposes the concept of restorative ecological practice as a new stage in the human relation to the environment and in the history of conservation. Nature restoration in a world of accelerating material change is best understood as rebuilding relationships between humans and their environments, and not as returning to previous states. This idea implies that we have entered an experimental phase of nature conservation where inherited notions of what counts as an animal, and what animals can and should do, need to be thoroughly interrogated. New relationships between impure species are an integral part of the future of conservation.
Introduction The term ‘wilderness’ is not used in the Polish legislation and is even not easy to translate into Polish with a single word. Probably closest to the term wilderness is the phrase ‘wild nature’: dzika przyroda. In common understanding this phrase means natural ecosystems, not affected, or only slightly affected, by human civilization (e.g., buildings and roads) - although not necessarily very large in size. Despite the absence of the term ‘wilderness’ in Polish legislation and language, Poland hosts quite many areas with relatively high wilderness qualities, particularly in comparison to West- and North-West Europe. Statistics regarding the surface area of ‘wilderness’ in Poland are not available, as the term is not defined nor formally used in, for instance, Polish policy making. Based on the working definition of this book, the most important wild areas - mainly forests - are located in the Eastern and North-eastern part of Poland, although certain old grown forest complexes are to be found also in Central and Western Poland. Part of these areas are mountains (Southern frontier of the country), which due to their geomorphology are less accessible for human activity. The available data show that Natura 2000 sites cover twenty per cent of the land territory of Poland (the entire territory of Poland is 311,904 km²); however, not all of these areas may be regarded as wilderness with the qualities as described in Chapter 1. The national parks and nature reserves, the two most strict forms of nature protection provided by national law, cover as little as one point five per cent of the country only, but also these areas do not all necessarily qualify as wilderness. Vice versa, not all areas that have the quality of being ‘wild’ are protected as Natura 2000 sites, national parks or nature reserves. Those wilderness areas that have a protected status under a protection regime often have an overlapping status of National Park and/or Nature Reserve (see beneath for further explanations) and Natura 2000. One of the most important areas in Poland is the Bialowieska Forest (Puszcza Białowieska), located on the territories of Poland and Belarus, which area is one of the last primeval forests in Europe. The Polish part of the Forest is about 630 km², which is forty-two per cent of the entire area.
How the Carpathians were born Many years ago, there was a plain with agricultural fields owned by giant Sylun. Many people worked for him and had no rights to leave. A young guy Carp Dniprovsky worked for the giant and decided to return back home. The giant didn’t allow him, they fought, Carp took power from the land and won, got Sylun under the land. Sylun tried to get out but couldn’t, the land became as waves - mountains were created. People decided to stay in this place, some of them in the mountain, some in the lowland. Sylun is still under ground, sometimes storming, but he is very old and not able to get out. Introduction The Carpathians are one of the largest mountain ranges in Europe, covering an area of more than 200,000 km² shared by seven Central and Eastern European countries: the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, Romania, Serbia, the Slovak Republic and Ukraine. The Carpathians are the most extensive mountain system in Europe after the Alps. The Carpathian region includes a mountain core area. The total length of the Carpathians is over 1,500 km and their width varies between twelve and 500 km. Their highest range is the Tatra Mountains with the Gerlachovský peak at 2,655 m, located in the Slovak Republic close to the Polish border. The wider Carpathian region, including forelands and surrounding foothills and lowlands, is home to a human population of nearly 53 million inhabitants, which represents approximately seven point six per cent of the European population, and covering less than five per cent of European territory. Five of the seven Carpathian countries are members of the EU (the two non-EU countries are Ukraine and Serbia). Known as the ‘Kingdom of Carnivores’, the region supports viable populations of large carnivores, an estimated 8,000 brown bears, 4,000 wolves and 3,000 lynx. The region also contains the last virgin forests in Europe except for the Russian forests, and harbours more than one-third of all European plant species. Besides this ecological value, the Carpathian forests also have significant socio-economic value through the timber and tourism industries, as well as through preserving the region’s natural and cultural heritage.