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Not too big, not too small

Alana Semuels

As increasing numbers of Central and Eastern European countries join the European Union, an era of transition is afoot for rural landowners in the Danube River Basin. Hoping to lock in positive environmental changes, rather than negative ones, the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) is using the period of transition to promote payments for ecosystem services along one of Europe's most historic rivers. The Ecosystem Marketplace takes a look.

As increasing numbers of Central and Eastern European countries join the European Union, an era of transition is afoot for rural landowners in the Danube River Basin. Hoping to lock in positive environmental changes, rather than negative ones, the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) is using the period of transition to promote payments for ecosystem services along one of Europe's most historic rivers. The Ecosystem Marketplace takes a look. The Danube River begins in Germany, snaking across Austria and on through Central and Eastern Europe. For hundreds of years, freight and people have traveled its waters, linking the east and west of Europe. The river has hosted wildlife too: even today, the Lower Danube boasts over 100 different types of fish and many rare bird species, from sturgeon to pelicans. But now a different kind of link is descending on the Danube River Basin–the European Union. In 2004, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Slovakia and Slovenia joined, and Bulgaria and Romania are expected to join in 2007. Their accession presents both a challenge and an opportunity to those hoping to conserve the ecological and economic health of the region. The World Wildlife Fund (WWF), in particular, is hoping to use the political changes to catalyze an innovative approach to protecting the health of the Danube River. The organization is generating a number of projects to promote Payments for Ecosystems Services (PES) and other sustainable financing schemes in the lower Danube and Danube delta sub-basins. Focusing on Romania, Bulgaria and Hungary, they'll try to use this transition time to their advantage, helping governments and stakeholders find ways to encourage conservation and maintain rural livelihoods in Central and Eastern Europe. Along the way, they're also hoping to ameliorate flooding problems, invest businesses and farmers in conserving the countryside, and develop a model that could be used around the world, from the Amazon to the Yangtze.

Accession and the Environment

There's a perception in the West that Communism destroyed the environment of the countries it governed, creating massive factories and developing land with no thoughts about the future. In reality, some stretches of land in Central and Eastern Europe feature unparalleled biodiversity. The academic community is divided over how EU accession will change the status of the environment, says Joann Carmin, a professor at M.I.T., and co-author of the book, EU Accession and the Environment: Institutional Change and Environmental Policy in Central and Eastern Europe. While many of the EU's policies are environmentally-friendly, many accession countries have innovative measures in place that might not fit within the policy guidelines. "We talk about it in terms of mixed messages," she says. "Promoting Western styles of consumption – there's a double edged sword there." For example, the EU transit policy encourages countries to build more roads, which will allow goods to be moved easily through the countries – but this will lead to more cars on the roads, and thus more pollution. Accession might also prompt some of these farmers to leave the land they have been on for centuries, either because there are better opportunities in the urban areas, or because small farms will find it hard to compete with larger ones. In Romania, for instance, where much of the population is currently involved in agriculture, WWF expects a trend towards commercialization, in the next few years. "People will be pushed out and will leave agriculture, which can be bad for the environment if they're abandoning ecosystems that have a natural value," says Andreas Beckmann, WWF Danube Carpathian Program Office (DCP) Deputy Director. This is where PES comes into play. As people are leaving the countryside, where traditional ways can't compete, WWF wants to find substitutes that can compel people to stay in the countryside and maintain the land. "We can pitch these payments at a level that need not be very high to make it attractive to stay on the land, and devote part of their parcels to conservation practices, managing wetlands," explains Pablo Gutman, senior policy advisor for WWF in the Washington, D.C. office. And in this way, EU accession isn't necessarily bad. The EU recently recognized the Danube as "the single most important non-oceanic body of water in Europe," and seems to be invested in maintaining it. Thanks to the EU Water Framework Directive, EU countries are encouraged to collaborate to manage their water resources and maintain environmentally sound development policies – potentially through PES services. A fund for rural development is also expected to be in place by 2007, which could fund environmental services. The funding, it seems, will be there for projects that can prove their worth in the next few years, making 2006 a critical period for WWF's work in the Danube Basin.

Developing PES models

Through its One Europe, More Nature (OEMN) initiative, WWF has already started coordinating a few PES projects the Tisza sub-basin in Romania and Hungary. Gutman and Beckmann hope to build on the enthusiasm for PES generated by the initial success of some of these projects. In the Maramures uplands of Romania, for instance, the owner of a bottled water company is finding that his source is being disrupted because of inappropriate land use upstream. He wants to relocate his facility to a nearby catchment of 3,000 hectares and secure its environmental health, but he needs to convince local farmers to modify their farming tactics to keep the water clean. WWF is arranging meetings between the company and the local farmers to advance the deal. "He'll have to work out a deal with farmers upstream of the bottling plant, that will involve some payments," says Charlie Avis, the OEMN coordinator. "He has a business, his business is based on these environmental services, he's going to invest into nature and land management." Another project is working to restore wetlands in Hungary. It brings together farmers being squeezed out of their farming practices because of changes in the Common Agricultural Policy and a power plant that no longer wants to burn fossil fuels. The power plant has started producing green energy by burning biomass, so Avis is hoping they'll invest in the flood plains around the River Tisza by buying hemp from farmers there. He thinks that once farmers realize that their old lifestyle is no longer sustainable, they'll be interested in finding a way to stay on their land. This project would allow them to do so, while restoring the wetlands and helping to produce sustainable green energy at the same time. One of the most successful projects enlists one of the world's biggest companies in creating a plan for sustainable forestry. In Baia Mare, in the Romanian Maramures, OEMN has been working with IKEA, the Swedish furniture giant, to maintain a plateau through forest management techniques. This could act as a buffer to the flood waters that have been rising in the area in recent years. Both WWF and local leaders have realized that enlisting the help of businesses who have a vested interest in maintaining the environment is a powerful way to enable sustainable change. "This project is an example of a win-win initiative for the local economy, environment and society," says Cristian Anghel–mayor of Baia Mare municipality. "When a big timber processing company like IKEA mobilizes financial resources to support responsible forest management…it will generate benefits shared by the land owners, citizens of the neighbour communities and the timber processor company itself."

Spreading the word

While some may be convinced of the value of PES projects in the region, WWF knows that their ultimate success or failure depends on widespread community support. "We have to create a market where it doesn't exist, and convince people that there is a valuable thing here that they value and need, and that they should pay for it," says Gutman. In some areas, where local people are interested in stemming the flooding that has plagued these areas in the last few years, this might be easy to do. But in others, the connection is harder to make. People still turn on their taps and don't think about where the water comes from, or go walking through the countryside and don't realize that it could be endangered, observes Gutman. WWF is hoping these projects will change that, and more–that these changes will show others around the world about the possibilities of PES. "If funded, this project would present a strong example of payment for ecosystem services working on a large-scale, in a complicated multi-national context," says Charlotte Stanton, Associate Program Officer for Mid-sized Projects at UNEP, one place the project is looking for funding. "We would hope that such an initiative would catalyze broader support for PES mechanisms in the Danube and other regions with large international watersheds." The WWF team, too, is hoping that eventual success could be a good lesson for other middle-income countries around the world, like China and Brazil, who have some of the world's most important river basins, and are currently facing problems maintaining their rural areas. One of the team's primary goals is to contribute to the conservation community's knowledge of scaling up PES schemes so that they deliver. But the project could also be a lesson for countries a little closer–like in Western Europe, an area that many countries are trying to emulate by joining the EU. Al Appleton, who was instrumental in securing a PES deal between farmers in the Catskills and the New York City's water department as the former head of the New York City Water and Sewer System, held a workshop on PES for WWF in Eastern Europe, largely because of this importance. "I think Eastern Europe presents a huge opportunity and a huge challenge for Europe, because it's still got a valuable countryside," he says. The challenge, according to Appleton,is to recreate the countryside so that it can be economically viable, without exploiting it. And he thinks the WWF team has a shot. "The Tizsa is not too large and not too small. A good network of people can really make a huge contribution." Alana Semuels is a freelance journalist based in London. She may be reached at asemuels@gmail.com. First posted: December 22, 2005

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