I was recently lucky enough to spend a week in Slovenia on an Erasmus+ learning programme to exchange ideas about the protection of natural heritage – below are a few thoughts about what I learnt – and it starts with an old cliche – conservation is all about people…
Throughout the trip the lack of people was striking – villages were quiet, sites sparsely visited and it was rare to meet other tourists. In a country with a population of just 2million, this is perhaps not surprising but it of course has pros and cons. Generally the sites we visited were calm, quiet and restful. Even in the capital city the streets buzzed with nothing more than a gentle hum of locals and tourists mingling in the sunshine and sheltering under café parasols. The lack of weight of people meant sites generally felt unspoilt, peaceful and litter free. This lack of people, however, also brings problems. Eco-tourism enterprises promise much, in particular in the undeveloped southern part of Slovenia and in the newly branded, ‘Green Karst’ area where we spent much of our time. Yet empty sites is not a great sign for these burgeoning businesses and we regularly visited sites with annual visitor numbers in the low thousands. Whilst clearly EU and other grant funding has been considerable in supporting the development of ecotourism infrastructure it is hard to see the long term sustainability of these businesses, let alone their ability to generate the income required to protect wildlife and green spaces.
So in the big picture people will be crucial. Convincing people of the merits of protecting natural heritage will depend on seeing real results, which in turn will rely on sufficient visitor numbers to generate income, without losing the quiet, natural beauty which is part of the area’s unique selling point.
However, on a smaller scale, it was the individuals we met who once again impressed on me the crucial role people play and will continue to play in the future:
Director, Regional Development Agency
We visited the RDA offices and found them themselves under major development. We crammed into a tiny meeting room and as the director rolled his eyes and blew his hair out of his eyes repeatedly and a tiny fan fought against the searing heat, the whole set up seemed symbolic of the pressures pushing on him from all angles as he reeled off a list of projects he and the 10 other staff were managing; ranging from supporting new social enterprises, developing a new focus of technology and promoting the new tourist, ‘Green Karst’ brand. His story reflected again the wealth (though small scale) of funding coming into the area, yet the difficulties faced in really turning this into meaningful development and sustainable businesses. Listening to him talk I felt that I could be in a RDA in almost any rural area in the world as he discussed the need to deliver a wide range of projects on a tiny budget, the great opportunities they felt they had, set against the difficulties of marketing against global competition and the brain drain away from their traditional rural economies. “Do you see a tension between trying to develop the area, bring in more income and yet protect your environment?” one of the group asked. His emphatic “no” at first seemed a little disingenuous, but on reflection was perhaps more representative of the difficulties of achieving large scale changes in bringing development to under-resourced, under-populated rural areas.
Andrej Sovinc, Director Ecovlje Salt-pans
The Ecovlje Salt-pans were unassuming at first glance. Small numbers of tourists wandered through the traditional salt flats. Sign boards indicated further EU investment in supporting the traditional crafts of making salt on this small stretch of Slovenia’s limited coast line. Addressing us on the roof of the small visitor centre, dressed in shorts and a T-shirt Andrej himself appeared equally unassuming. However, as he talked it became clear that this small, unassuming area had a big conservation story to tell. How a director of the national mobile phone company, ‘fell in love’ with the area and agreed to invest not only money, but time and marketing skill, in developing a unique brand of artisan salt which could provide local employment and protect the salt flats, also important for wading birds and other wildlife. He told us how he too, had fallen in love, sufficiently so to give up an IUCN job which was three times better paid to work long hours late into the night developing business plans and even carry on having been beaten up and put in hospital by 3 local guys who had mistakenly believed he planned to build hotels on the salt-pans. It was a story both of community involvement failures like this, but ultimately one of success, with the business now employing 96 people and selling high end salt across the world. It was an inspiring story of how business skill and conservation drive can come together and create workable solutions. “The key to engaging the community was showing real results”, said Andrej tellingly. However it was also no fairy tale. With the need to build the salt business to stand on its own two feet, Andrej told us there was much uncertainty in what the future would hold, but it was clear that with his passion for wildlife, belief in supporting and involving the local community and economic and business acumen, that future was in good hands.
Miriam Mikulic – Slovenia Forest Service
Miriam is the only female forester in Southern Slovenia. Third generation, born and bred in the same village in which she now lives, she is passionate about the forest and her local area. Her passion to take people out into the forest and educate them, alongside protecting and working the forest in a sustainable way was truly inspirational. However, perhaps the most striking elements of what she said over the course of the day we spent with her were the similarities of her concerns, to those we have at home in the UK. She bemoaned the lack of connection and pride Slovenians have in their amazing forest and perhaps more surprisingly, spoke with real sadness as she described the beautiful lake by her house where she continues to swim every day – and her disappointment and disbelief that local families and children no longer swim in that lake – the children more interested in playing computer games, the parents scared that the children will drown. Hearing this reminded me how easy it is to assume that we have worse problems than other places and to idealise other’s experiences. Instead, even in this seemingly rural idyll, lack of connection to nature is a problem affecting people’s daily lives and the long term conservation of their biodiversity.
These short portraits are merely snapshots, as indeed was the six days we spent in Slovenia. However some universal messages came through for me personally:
- There are some wonderful, passionate and commited people working to protect our biodiversity
- But they need help and support, they are generally under resources and face major problems, philosophical, economic and practical.
- Nonetheless, with suitable support, full integration with the local community and economic and business astuteness, exciting solutions are available.
These lessons apply in Slovenia as they do the world over and I will take back to Glasgow a vital reminder of these simple but important facts.