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Miroslava Popova from BALKANI Wildlife Society and Vladimir Ivanov from WWF Bulgaria share how nature conservation organizations function in Bulgaria, what they have achieved and what are the challenges in promoting pressing issues in society. In 2023, their work in the international wetlands restoration project WaterLANDS will begin, whose activities include a four-year artist residency.

The talk took place on 14 June in the Swimming Pool space as part of “New Ecologies” project’s public program.

Разговор „Екология и изкуство – нови подходи“, проведен на 14.06.2023 © Swimming Pool
Conversation “Ecology and Art – New Models” held on 14.07.2023 © Swimming Pool

What understanding of "ecology" do the organizations BALKANI Wildlife Society and WWF, for which you work, advocate?

Miroslava Popova BALKANI Wildlife Society was founded in 1992 and is one of the best known nature conservation organisations in Bulgaria. We work to reduce the conflict between man and nature. Since the beginning, the activities of BALKANI have been related to animal species such as wolves and bears that have direct interaction with human environment. Our task is to find this balance in which good solutions for coexistence of nature and man are found. We organise public campaigns, such as those for the protection of the Kresna Gorge, the Pirin National Park, and the European network of protected areas Natura 2000, the latter we have helped to create with expert research. To protect them, we do field research, work with institutions and with the people who live in these areas. Education and getting people involved in conservation activities is a big topic. We have two education centres. One is in the Vlachi village and focuses on apex predators. The other is near Dragoman Marsh and logically deals with wetlands.

Vladimir Ivanov WWF is one of the largest nature preservation networks in the world. It was founded in 1961 in England, when there was already sufficient evidence that we were irretrievably losing wildlife and urgent conservation measures were needed. The founders of WWF are people with financial capabilities and a very good knowledge of advertising, positioning and branding. We strive not to put red lines, but rather to encourage “bad” governments and businesses to act in a different, sustainable way. This is why the organisation also exists in countries with oppressive regimes and high levels of corruption, and we naturally follow very strict rules about who we can collaborate with and to what extend.

We are mainly involved in the protection of endangered animals and habitats, working extensively in the ocean and forests. One of WWF Bulgaria’s projects that we are proud of is the protection of the Danube, the habitats around the river and the riverside forests, as well as the protection of an amazing fish – the Danube sturgeon, which has survived since the time of the dinosaurs, but today exists anonymously outside the fishing communities – without public support and European protection. Our other topic is forests. Bulgaria has very good forestry science and well-protected forests, thanks to the fact that forests have long been under the care of the state, protected to the same high standards. WWF’s main mission is also the real conservation of protected areas, because on paper they exist, but the way people treat and understand them and the compromises that are made with them are disastrous and terrifying.

What are the big successes and failures of your organisations in campaigning so far?

Miroslava Popova The biggest and most important campaign that immediately comes to my mind is the one for the protection of the Kresna Gorge, which is still ongoing. Despite the interests in destroying the gorge, one of the most valuable areas in terms of biodiversity in Bulgaria is still protected. We are there and we are speaking out, both as individuals and as an organisation, taking legal action, organising protests. The fact that not only have we not given up, but more people are joining the campaign should be counted as a success in itself. Of course, without the partnership and long-standing efforts of other organisations, such as Za Zemiata, we would not have achieved as much. Another success, I believe, is the European Natura 2000 network, which has been set up in a good way and provides an opportunity to talk about how, on the one hand, natural resources can be used and, on the other, habitats and species can be protected.

I would say that involving volunteers also shows positive results. An example is the construction of wooden paths in Dragoman Marsh. The volunteers who participated in the making of the bridges were provoked to recognise the place and the path. The bridges in Dragoman Marsh were built with the simple idea of being able to walk through the reeds. Without it being our goal, the magical landscape, the opportunity to communicate with the marsh and the crossing of boundaries between different landscapes created a community of people.

Vladimir Ivanov I find it difficult to separate the success from the failure. For example, WWF Bulgaria has had a water programme since the organisation was founded. The people in the team are very dedicated and we have had a recent great success – the designation of the Danube as the first protected river area in Bulgaria last year. However, we are losing rivers fast and with great misunderstanding, with the worst management among our natural resources. And this is a failure because we have failed to be more helpful. When we try to campaign for river conservation, it turns out that people know nothing and do not care. It is very difficult to engage people about something they do not understand. We have a project for part of Iskar river at Pancharevo lake and its treatment through the so-called nature-based solutions – we want to return river to nature so that people would enjoy it, the river would be alive and the city would benefit. We want to show that the ecosystem there can exist in a different way. Unfortunately, we meet a lack of understanding from stakeholders, so this project would be difficult to happen.

When it comes to the conservation of forests – yes, we boast a lot about them, we have an indisputable contribution to the protection of old forests in Bulgaria. Thanks to joint efforts, more than 100 thousand hectares of old forests have been protected. Together with this, we are working to curb illegal logging, which is a huge problem. It does not just involve people cutting and exporting, but there is also covert illegal logging carried out by state enterprises. We have been carrying out analyses of illegal logging and the statistics have not changed for 10 years. In this respect, we as a society have failed in our attempts to stop this activity.

In the context of the “New Ecologies” exhibition we discussed on several occassion that there is no such thing as “wild” nature” – what is your opinion on that?

Vladimir Ivanov In Bulgaria and Europe there is no definition of wilderness, because there is no wilderness anymore. Europe is an extremely cultivated “garden”. There are remnants of old ecosystems in Bulgaria – for example, the forest destroyed over Bansko in 2000 was the oldest and most valuable coniferous forest in Bulgaria, which kept unique characteristics. It does not, for example, bear the definition of “wild”, but it can be called in words that we as organisations use – “old forest”. Foresters, on the other hand, call them “old-growth forest” or “high conservation value forest”. In such habitats amazing communities and species that thrive only there are preserved.

Miroslava Popova At BALKANI Wildlife Society, we have always thought that the appropriate words are rather “preserved” or “protected” as we seek balance in the coexistence of people, animals, trees and rivers. Regarding “wilderness” – if we take the rivers in Bulgaria as an example, there is hardly a river without human intervention along its course – be it hydroelectric power plants, dams or diversions.

Vladimir Ivanov Exactly, according to the definition of “living river” we can say that there is none in Bulgaria. Which means that no river in Bulgaria has all the components of this definition. There are pieces of unaffected rivers in isolated regions. But nature comes back fast than we expect. If we create conditions for it to regenerate, nature becomes, if not wild, at least natural and one that can thrive here and now.

Драгоманско блато, Снимка: Андреай Ралев
The Dragoman Marsh. Photo: Andrey Ralev

BALKANI is trying to create similar conditions for regeneration in the area of the Dragoman Marsh.

Miroslava Popova Yes, the Dragoman Marsh is an important example. In the 1930s, the marsh was drained, which shows how the perception of nature changed at different moments of human development. The question then was how to conquer territories and use them for agricultural land. In inland Bulgaria, there are almost no preserved wetlands of this type as the Dragoman Marsh. Curiously, it was drained with the help of pumping stations powered by electricity. These canals, which can still be seen, were made then. The water was drained upwards. When in the 1990s there wasn’t financial support for such activity, the water level in the marsh started to rise. In 2005–2006 it looked like a lake. But now new changes are happening after the fire in 2020. The marsh is recovering naturally, but it is also facing new problems – the surrounding farmland, pesticides and fertilizers, sewage, the overgrowth of the wetland with vegetation. Now nature is recovering, but we are looking at how to make this process sustainable and at the same time get the people who live in the area to recognise it and actively participate.

What brings you two together now is an artist residency that is part of the five-year international WaterLANDS project in which you both participate. You've recently announced the selected artist in Bulgaria – Maria Nalbantova, to collaborate with you on the project. Could you share more about the ideas and concepts behind the project, which appears to be unique in our context in terms of its duration and the opportunities it presents.

Vladimir Ivanov This is the first time we will be working like this – connecting our work with art in a long-term project. The project itself is a collaboration between 32 partners from 14 countries and aims to conserve, restore and exchange experiences on how wetlands like Dragoman Marsh can survive and develop. The project will involve residencies in six locations across Europe. I am positively surprised that the artist residency is not happening impromptu, but has been thought of as a core part of the project with a clear concept and budget from the start.

Miroslava Popova The residency will be a new experience for us, too. As far as I know, 2–3 residencies between scientists and artists with a focus on nature have happened in Bulgaria in recent years (e.g. at the National Museum of Natural History, 2022 and at ReBonkers, 2022). The difference with WaterLANDS is that the residency is long-term, tied to a process, and artists will contribute to the work of experts. On the other hand, through art, an opening of dialogue and conversation with local communities and stakeholders in general will be sought. The restoration of these territories affects many different interests and needs dialogue. When we reviewed the artists selected for the partner residencies, we saw how more developed the artistic practices related to nature, community initiatives and public conversation are abroad. In Bulgaria there are not so many examples yet, but creating good practices is also a process.

Vladimir Ivanov The project also builds on the fact that we have dreamed before and tried to bring artistic elements into our work in a more amateurish way, but it was very complicated. Conservation expertise lives in a specific and rigid bubble and there is an exchange of mainly science and administration. It gets to the point where you’re running out of forces and needs. It’s very difficult to incorporate financial and human resources for art. That’s why we have a hard time reaching people, even if we actively and regularly talk to everyone. With this project we are opening other doors, these are our new ecologies. For a long time I have been dreaming of such a project, and the time has come for it and for this kind of talk. Not a conversation about nature, but one about its fragility and problems, and its need for protection right now.

MIROSLAVA POPOVA is part of the BALKANI Wildlife Societys team and is responsible for the organisations public image, social media and media relations. Since 2021, she divides her time between BALKANI WS and TaM Veliko Tarnovo, a space for culture and social initiatives, which allows her to explore the Bulgarian contemporary art scene.

VLADIMIR IVANOV has been working in communications in the fields of conservation and environmentalism since 2007 and has been part of the WWF Bulgaria team for the last ten years. His experience in journalism and mountaineering motivated him to start “translating” the complex expertise of nature conservation for different audiences. As a mountain guide, Vladimir witnessed at first hand the frightening effect of human pressure on forests and rivers, and as a media person – the absence of the issue from the hot topics.



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