Marrying commerce and conservation in the Carpathians
– why Forest Stewardship Council certification and World Heritage recognition are both critical in the fight for Europe’s ancient beech forests
In Europe, we often look to the great tropical rainforests of the world for beauty, inspiration and diversity. Yet on our doorstep there is still natural heritage beyond compare.
Our ancient beech forests in the Carpathians are the product of thousands of years of natural evolution, all but free of human intervention. Home to lynx, wolves and bears and much more besides, trees of all ages from seedlings to 500-year-old giants shelter more than 10,000 species.
Of the seven natural sites being assessed for inscription on UNESCO’s World Heritage List by the World Heritage Committee in Krakow this week, one is an extension to the existing Joint World Heritage Property, ‘Primeval Beech forests of the Carpathians and the Ancient Beech forests of Germany’.
Part of a transnational partnership between 12 countries, the nomination for this extension in Romania was initiated in 2014 by WWF, Greenpeace, the Romanian state forest service, Romsilva, and the National Forest Research and Management Institute, and covers 24,000 ha of old-growth beech forest for which WWF won national legal protection in 2011.
Altogether, the areas proposed for the extension would bring 80 per cent of all Europe’s remaining ancient beech forest within the World Heritage listing, making it truly representative of their unique diversity.
Included are some of the last remnants of ancient forest found within managed working forests in Europe. These are not isolated ‘pearls’ in a sea of development but an integral part of the region’s cultural landscape.
In the ancient Romanian county of Maramureș in the north-eastern Carpathians, people used to say the ‘forest is like a brother’. Each time a tree was a cut, a prayer was said. And the reality is that much of Europe’s natural heritage is part of working landscapes within which people and nature co-exist.
International recognition of the ‘outstanding universal value’ of these areas in UNESCO’s World Heritage List is essential, not simply for their protection but also for the impetus it would lend to the conservation and better management of hundreds of thousands of hectares of forest across the Carpathian region.
Protecting our heritage is as much a socio-economic and cultural endeavour as it is a scientific one, requiring a marriage of commerce and conservation. And this is precisely the approach that WWF has pursued for more than a decade in partnership with local communities, business and government.
Under communism, Romanian forests were state-owned and relatively well protected. Its collapse brought the challenge of land restitution in the 1990s, an explosion of ownership claims and a drastic increase in illegal logging.
Promoting responsible forest management has been central in WWF’s response, not just in Romania but across the whole Carpathian region, and Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) certification a key tool in helping ensure forest operations meet high social and environmental standards.
Today in Romania, around 2.6 million ha of state and privately-owned community forest are FSC-certified, yet little more than a decade ago, in the height of the post-communist free for all, that figure stood at zero.
Market demand has proved critical in the transformation. IKEA’s commitment to obtain all timber from more sustainable sources (FSC certified or recycled) by 2020, for example, has helped shape producer behaviour and driven uptake of FSC in Romania, a country from which it sources 5 per cent of its timber. Plimob, a furniture manufacturer in Maramureș, makes 1.5 million IKEA Terje chairs every year, using 130,000m3 of Romanian beech, all of which is FSC-certified.
Significantly, WWF and partners have also helped broker agreement on FSC Principle 9 criteria for the identification and management of ‘High Conservation Value’ (HCV) forest in Romania. This makes protecting old growth forest an integral part of obtaining FSC certification.
Such a market-driven approach to conservation has been precedent-setting for all seven countries in the Danube-Carpathian region. Though protected old growth forest generates no revenue, it makes timber from the forest units that contain it more attractive to buyers committed to sustainable sourcing. It has also inspired and enabled the more recent pursuit of World Heritage listing.
The wider Carpathian landscape is a mosaic of forest, grassland, wetland and pasture shaped by centuries of human activity, a place of major natural and cultural importance where people are still closely connected to nature. Its forests are a living, working landscape that deserve not only protection and investment but also celebration.
FSC has given business and civil society the opportunity to participate in change and play a constructive role in sustainability. World Heritage listing can complement this, not just through reminding us of intrinsic worth but through offering us a chance to believe and take pride in our heritage.
Europe destroyed most of its ancient forests centuries ago. Romania and the other countries participating in the World Heritage nomination still have them — for now.
Conservation is about working together to find solutions that meet people’s needs. Commerce and conservation sometimes make an uneasy marriage, yet one that is unavoidable. Alongside certification, World Heritage recognition is not only deserved but necessary.
Radu Vlad is the WWF Forest & Regional Project Co-ordinator from the WWF Danube-Carpathian Programme.