EEurope is a continent where the built environments have hugely reduced the natural ones, often causing massive wilderness disappearance, species extinction and impressive natural habitat deterioration. Romania is one of the countries that give Europe some hope: it is in fact the country with the largest surface of virgin forests, the biggest populations of large carnivores, the highest biodiversity and the largest unfragmented forest left.
It’s not difficult to figure out, then, why two people with a powerful vision decided, at a certain point of their lives, to try to do something to protect this immense natural patrimony. But everyone knows that no big dream is easy to realize.
Barbara and Christoph Promberger decided to try, despite Romania was not their native country and despite the interests they had to fight against were strong, well rooted and widely supported.
Romania is a country with one of the highest poverty rate in the European Union and a place where the powerful and opaque timber industry caused massive deforestation while not leaving any wealth to the local communities.
In such an economic scenario, conservation of wild areas is definitely not considered a top priority. Nonetheless, Barbara and Christoph strongly believed anyway in the potential of green economy and sustainable farming. For this reason, in 2008 they founded the FCC (Foundation Conservation Carpathia) to create a new world-class wilderness reserve for the benefit of biodiversity and local communities.
By now, FCC has over 60 dedicated staff, has put more than 21,000 ha of critically endangered forests under full protection, has restored forest ecosystems on about 500 ha, and has managed to create a completely hunting free area of 36,000 ha. These steps have been made to build a sustainable livelihood for local communities, develop nature tourism programmes and possibly create the Faragas National Park.
Despite all the destruction and the terrible threats that the Fagaras Mountains suffered in the past decades, they are in fact still full of bears, wolves, lynx and over 3,700 plant species: an incredible heritage to be preserved for the future generations, a heritage of global importance.
The FCC has also identified conservation-based enterprise opportunities, developing business plans and financing proposals for the most relevant ventures including:
- Sustainable forestry
- Organic agriculture (e.g. The Cobor Biodiversity Farm)
- Renewable energy and related sectors
An incredibly ambitious economic project based on conservation that is setting an extremely important and inspiring precedent in Europe. We have asked some questions to Christoph who, together with his wife Barbara, is the pioneer, the soul and the mind of this great project.
Christoph, why Romania? Is there something more than the wealth of wildlife, the pristine and untouched land to save and preserve? Where/when did your bond with the region originate?
I came to Romania first time in 1992, shortly after the end of communism and immediately fell in love with the country due to its pristine character.
Which is your background, the walk of life that drove you to start the Carpathia Foundation?
After the restitution of forests starting in 2005, large-scale logging in the mountains became a serious threat to the integrity of the ecosystem. We simply felt we had to do something about this, we had to get involved. We were two individuals who had no means to fight against this timber mafia: it seemed an impossible task. But with every month our network grew, and we managed to get enough support and find a good team to develop this idea of creating a new National Park step by step.
Which are the greatest difficulties that you’ve had to face since the project started?
Corruption on a local and regional level and the suspicion so many people had/have that it is impossible to invest so much into conservation without having a financial interest behind.
Equally, which are the most important “enablers” and supporters that backed you? Did you have any strategic partnership in place?
Our most important enablers were some international philanthropist families who backed the project financially with a long-term commitment. Plus our local team, which believed in the idea despite the hostility and the attacks from wood thieves they often experienced.
How do you fund such an ambitious long-term project? Which are the financial sources you can count on?
We have developed a fundraising strategy, which has turned out to be very successful. We do not rely on one single donor, but have worked to get a variety of funders from the private sector (family foundations), public funds (both EU and RO funds) and corporate partnerships.
The final aim of the FCC is to create a National Park with international standards and sufficient funding. At that point all the land will be donated to the Romanian state. Which time frame have you figured out (if any)?
We don’t bother about a fixed time frame, we are focused on the process. It is important to get the local communities behind the idea, independently whether this takes 5 years or 20 years. If things go well it could happen within the next 5 years, but we don’t get stressed if it takes longer.
Does the ambition to become the European Yellowstone or Serengeti take into account the struggles that these two parks have faced along the years to cope with the flip sides of tourism, such as wildlife disturbance, overcrowding, habitat alterations, environment vulnerability etc.?
Yes, we are currently working on a visitor strategy and will pro-actively develop a zoning of the future park together with the local communities.
In this kind of projects, getting the local communities on your side is often more difficult than protect the wildlife. Which kind of steps did you take to inspire, inform, involve, enable and train the people who live in the area and are a crucial player in any sustainable project?
We are currently developing a stakeholder platform for the wider Fagaras Mountains including communities from all over. Our community outreach and communication work will also include school and youth programmes, local and national events, excursions to model areas to learn from best-practice examples elsewhere, a media and social media campaign, and volunteer and ambassador programmes.
Which types of tourism are you going to develop? Wildlife watching hides are already active, but are you planning to build other infrastructures (trekking trails, visitor centres, viewpoints, etc.), or to arrange voluntourism programmes, farming holidays, wellbeing stays and so on?
We will have a mixture of offers for all ages and for all wallets and various levels of wildlife hides from basic to luxury. We will include a network of hiking trails, will have local info points and visitor centres. Our offer will include youth programmes (junior ranger programme) and both national and international volunteer offers (e.g. we work with Biosphere Expeditions for volunteer programmes).
There are many people out there who have brilliant ideas and meaningful intentions, bur are sometimes too afraid or too discouraged to start anything. Do you have any advise for them? Which are the must-haves you recommend before starting and the must-dos that they have to consider once started?
You will never succeed if you can’t convince people from your idea. And you can’t convince people (both locals and donors) if you don’t believe in it. You need to have a good plan and must be prepared to answer all kind of questions and then you must have the passion for it.