Nature protection & local development: the mission possible

11 Mar 2019

Creating new prospects for the rural regions and changing people’s life through environmental protection. Switzerland supported the introduction of this innovative approach in Bulgaria. Entitled ‘Linking Nature Protection and Sustainable Rural Development’, this project funded by the Swiss contribution to the enlarged EU developed a new model of nature protection. Nature-based business endeavors of local people breathed a new life in abandoned villages in the Western and Central Stara Planina Mountain Range. The project built up the efforts of 25-years active Swiss support for the reforms in the environmental management, nature protection and sustainable economic development.

The project in brief:

  • Topic: Protecting the environment; Biodiversity
  • Period: 1 September 2012 – 31 August 2017
  • Budget: CHF 4,790,146.00 (CHF 4,200,000.00 Swiss funding and CHF 590,146.00 Bulgarian co-financing)
  • Executing agency: Consortium of 5 Bulgarian and 4 Swiss NGOs, and the Ministry of Agriculture and Food

With 34,46 % of its territory in the Natura 2000, Bulgaria is in the Top 3 of the EU countries with nature conservation areas. In the beginning, when Natura started operating in Bulgaria, its economic opportunities were unknown and it has been perceived rather as an obstacle for business activities. Pioneering in abandoned villages in Western and Central Bulgaria, where the country’s largest Nature 2000 zone and the most scenic nature sites are located, the Linking Nature Project made a difference for both, people and nature. Protecting nature turned a new source of living for dozens of locals, brought people back to their birthplaces and opened up new livelihood opportunities for the communities. Well-known as “For the Balkan and for the people”, the project introduced various instruments, that demonstrate the viable and profitable intertwisted linkage between the rural development and the nature protection. The project success is best demonstrated by several win-win stories for local businesses and locals, which are beneficial also for the nature.

Along with Bulgarian and Swiss NGOs, local tourism and agriculture entrepreneurs, as well as the Bulgarian government worked together for five years and the result is a working model of local development that could serve as an example for other Bulgarian regions and countries that are facing the same challenges. The project has an official EU seal of success: it is the proud winner of the EU Natura 2000 Award - 2016 in the Socio-Economic Benefits category. The biggest recognition, however, is the personal success of several small farmers and entrepreneurs.

Three stories about this model and its faces are set out here.

1. Rewards for sustainable production methods

“For the Balkan and the people” reignited the enterprising spirit of small family-run farms and encouraged them to produce on location and sell directly traditional foods as yoghurt, cheese, honey, jams, juices, meat and eggs, not just rely on subsidies. This was only made legally possible thanks to the project: through discussions with the Bulgarian authorities, a new legal basis was developed to permit the sale of agricultural products directly from the farm.

Selling directly in the Bulgarian capital of Sofia, farmers and small entrepreneurs get a fair price for their produce, which they reinvest. The weekly Farmer’s Festival in front of the Ministry of Agriculture, one of the new highlights of Sofia, became the business card of the farmers’ success. Every 1 lev invested in the farms by the project was matched with own investment of 3 leva. As independent analysts say, this beats by far the CAP subsidy ratio of 1 euro attracting own investment of 0.28 euro.

Moreover, the farmers from the “For the Balkan and the people” put efforts to exploit natural resources in a sustainable manner, while making living for their families.

 The story of Theodor, a young beekeeper from the small village of Melyane in Western Stara Planina, confirms the success of the overall project. Supported for developing a marketing strategy and purchase of high-quality equipment for producing honey, Theodor is having now regular customers who visit him in his apiary or come to the Sofia farmer’s market especially for his honey. Nachev’s and Popov’s families from Kalofer in the Central Balkan, ones of the first in Bulgaria organic honey producers, have the same experience after the project gave them a hand to further develop their business.

The dimensions of the success are clear: there is strong demand for regional produce offered directly from the farm and through direct sales farmers have increased their revenues by as much as threefold, as in the Farm “Under the Balkans” in the village of Vassil Levski in the Central Balkan - even tenfold! The farm became a tourist attraction after Kulov’s family opened a Demonstration Center for dairy products from rare local breeds as the Karakachan sheep.

2. Nearby recreational area thanks to tradition and good food

Not far from the densely populated Bulgarian capital Sofi the grassy hills and the mountain panorama in the background in the Western Stara Plnaina attract visitors for weekend excursions, hiking and bike tours. An increasing number of people are discovering the region as a destination for recreational activities that is easy to reach.

 Maya, a small business-owner in the Prevala village, picks wild berries in the mountains and makes jams and juices. With small support from the project she can offer her limited, but delicious production of “biodiversity in a jar” to tourists, local B&Bs and at farmer’s markets breathing a new life in the renovated village bakery. The success did not come overnight, but now demand often exceeds supply. Recently Mays started making fresh bread of local recipes and plans to offer a new attraction: a workshop for traditional Kilim carpet weaving from her Chiptovtsi region, which is listed in the UNESCO Heritage.

By supporting small enterprises that produce local foods using sustainable methods, such as Maya’s, the project shows how money can be made in a protected natural environment and protect nature at the same time.

3. Promoting environmental and landscape conservation in innovative ways 

An innovative financing mechanism known as ‘Private Payment for Ecosystem Services’ (PPES) was used to promote ecotourism and landscape conservation, in which the project sought companies in specific regions willing to donate money to a Fund for Nature. This fund supported new endeavors and initiatives that support ecotourism and preserve biodiversity.

 Symbolically entitled “The Wild North-West”, a biking tour connects several nature sites in Western Balkans with the manmade highlights like May’s jam factory, a Demonstration Goat Farm, as well as a local Art and Crafts Centre.  20% of the profit in the coming five years made by Bike Ventures, four young developers of the tour, will be reinvested into the region. This is not a single example of the new type of “use” of nature and profit from the biodiversity for the sake of the region. It is now proven: the preserved nature pays back.

See here the film “Making Living by Protecting Nature”:

Under the PPES schemes protected territories were also restored. Businesses, such as small hotels and Maya’s shop for local products, and traditional workshops for tourists benefit from the increased attraction of the region for ecotourism, as the constantly increasing numbers of visitors also means higher sales for the producers.

The first steps are made and a small path is paved, but the “3 in 1” approach – protected nature, local business and sustainable rural development – it is still long way to go towards a well-established, viable and widely spread economic model, as well as a new national policy for the rural areas. The three stories of personal success, however, sound promising that there is an irreversible trend in nature protection in Bulgaria.

Read about the project