Sustainable resources management is also about responsibility: An interview with protected areas expert Erika Stanciu

IUCN is currently carrying out a feasibility study to assess whether the IUCN Green List Sustainability Standard, a global benchmark for the effective management of protected and conserved areas, can be applied to the Natura 2000 network. In this interview, Erika Stanciu, an expert in protected area management, talks about the challenges faced by protected areas both in her native Romania and further afield.

Erika Stanciu Retezat National Park Romania

This is the second in a series of interviews with Natura 2000 experts as part of the LIFE Green List for N2K project. Our interviewee has extensive experience in Natura 2000 site management. She recently became involved in the Green List for N2K project as a member of the European Core Working Group, with the goal of adapting the IUCN Green List Sustainability Standard to the Natura 2000 network.

Erika has been associated with Natura 2000 sites for many years, being involved in the early stages of the preparation of Natura 2000 in Romania, since 2003, before the country joined the European Union in 2007. She continues to be involved in Natura 2000 management activities in her current work for the Foundation Propark, where she is executive director. Part of her activities involves participatory management planning and capacity building; she and her Propark colleagues are certified trainers, trying to build the capacity of professionals working in Natura 2000 sites in Romania. Her work has taken her to many parts of Europe, partly through Natura 2000 related projects in Bulgaria and Slovakia and through training events for protected area managers in Croatia, Moldova, Ukraine and other Eastern and Central European countries, including Hungary, Serbia, Latvia, Lithuania.

She has been impressed by the adaptability of protected area managers and how they have got up to speed with Natura 2000 sites. However, she finds governments can lack understanding of the principles behind Natura 2000 and how it works but she concedes the situation varies from country to country. In addition, she finds that connections could be improved between site managers, natural resource managers and local authorities. These “soft” connections between entities could be critical for improving ‘real world’ connections, including designing and implementing ecological corridors between Natura 2000 sites so as to maintain a functional network, she says.  Furthermore, she considers that stakeholder involvement is very important: “Participative management is something that we do not really understand yet or implement.”

Agricultural land in Podisul Hartibaciului, Romania Autumn in Valea Lupului, Romania. Photo: Erika Stanciu

From an early age growing up in Brasov, a city in the heart of the Carpathians in Romania, Erika decided that she wanted to study nature conservation. No such courses existed at the time so she settled on forestry, to her mind the closest alternative. She enjoyed it, the day-to-day fieldwork and the hands-on nature of the activities. It also proved to be intellectually stimulating, influencing her view of nature conservation even today. She saw a clear connection between forestry and nature protection. The focus may not have been on the conservation of species and their habitat but “the principles are very close to those of nature conservation. Even the harvesting part has some very sound principles.” She adds that foresters can genuinely contribute to nature conservation if they do their jobs according to the principles they were taught at university. “I would call it responsible management. It sounds, at least to me, even more engaging than sustainable management. I think responsible contains a bit more than just the balance between the social, the economic and the environmental. It also contains the need to get personally involved.”

Things have changed considerably since 1990, following the fall of Communism in Romania, and the transition has been tough. “There has been a major change in economic and financial support for forestry,” she says. Before 1990, foresters in Eastern Europe did not have to consider economic concerns, such as securing salaries, as the forestry sector was fully supported by the state. “All of your worries were about the really good management of the forest, that it is healthy and provides good timber and other products and services.” After 1990, the support stopped and foresters were expected to provide for themselves, both their salaries and funding for their activities. The speed of the change meant that national park managers and foresters were often left unprepared. “That was a major shift without teaching people how to do that properly, without teaching them management principles or what a sustainable economic activity means. That shift led to some unsustainable practices in some cases.

The land restitution process often added to the problem. Forests which were previously owned and managed by the state were handed over to private individuals, many without prior training in sustainable land management. In many cases, they looked to profit from the land “without really thinking about the environmental services forests provide, like, for example, their importance for protecting soil and water,” she says. “I think we are still not able to figure out the balance between responsibility towards society and the right to have personal benefits as a land owner, thus many of the services forests provide are nowadays ignored or not considered important.”

The problem of land fragmentation has been further compounded by the lack of good compensation mechanisms, she says, a situation which can lead to difficulties for land owners and resource managers in protected areas. “If a forest owner or manager agrees to a restriction on harvesting large areas, for example around certain bird nests or other fauna refuges, they have an economic loss but this is not compensated. If you need income and financial resources for your management measures then you are stuck as an owner. There are land owners who have their forests or grazing areas entirely in strictly protected zones of protected areas. If you put restrictions on them without compensating them in any way or offering alternatives, that’s a huge burden on the land owners and resource managers.

Farming in Podisul Hartibaciului Romania Farmers working the land by a small village in Podisul Hartibaciului, Romania. Photo: ADEPT Foundation Romania

Governments and stakeholders might be more willing to pledge resources to nature conservation if there was a better understanding of the long-term services that protected area ecosystems provide, she says. She suggests that one way to change mentalities and generate revenue for nature conservation could be to integrate Natura 2000 into the other funding lines of the EU budget, such as for agriculture or water issues. “If the stakeholders are respecting Natura 2000 measures, they should receive money and/or have priority access to funding schemes developed for other sectors. The different sectors should not have diverging objectives and priorities in the Natura 2000 sites. Furthermore, the financial mechanisms developed for the relevant sectors at the EU, national, regional or local levels should be coordinated and harmonised to contribute to the efficiency of the Natura 2000 network.”

Some financial support is available for protected area management:  the EU has Natura 2000 payments and Romania introduced a compensation system in 2016 for forest owners who face major restrictions. However, these are limited and managers are not always aware of the possibilities or how to use them effectively, she says. The relative absence of financial support for conservation, as well as a lack of public awareness, communication and educational activities, often leaves local communities sceptical about protected areas, as they fail to see the value or benefits. “There are some projects, for example promoting some ecotourism related investment, but there are still very few in my opinion.”

Field work Podisul Hartibaciului ProPark Erika Stanciu Erika giving a training session to park manager in wooded pasture in Podisul Hartibaciului. Photo: ProPark

Erika is interested in management effectiveness assessments for protected areas and has been involved in such assessments herself previously. “Protected areas need evaluation and assessment, to prove to people that they are doing a good job and are beneficial for society. There is a need for systematic evaluation.” She also believes that occasional self-assessment by site managers is useful, as from her experience she knows it can be easy to get lost in the day to day management activities and neglect the “bigger picture.”

Erika became involved in the Green List for Natura 2000 project partly because she thought it could be a useful tool for carrying out such evaluations, including self-assessments by managers. “I thought that the Green List, if it is so valued by IUCN and many of the other actors already, could be one of the ways of assessing from time to time how Natura 2000 site managers are doing. Such self-assessments can be really useful if used properly, not carried out by one person but by the whole team to help the team improve.” She is involved now in the adaptation of the IUCN Green List to Natura 2000 sites through the Green List for NK2 project, a process she considers as very important, as the criteria were devised for protected sites generally, not the specifics of the EU protected areas network.

When asked what her favourite Natura 2000 site is she says it’s hard to choose one but eventually opts for Podișul Hârtibaciului, a protected area of about 180,000 hectares in the centre of Romania. The area is known for its attractive mosaic landscape built through centuries of human-nature interaction around the Saxon villages and their renowned fortified churches. “It is one of my favourites because it is a fantastic region for biodiversity but also culturally. The combination of the two is really almost perfect. The landscape, the combination of the forest and the hay meadows, with villages ‘inserted’ almost artistically into the landscape, is just fantastic.”

There are currently five Romanian Natura 2000 sites participating in the testing phase of the N2K project: Dealurile Târnavelor și Valea Nirajului, Dealurile Târnavei Mici - Bicheș, Coasta Lunii, Zarandul de Est, Cânepiști. “I really hope that the managers of these sites will benefit from this testing phase by having this ‘guided overview’ of their management systems. Ideally, this process should help them identify what are the most pressing priorities for their management, thus providing a good list for follow-up, even if there is no ‘Green List award’ at the end of this process.

Saxon village in Podișul Hârtibaciului Romania Saxon village in Podișul Hârtibaciului, Romania. Photo: Erika Stanciu

More information about the 'Green List for Natura 2000' project can be found here. If you’re interested in learning more about the project you can also contact [email protected].

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