On Course to Prosperity Northern Pintails at Mangalajodi. Photo: Soumyadeep Chatterjee, CC BY-SA 2.0

On Course to Prosperity

What is similar between the Chilika Lake in Asia, the Gorla Maggiore wetland zone in Italy and the Ugarchin farm in Bulgaria is that they all provide benefits for the local community due to the so-called ecosystem services. And, as people better understand the importance of these services, they are more willing to protect the environment and invest in its preservation.

The ecosystem services are a kind of capital that is no less important than any other type of capital which our community depends on. Protection and preservation of the “natural capital” is often seen as a key factor for public health. And a growing amount of attention is being paid to the idea that investments in Green Infrastructure translate directly into the reduction of disaster risks as well as an increase in the number of opportunities for profit. Thus, measures to protect the environment are, in essence, a kind of “reinvestment” and play a critical role in the “green economy”.

“When nature is being combined with businesses that pay for the ecosystem services voluntarily, we call this ‘tourist business-parks’ or ‘bioreserves'”, says Dr. Rumen Draganov, Director of the Tourism Assessments and Analysis Institute in Sofia. This combination builds upon the understanding of the importance of ecosystem services and their voluntary maintenance.

The development of this perception is particularly important in the context of the changing global climate that has been increasingly overwhelmed with severe weather extremes – extreme heat waves, continuous droughts, torrential rains, heavy snowfall.

The cascade model serves as the conceptual basis for ecosystem services as an economic model. This hierarchy defines the levels and measures of development of ecosystem services. The “final service” that directly provides welfare to the people – and a number of intangible benefits as well – builds upon the primary, “production” ecosystem service.

Sustainable take-off

The queen of Mangalajodi, a purple heron takes off. Photo: ARIJIT MONDAL, CC-A-SA 4.0

The queen of Mangalajodi, a purple heron takes off. Photo: ARIJIT MONDAL, CC-A-SA 4.0

Quiet, smooth waters, stretches of cane, and a gentle breeze; a Northern Pintail, followed by triangular waves over the water surface. Shiny White Ibis with long legs and a long beak on the shore. Wetlands, bugs, a strange short-legged bird known as the Northern Shoveler. A boat and a human silhouette in the distance…

The Chilika Lake is the largest brackish lagoon in Asia. Its scenic beauty and vast wetlands attract enthusiastic visitors and nature lovers all year long.

Until a few years ago Mangalajodi, a tiny village to the north of the lake, had often appeared in media headlines for a disturbing reason: the hunting and merciless killing of migratory birds that come in flocks from all over the world to the picturesque lake. The village was notorious for being a poachers’ paradise, and most of the residents were earning their living by illegally hunting protected birds and selling them as trophies.

Today the government strictly protects every bird here, making the village and surrounding area a safe haven for both migratory and local birds. And the villagers, who until yesterday were killing these avians, today defend their feathered guests. Residents instead now use their boats to take tourists around the swamps and let them know about the amazing species richness of the area – richness that is being gathered right here by virtue of the laws of nature.

This transformation is the result of efforts made by a local foundation that in three years time managed to convince local residents that the preservation of the ecosystem could in fact become their livelihood. Villagers who had before earned their money by killing birds and selling their meat are today engaged as boatmen, guides, hoteliers, chefs and drivers. The village enjoys more and more guests each year, and currently there are more than 60 families in Mangalajodi that are involved in the tourist business.

The metamorphosis at Chilika Lake is just one of an increasing number of cases all around the world where the preservation of a local ecosystem has become more than a priority in need of a partner cause to boost economic development; the local ecosystems have themselves become a source of revenue growth and improvement for the local economies.

There are several dimensions of the change at Mangalajodi. Protection of wildlife contributes to an ecosystem balance not just in the lake’s region but also in other parts of the world since many of the birds that come here are actually migrating. And the revenue growth from the residents’ new sources of income has also driven reinvestment and further development of local entrepreneurship, which in turn promotes a more positive image of the village and greater interest from tourists to visit.

Creating beauty

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The wetlands of Gorla Maggiore. Photo: Iridra & European Commission Joint Research Centre through OpenNESS project.

Hills, covered in green and forest paths meandering through slender trees. Swamps, cane and songs of wild birds… and the murmur of a river nearby.

The Gorla Maggiore region is not well known but is a beautiful place to have a walk in the wild. This locale in the northern part of Italy is considered to be most valuable for its wetlands – but not as some part of a protected area.

“This is not just an attempt to make the environment look beautiful”, says Dr. Lawrence Carvalho, a freshwater ecologist at the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology in Edinburgh, UK. The Gorla Maggiore wetland along the river Olona was actually artificially created, and its main task is to help local people protect their homes from floods.

Once a former poplar plantation, Gorla Maggiore today stretches over three hectares and has been transformed into a combination of water park and wetland. It serves as a place to store rainwater as well as a means to regulate the flow of the river. And the cane ecosystem that was introduced in the wetland also purifies the water so that it can be used for irrigation.

While offering the same levels of control as a conventional flood prevention system, the water park further acts as an enhancement to the local environment by providing both a home for the wildlife and a recreational space for the community.

“You can have water parks, you can have forest areas… you can combine any measures using the natural capital, utilizing the ecosystem services to create value at different levels”, says Marie Van Dreumel by the Ministry of Infrastructure and Environment in Denmark, a partner in the OpenNESS project of the EU. The idea is to use the ecosystem in a way that allows for the creation of value for both the society and the environment.

Natura 2000 as a business advantage

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Stoyan Pelteshki at a farmers’ market in Sofia. Photo: “For the Balkans and the people” project.

Pastures, meadows, rivers, deep forests. Eagles in the sky, black stork nests… Here we meet one of the best-preserved karst regions in the Balkans.

The “Studenets” protected area is part of the Natura 2000 European ecological network. A herd of 350 sheep roams the meadows there. These are the sheep of Stoyan Pelteshki from a small town called Ugarchin. The Ugarchin Farm, as Pelteshki ‘s farm is named, also has 14 cows, and the animals roam freely over the picturesque pastures of the protected area most of the time. The farm was founded three years ago and produces just two products – sheep and white cow cheese.

The proximity of his farm to the Natura 2000 area is not an obstacle but an opportunity and a guarantee, Stoyan Pelteshki believes. Thanks to the protected land, the farm has the opportunity to sell its products at a higher market value due to the fact that it comes from animals who live in unspoiled nature. Pelteshki is convinced that the right business model is based on the sustainable use of local natural resources, especially concerning the way pastures are maintained.

“Our sheep graze freely around the pastures. There is also a small lake from which the animals can drink water. Today the pastures look the way they used to be some 50 to 60 years ago”, Stoyan Pelteshki says. “We are conserving our land”.

Ever since he started operations and began selling directly to consumers, the Ugarchin Farm has increased its profit threefold and today employs 11 local people. Of these workers, seven are located in the town of Ugarchin, the municipality with the highest unemployment rate in the whole Lovech region. The cheese is being sold at farmers’ markets in Sofia and at trade fairs throughout the country, and recently the Ugarchin Farm even organized an “open day” when anyone could visit to see how the cheese was manufactured.

Voluntary payments possible

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Vrana lake, Croatia. Image: MickMorton, CC-SA 3.0

The basis for the development of ecosystem services are payments that allow for reinvestment in conservation and the strengthening the environment. A mandatory characteristic of these payments is that they are voluntary. And surprising or not, more and more people are willing to do just this.

A recent study in Croatia shows that 71% of the visitors at the tourist park “Vrana Lake” are willing to voluntarily pay for their visit there; 27.1% say they want to pay to help preserve the park for the future; 17.8% just like the lake; 15.3% explained they like the province; and 4.5% say they live nearby and visit the park often so they consider it appropriate to pay for its maintenance and development. One in five visitors believe that any kind of service should be paid for.

Even more interesting in this study is the outcome of the financial balance for the maintenance and operation of the park. The calculation shows that the cultural services offered by the lake (support services) are estimated to be worth 9.8 to 15 million Croatian kunas. This translates to € 1.29 to € 1.98 million. At the same time, the operational costs of the park are 3.5 million kunas, which is € 462,641. This amount includes staff salaries, investment and research, taxes, fees and administrative costs.

In other words, with an investment of around € 500,000, a tourist bioreserve in the Balkans can generate revenues of € 1.3 to € 2 million.

Meanwhile, the so-called tourist business-parks can vary by combining a different mix of final services and can offer unique experiences to tourists by combining one or several attractions. We call this approach “rural tourism”, “adventure tourism”, “environmental tourism”, “cultural tourism”, etc., Dr Rumen Draganov elaborates.

Where business and parks make tourism

Dr Roumen Draganov, head of the Tourism Assessments and Analysis Institute. Photo: species.bluelink.net

Given the rich natural diversity in Bulgaria and the country’s popularity as a tourist destination, there are huge opportunities for development of tourist eco-parks. More than 10.3 million foreign tourists are expected to visit Bulgaria in 2016, according to the Tourism Assessments and Analysis Institute. This means that any voluntary payments for ecosystem services, even if the amount is just one euro per day, would provide a huge opportunity for reinvestment in ecosystem services.

Ecosystem services can also provide income for the local people in several ways that can be combined with eco-tourism. Direct tourist services – hotels and guesthouses, wild camping and all the accompanying services, guides, boatmen, drivers and others – are just the beginning. Organic farms and restaurants offering “organic” food – fruits, vegetables, meat and dairy products – is a huge opportunity which can bring added value as well. Farmers’ markets, where tourists can buy ecologically clean products such as food, cosmetics and other goods, are another important factor that can be added to the mix. And the “untouchable” local heritage comes into play as well; i.e. traditions, customs and rituals showing the richness of local culture.

The lack of a legal basis for tourist eco-parks and reinvestment in ecosystem services is often seen as an obstacle to the development of such parks. Nevertheless, tourist parks are already popping up across the country, and the growing awareness of the value of ecosystem services has been a strong enough motivator to drive the trend. This has lead to self-organizing of the people at local level; a classic bottom-up approach.

“A successful example is the tourist sea resort of Albena”, said Draganov. “And then, there comes the question, when a resort with 40 hotels can do that, isn’t there any other place in Bulgaria where the same can happen?”

Keen on the forest

 

Protected forest and unspoiled nature here are seen as an advantage over other resorts that are overcrowded and dominated by concrete. The closed-loop operations allows for effective use of all resources. Photo: video capture by “The different model of Albena“

Sandy beaches, blue-green sea water, quiet waves. The chirping of birds in a protected dense forest. The Liman River. A tender meeting of cold fresh water and hot salty waves.

The Albena Resort is immersed in the greenery of the Baltata Reserve. This destination is not popular for the construction of shiny new hotels. Instead, the buildings are gently nestled in an old forest, and to get from one hotel to another, every guest has to walk a few hundred meters through the trees.

albena_01Here in Albena tourists eat salads made from sweet tomatoes and crunchy cucumbers, all organically grown in a field less than a kilometer away from the table. The guests of the resort prefer eating clean, healthy food, and that is exactly what they get in the restaurants of the complex. The fruits and vegetables served come from Albena’s own organic farms, and around 80% of all Bulgarian fruit eaten is grown within the enterprise – cherries, apples, plums, pears, says Slavcho Gigov, Executive Director of “Agro Eco”. Dairy and meat are also produced by Albena’s own bio-farms, and most of the time the animals graze freely through the meadows along the coastal hills.

All organic waste from the area farms also goes into a bioreactor that provides electricity to the administrative offices of the resort. Albena consumes 24 million kWh each year and produces about 8 to 9 million kWh on its own. And the warmth from the CHP system heats the greenhouses where vegetables are grown all year round as well.

Protection pays off

“Shavarite” reserve at the Iskar Dam. Photo: Patrick Smithuis’s own archive.

Pleated mountain ridges and the tweeting of songbirds. Grass, the smell of mint. Calm shining waters among high weeds.

This is the place where the Cherni Iskar river flows into the Iskar Dam. The site is also known as “Shavarite” which means “a cane field”. It is the first private reserve in Bulgaria.

A few decades ago this place was one of the last wetlands in northwestern Bulgaria. With the construction of the Iskar Dam, however, it was destroyed – the dam was needed to ensure the water supplies of the capital and produce hydroelectric power.

In 2006 a group of Dutch investors bought the land, a field spanning across 243 hectares. They decided to restore the wetland area of half a million square meters and restore its previous form and rich biodiversity. Their plan was to make the Iskar River spill over 2.7 kilometers of land to meander with reeds, create islands and deep channels, and form other areas with slow water. The goal of the new owners was to revive the previous value and charm of the area.

Patrick Smithuis during the creation of the meander that became the basis of the “Shavarite” wetland. “When I came here, I fell in love with this place”, says Patrick Smithuis who first proposed the creation of the private reserve about four years ago. “This is a unique ecosystem – there is a mountain with all the animal species that are typical of the mountain, and then in the middle of the hills there is the wetland with its specific flora and fauna, a traditional wetland. Unique!” Photo: Patrick Smithuis’s own archive.

For the capital city of Sofia with its 1 million inhabitants, this reserve is crucial. Sofia is dependent on the condition of Iskar for its drinking water. Reeds in the reserve act as a water treatment station for natural biological filtering. After passing through the wetland, the water reaches the new delta almost completely purified.

After restoring the wetland, the benefits for the local ecosystem soon started to create benefits for the owners as well. The picturesque locale began to gain popularity as a tourist attraction. Green adventure camps for children are organized here more and more, and young people are able to enjoy unforgettable experiences sailing in rubber boats among the swamps or flying over the water on zip lines. Corporate teams come for teambuilding events completely immersed in nature. Music stars enter the fields to shoot videos for their new singles. Couples come here for romantic wedding shoots.

Nevertheless, 80% of the area remains “absolute reserve”, said Smithuis. People are rarely allowed inside, and when they enter, they are led by a ranger who makes sure the human presence does not disturb the wild life. The remaining 20% of the area is a place for adventure tourism – the “Shavarite Camp.”

For one reason or another, the citizens of Sofia- the primary target audience of the area – are not particularly active visitors, despite the geographical proximity of the reserve. It is some 55 kilometers, said Smithuis. He hopes that, as time goes on, more guests will come. Smithuis and his partners hope they’ll be able to protect the site from poachers as well, and perhaps some day local people will help with welcoming the guests – similar to that which happened at the Chilika Lake in Asia…

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