European Natura 2000 Award
Bulgaria’s Balkan Mountain region is ranked as the poorest region in the EU. The region of exceptional natural value faces high unemployment rates and aging populations, leading to depopulation and abandonment of traditional farming. Combined with overexploitation of other natural resources (forests, herbs), this is causing the deterioration of habitats reliant on human intervention. Farms are small and cannot invest to meet EU requirements or create value chains for their products, and they lack the capacity to make the most of the opportunities of EU funds, despite the benefits for biodiversity their farming provides. Entrepreneurs lack the capacity to create value from the natural assets, and young people leave because the region lacks opportunities for them and their children.
To address these issues, a coalition of several partners has been set up — WWF Danube-Carpathian Programme Bulgaria, the Foundation for Organic Agriculture, Bioselena, the Association of Parks in Bulgaria, the Bulgarian Society for the Protection of Birds and the Bulgarian Biodiversity Foundation. With the financial support of Bulgarian-Swiss Cooperation, this coalition worked directly with farmers, micro enterprises and small enterprises (such as wild berry and herb processing, wildlife tourism and bee-keeping businesses) that rely heavily on the rich natural resources in six Natura 2000 sites in the Balkan region. It set up innovative schemes to pay these businesses directly for the environmental benefits (ecosystem services) they help maintain — so-called Payment for Ecosystem Services schemes. Four such schemes were created, and financing from 16 companies was attracted for the restoration of High Nature Value (HNV) grasslands and water ecosystems. Some 25 HNV farmers were assisted, and 13 farms were registered for direct sales assistance by the project. Products were promoted and sold at fairs and farmers’ markets. Additionally, to encourage interest from the younger generation, a Children’s Nature Academy educated 3 500 local kids on extensive farming for nature protection.
These creative ways of paying for the benefits nature provides have wider applications. Policy work helped to broaden the results beyond the initial project area. Some measures have already been included in the Bulgarian Rural Development Programme.
Jury Member, Jeremy Wates of the European Environmental Bureau, said that this engagement with policy in addition to involving stakeholders had been important for the application's success. The applicants had clearly considered how the actions could be replicated elsewhere. “The idea that it is the environment versus the economy is clearly out of date”, stated Mr. Wates. “This project shows how through paying for ecosystem services you can protect nature and make money at the same time.”
Radostina Tzenova from the Bulgarian Biodiversity Foundation stressed that establishing a network of engaged stakeholders - from farmers to the authorities – is essential for the success of such a project. While the different groups might not share views on everything, the project has enabled them to work together. In an area with such economic stresses, the environment alone is never going to be seen as the highest priority. The project activities have clearly shown how maintaining beneficial economic activities, such as High Nature Value farming, protects nature and people in remote areas. She added, “We are delighted to have won the Award as it will draw attention to our activities and help us continue them into the future”.