Marian Ignat

Why community belongs at the center of conservation

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Conservation has recently risen up on national and international agendas. (Take the European Green Deal, for example.) But we must ensure these efforts are rooted in local communities, led by citizens, in order to be developed sustainably, Florin Stoican says.

An Ashoka Fellow and the founder of Romania’s first citizen-led national park, Buila-Vânturarița, Florin spoke with Corina Murafa, the co-leader of Next Now: Planet & Climate, about how communities benefit from conserving nature, what’s still in the way, and where we all go from here.

Corina Murafa: Tell us about your approach to conservation.

Florin Stoican: I believe in the bottom-up approach for nature conservation. It can’t be done without taking into account the interests of local communities and visitors. This concept came up only after many years of projects in the field and I’ve realised that we need systemic change.

When the community sees how they can get more resources by conserving the environment than they would from intensively exploiting the resources, there’s more acceptance of conservation projects. With this approach, we try to help locals capitalise on and benefit from ecosystem services.

Did you always work bottom-up?

Florin: I tried, as a leader of a non-governmental organization, to use the existing institutional levers in Romania to protect nature. This top-down approach didn’t work, because the existing framework is not adapted at all to the realities of the communities where the projects are developed.

Looking at the broader context for your work, what opportunities and barriers do you see?

Florin: The policies at the European level are a push towards reform for states like Romania. Strategies like the European Green Deal, Farm to Fork, and many more force us to go in a specific direction, as an EU Member State. Also, the public pressure has grown lately, especially from the younger generation, along with the desire to see tangible results.

At the moment, our barriers are at the national level. Romania is far behind and, unfortunately, reluctant to embrace the reforms coming from the EU. Politicians are still deaf to the demands of the public opinion and society.

Another obstacle might be citizens’ distrust towards the promises of these policies. In the past 15 years, since I started working in this field, people heard about all sorts of subsidies for their meadows and forests and few have become reality.

Isn’t it a paradox that now the biggest opportunity is a top-down one?

Florin: Apparently it is a contradiction. Change doesn’t come if the local community doesn’t see the benefits of environmental protection and conservation. At the same time, without having the aid from the EU, local stakeholders cannot capitalize on the resources available in a sustainable way.

What challenges and opportunities do you see for conservation at the global level?

Florin: Globally, the opportunity is that the European Union has decided to become a leader in climate action. At the same time, we must be careful not to externalize the mess — that is, to make sure that the other regions cling on to this train and are moving in the same direction. Otherwise, the environmental problems will cross the borders of our isolation.

In an ideal scenario, how does humanity rebalance its relationship with nature?

Florin: We should first balance global distribution of our planet’s resources so that 99% don’t continue to go into the hands of 1% of the population. From the history of humankind, we see that many countries have developed sustainable models precisely because they did not have resources. Countries like Sweden did a lot from having little.

At the planetary scale, that should propel us to solve really serious problems — like desertification, scarcity of food and water in different places, rising water levels and so on. These fundamental problems will soon affect all of us, because several hundreds of million people will have to move. Climate change has a great social effect: it can trigger the largest migration in human history. Climate issues will overcome any borders, any army, any fence.

How do we help people realize the long-term consequences of their actions?

Florin: We have to overcome this moment by looking at what is happening around through the eyes of our children. They ask themselves questions. I talk to my children and other children about pollution, about plastics, about forests, about the decline of biodiversity in their language and they immediately ask me a direct question: ‘Why are you doing this to us?’ If you look from their perspective, you will start planning for 80 years, 100 years, not just 10 and 15. The horizon imposed by the European Union through European Green Deal, by 2050, is the largest I’ve seen so far in terms of public policy.

What incentives do societies need to make better decisions?

Florin: It’s hard to say. But it’s clear to me now that fear is no longer an incentive. We are in a pandemic. Most people on Earth should’ve realized how sensitive our social and economic systems are. Because we have eroded the natural system, I would have expected a mass revelation. There are many people who are aware, but global leaders are not, and the general public is passive. We rush to recover the economic losses from the pandemic instead of being careful not to end up in situations like this again.

At local level, it’s all about needs. If your needs are attacked, then you will react, because you have no other option. But if we wait until we reach that moment, it will be too late.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. 

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Florin Stoican is an Ashoka Fellow since 2018 and president of Kogayon Association. He is known for gathering citizens around environmental initiatives, as Buila-Vânturarița National Park, Văcărești Natural Park and newly Oltenia de sub Munte UNESCO aspiring Geopark.

Corina Murafa is co-leading Next Now: Planet & Climate and is also the Director of Ashoka Romania. Prior to joining Ashoka, she advanced long-lasting positive change in Eastern Europe as a public policy expert on energy and sustainability. She has worked for the World Bank, OMV Petrom, Deloitte, national governments and think tanks.

About Next Now:

Ashoka is mobilizing the strength of its community on climate action. Next Now: Planet & Climate connects unlikely allies around shared visions of the future that bring people and planet to a new equilibrium.

Marian Ignat

Marian has recently joined Changemakers in March 2022 as our Communications and Insights Web Associate. He previously spent a year with Ashoka's Next Now: Planet & Climate team as an intern, and is now finishing his BA in Political Science.