Coming to terms with the past in Transylvania

Conducting a transdisciplinary case study in a long-term research setting is a privilege. Leuphana University has been present in Southern Transylvania since 2011 when it started the research project Sustainable landscapes in Central Romania. Until 2015 the project contributed to an increased understanding of the social-ecological system of Southern Transylvania, and it helped articulate four normative development scenarios. One of these scenarios, Balance Brings Beauty, benefited from an unprecedented audience and echo in the region and was subsequently selected as a shared vision by our partners, event which only increased the responsibility weighing on our scholarly shoulders. These previous science-civil society interactions and years of practice in trying to understand each other secured an increased sense of recognition, trust, and right timing for capitalising on the growing momentum. With the project “Leverage Points for Sustainability Transformation” came the wicked question of the ‘how’. How to get there?  How to co-create the desired future for Southern Transylvania?

Where to start from? Back in 2015 we knew the region has these numerous and vibrant sustainability initiatives that are locally relevant and shape the pathway to transformation according to the agreed upon vision. To us it seemed logical that the agenda of transformation needed to be kept in the hands of those agents that were already fostering change towards sustainability on the ground. We identified this group to have a core of approximate 30 organizations, which we are very grateful to be working with. The research questions that co-evolved in our workshops were how to support and enable the local efforts of these practitioners of change and how to capitalise on and recognise what’s already there. The discussions soon became a matter of scaling and connecting through what we called amplifying approaches. My colleague, David Lam, is currently working on a taxonomy of amplifications processes. Because amplifying approaches might refer not only to sustainability initiatives in Transylvania, but also to various other ‘islands of sanity’, e.g. seeds of a good Anthropocene, it may be that this theoretical lens will prove useful also for linking global sustainability to place-based research.

One of our hypotheses is that the relationships between these local leaders of transformation play a role in the journey to Balance Brings Beauty. In order to understand these, but also to respond to expressed aspirations for a collaborative management of the area, we designed a social network analysis that maps relationships according to the twelve leverage points. [We take this opportunity to warmly thank our 30 partners who diligently filled our online survey and credited us with their time and energy. Please stay tuned!].

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Relationships operate differently across scales and in nested systems. Apart from the macro-level of relationships between sustainability initiatives, it is also relevant to look at relationships and networks at smaller spatial and social scales, e.g. within local communities, or within our partner organizations themselves.

For example, we are closely working together with the Agro-Eco Viscri-Weisskirch farming association in partnership with Mihai Eminescu Trust, and my colleague Cristina Apetrei is also analysing the relationships between members of the management team and how these foster knowledge and information acquisition and use. The association was formed in 2015 as a response to a sustainability deficit that is generalised to many other regions of rural Transylvania, i.e. the disconnection of the community from the common land. In this context, subsistence farming and peasants were disadvantaged and even disappearing in some villages. Our previous studies on this problematique showed how access to the communal pasture changed over the years from a state where it was guaranteed by the social order and law, to one of restrictions that the community needed to find a way around. But the land access issues, we learned, were not only due to contextual, extrinsic challenges, such as new institutional settings, or politics. They were also mirroring breaches in the social capital, and in relationships between institutions in the broader sense (a la Ostrom), between different agency domains (business, policy and civil society), as well as between individuals.

As part of our transdisciplinary sub-case around the Viscri farmers’ associations, we identified not only challenges that were outside the control of the association members (such as agricultural policies), but also some that were within their control (such as the understanding of the common good, rights and responsibilities). Throughout 2016 and 2017 we organised meetings and workshops to advance the tackling of these issues. In June 2017 we focused on creating a space for dialogue, personal and collective reflection for learning together about the decision-making process towards the common good. It was during this meeting that participants felt the format of the workshop would be worth repeating, but together with representatives of other stakeholder groups, particularly local decision- and policy-makers. This became our aim for the next meeting in January 2018. There were many resources, diplomatic skills and ultimately faith deployed and sustained in the process. There were no guarantees and we were not sure we’d be successful, because we were implicitly trying to mend broken relationships. Up until the last moment we were not sure our invitees would show up. They did. People who hadn’t talked to each other for several years shook hands and played along a Common Fund Investment Simulation Game. And so, the first step in coming to terms with the past was done.

Did our team have a role in this? Hard to tell. Could this be framed as moderating, interfacing or real-world impact, or simply implementing the transdisciplinary agenda? Literature recently acknowledges extended and alternative roles for researchers in sustainability transitions (Wittmayer and Schäpke 2014). How many of these essentials for action-oriented research (Fazey et al. 2018) or stakeholder engagement (Reed et al. 2017) were exercised? What is sure, albeit not so easily expressed, is the satisfaction of contributing to concord. It was a small step, but an important one both for the Viscri farming association and community, as well as for our efforts to bring to light the transformative potential of transdisciplinarity. Will this be reflected in any academic output? To some extent. But what can’t be captured in our research articles, nor here, is the worth and meaningfulness of doing something that is not necessarily rewarded at the more immediate and proximate, but shallow, level of leverage points: standing for conciliation, bringing people together.

 

 

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