Embracing curiosity: How a new nature conservation organization out of farmers is trying to conserve their traditions and livelihoods

By Maraja Riechers

Since about a year now I am doing qualitative and quantitative social research in the Lüneburger Heide (you can read about some of it here and about the Transylvanian counterpart here). As I am looking amongst others at different expressions of nature connectedness, I got introduced to a then newly created farmer’s organization (basically they approached the Leuphana in 2017). Its name is Vereinigte Heidehöfe für Naturschutz (United Heath farms for nature conservation) – an organization of farmers that own land which is to be managed for conservation. Their aim is to conserve the regions cultural heritage, their farms, and the traditionally used landscapes (health lands are highly managed and would not last without human influence). Within about one year they grew to have about 90 members and a total land mass of about 10 000 hectare.

It is safe to say they are stirring up quite some dust in the Lüneburger Heide. But it is not conflict they are after, but rather a balanced complex dialog in which the farmers have the felt leverage of making their own decisions based on transparent information. Naturally, I got intrigued by the success of the organization to attract so many members in such a short amount of time. And also by their line of arguments (admittedly, I am a curious person and get fascinated easily. But that does not diminish the actual worth for investigation!). So I stayed in touch with one of the founding members, Hans-Peter Bockelmann. Hans-Peter’s farm was first mentioned in 1380 and carries his family name since at least 1530. Since the beginning of the 20th century the farm lies in the middle of the large nature conservation area that is the core of Lüneburger Heide. When you stand on top of his hill looking over his gorgeous heath land and scattered juniper bushes, it does feel a bit like the scene of the Lion King where Mufasa claims: “Everything the light touches is our kingdom”. In this case, it would be Hans-Peter’s.

Photo by courtesy of Hans-Peter Bockelmann

Most of his heath land is leased to the local organization for nature conservation (Verein Naturschutzpark, founded already 1909) and the further development of his farm is constantly under question. If you are in the middle of a nature conservation area with strong touristic and ecological values, it is difficult to convince the decision-makers to grant you space for a new pig stall, new houses, holiday apartments or a biogas plant. Yet, in the current growth-driven system difficulties to invest can create an economic downward spiral that threatens the future of the farm. And this can feel like a trap.

But giving up is just not a trait Hans-Peter has. Instead he has enough curiosity to constantly change his perspectives to find alternative ways for his farm to stay in the hands of his family for generation to come. An example of some of his recent attempts: A new, or rather old, pig breed that lives longer before slaughtered, has more space and can run around outside (which is of course more expensive to buy and hence consumer demand is low); fancy holiday apartments to give tourists a holistic view of realistic farming practices while giving them the luxury the city-dwellers might want; And the establishment of a nature conservation organization. Will these attempts work to save his family farm? We can only hope so. Do they outline farming practices outside the current economic growth paradigms? Yes, they do.

Now a bit later my colleagues and I will help to assess some information of the organization’s steadily increasing members: How much land is managed how? Which is already managed as regulated by conservation laws (but not certified as nature conservation area)? What are reasons for the membership, and what are expectations towards the organisation etc. For now, this might just be a small collaborative research project but who knows where it might lead. Maybe our research sheds some light on how organizations concerned with farming and those with conservation can sit on one table and discuss their shared goals of conserving the cultural and biological diversities their landscapes engender. Maybe. I stumbled into this due to my curiosity, and the collaboration grew organically without effort. This is one reason, why I love empirical research and one reason more to keep your eyes open for fascinating stories.

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!].

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.



A taste of Szépvíz* on a foreigner’s tongue

by Tamara Schaal

This article was written for a local newspaper of the commune of Szépvíz in Eastern Transylvania, Romania, back in October last year. For my PhD, I have been exploring the ‘on-the-ground’ trade-offs related to farming in the Pogány-havas microregion during one month of fieldwork there (if you speak Hungarian, you can find the translation of the article here: http://www.szepviz.eu/kepek/file_19b806cb7e06.pdf) as part of the project ‘Rescaling governance for sustainable agriculture’ at Leuphana University.

In June this year, on a visit to Central Transylvania I came to the Csík valley and Gyimes region for the first time. Despite the veil of rain that lay in the air that day clouding the view of the area and after a very short introduction to the region by Váli Csongor, I knew that I had come to a very special place. A place, surrounded by mountain ranges and snowy peaks, where the forest meets the smaller and bigger land parcels in the plains.

I am very lucky that I had the opportunity to return to this marvelous area for four weeks of fieldwork now. Currently I am interviewing farmers from the region in order to get a glance at how they view farming, what lies behind their motivation and the challenges that they are facing. Despite having only spent less than two weeks here, what amazes me is the determination with which people here continue working their land, their intricate connection to the land, and their attitude of doing what needs to be done – despite the hardships of a harsh climate, uncertainties and the financial insecurity they are facing.

Fig. 1

Cabbage harvest and sale during the cabbage festivities

Of course, to gain a better understanding of farming in the region requires one to use all the senses. Speaking and hearing about agriculture and seeing the landscape only provides part of the picture. Last weekend, I had the opportunity to attend the cabbage festivities in the commune of Szépvíz (Káposztavágás-vásar Szépvízen) and taste the fruit of all the hard work that these people put into farming. That day was a perfect mix of smelling the different flavors put together during cooking, tasting various delicious cabbage dishes, and seeing and listening to the traditional singing and dancing, not to mention that everything was framed by a blue sky and bright sunshine. I think this was a perfect way to glimpse into the culture and traditions tied to village life in this area.

Fig. 2

The farming landscape around the town of Szépvíz

I am grateful for how kindly people here are treating me and particularly to anyone setting aside time from their work to talk to me – a stranger who only speaks a couple of words of Hungarian. This stay has offered me a new vantage point on small-scale farming and I hope that by doing this work I can contribute to understanding how EU policies can better address the challenges that farmers are facing in this region.

For a personal reflection on fieldwork in this area, I also highly recommend my PhD colleague Ioana’s article https://leveragepoints.org/2017/12/07/the-story-of-my-fieldwork-experience-or-whats-almost-always-left-out-from-scientific-papers/.


* Note: Since Hungarian ethnics form the majority in this microregion, the names of locations are in Hungarian in this article.

The story of my fieldwork experience or what’s almost always left out from scientific papers

Ioana-Alexandra Dușe

Just to warn you from the beginning, this blog post is not about scientific evidence, results, theories or anything really related to the rigours of research. This post is about the other things that usually people don’t talk about or don’t like to mention, not because they are not important, but because they go away with time: the emotions and feelings that one experiences while doing fieldwork.  We all know that emotions are part of our daily experience, yet we try to either hide them or we don’t know how to grasp them properly. The fact that fieldwork can involve emotional experiences on the part of the respondent is now fairly well understood, however what is sometimes overlooked is that the researcher is also involved in the interview or discussion, which means he is also not immune to emotional experiences in the field. This time I am going to share my personal experience, which might be different from what others experience, but is still important enough to talk about.

I spent roughly 41 days doing fieldwork in Romania. We collected (together with my colleague Katie Klaniecki) 178 surveys from the Poganyi-Havas Microregion, in the counties of Harghita and Bacău. This area is located in the Eastern Carpathians of Romania and comprises two distinctly separate regions: Ciuc (Csik) and Ghimeș (Gyimes). The Ciuc basin has a wide, open landscape surrounded by mountains, while Ghimes is a mountain area with deep and narrow valleys. Approximately 85% of the residents are Hungarian ethnics, 13% Romanians and 2% belong to the Roma community. Therefore, in order to conduct these surveys I had to speak mostly Hungarian to communicate with the people in the region. As I speak both languages, that requirement was covered and I actually felt quite confident in switching from Hungarian to Romanian and English in the same hour, if I had to.

Fig. 1

Lunca de Jos

I guess we all have expectations about how things will go, however, we cannot always anticipate emotional challenges, as they frequently arise as the result of discussion that is only indirectly related to the focus of the research or not at all. I can certainly say that this fieldwork was one of the most emotionally challenging ones that I experienced so far. I personally think that being a good field researcher is not just about collecting the raw data and ticking some boxes, there is an interaction component, between you – the researcher and the people with who you interact. The interaction part was actually the key to each of our survey. The first 5 minutes were always critical: walking around the villages, trying the gate, seeing if it’s locked or not, making sure there is no scary dog around, and then talking to people. As a side note, we have to understand that in Romania there is not really a culture of participation in research studies. People are reluctant and always scared when they are questioned, and I guess some things from the communist regime still reside, especially in rural areas. People in this region have a very simple life, and most of them have a semi subsistence farm or are actively involved in family farming. As a researcher in this area, you really have to make an effort to gain people’s trust: you must be modest, use simple and meaningful sentences, relate to their problems and listen to them carefully, empathize with them (but not over-empathizing). Some might be very interested in your topic and might engage in good conversations, while others might be more reluctant and afraid, but then it’s your job as a researcher to bring these people closer to you, to encourage them to express their opinions and to try to understand them, even if what they say is communicated in just a few words.

fieldwork 1

During an interview or discussion between two or more people there will always be an emotional dimension, but I never felt this as much as I did during this work. It happened several times during our many survey discussions that I had to put my own emotions aside and, instead, make space for acknowledging the emotions of the respondents, even when they were not related to our research topic. Sometimes, by the end of the day these emotions would follow me back to my room. Then I realized that I am not as immune as I thought to some of the topics that were brought up by the respondents. Historically, there was always a conflict between Romanians and Hungarian ethnics from this region and because history cannot be changed or rewritten, some people still engage in mean conversations, which are usually oriented towards xenophobic stereotypes. I was born and raised in a mixed family, with a Romanian father and a Hungarian mother, so for me from an early age the acceptance of others was something very normal, I related to both of these nationalities equally and respectfully. Moreover, being a woman researcher in Romania and surveying men in rural areas is not always the easiest task and certainly you don’t end up having the most pleasant conversations, especially not when your nationality is insulted or you experience gender-based remarks. I thought about these things several nights, and I tried to understand myself and the fact that I cannot change people or how they see things, I can just listen to what they have to say and take out the information that is relevant for my research, and the rest is just “background noise”, at least the part that for me was more disturbing. I guess what I learned mostly from this experience was about myself, how to deal with my own emotions and consider my everyday experiences in new ways. This helped me understand why I react and respond in the ways I do and encouraged me not only to watch others but also to watch myself as I watch them – consciously.

Emotions are important. Of course, we cannot expect hard and fast guidelines for all fieldwork situations, but if emotions in research are not acknowledged, not only will researchers be left vulnerable, but also our understanding of the social world will remain impoverished and incomplete.

Hidden indicators for a landscape under stress

By Maraja Riechers

Sometimes the landscapes around us change faster than we think. Be it through rural flight and urbanization, industrialization of villages or agriculture, land grabbing or degradation of nature, the landscapes we live in are changing gradually or rapidly.

In some areas, fast landscape changes outpaces our ability to adjust and leaves us grappling with our sense of place of the landscapes we used to know. In some areas, it may be hard to pin point what changed exactly but we cannot help but feel alienated in a subconscious way. Inhabitants of such changing landscapes might feel disempowered as their own ability to influence landscape changes diminishes in this increasingly complex system. These and many more factors might lead to inhabitant’s having different understandings about the challenges and contrasts of that landscape. When a system is difficult to understand, it can become easy to blame actors that one deems to be responsible, or focus on changes that are very visible instead of those behind the curtains.

In one of those changing landscapes I was happy to conduct my research. I actively chose this landscape as it has experienced a relatively rapid change in the last 30 years. Even though I identified some challenges through my research there are some aspects that I uncovered that cannot be translated into concrete results or articles. The landscape changes in the region created tension that was difficult to grasp. But I could see hidden indicators that clearly pointed to a conflicting situation in the region. Yet to see and understand those indicators I had to read between the lines, pay close attention to communications (verbal and non-verbal before and after the interviews): All rather hard to grasp with the usual methods of social science research. Let me give you an example: On my question if they would be available for interviews, I got e-mail answers that read like a harsh statement on why researchers are no longer trusted. They claimed that they would anyway be blamed as the bad guys in the end and that I might take a normative stand point “against them” in my final results. It took me a while to get access to the quite separated group of actors of the regions and often needed the help of some trusted key players that opened the way for me in.

When they finally trusted me enough to talk to me I often found out that they thoroughly researched me beforehand. “You did your PhD at the Agricultural Faculty of the University of Göttingen. That is a rather conservative faculty, right? In which group did you study there?” I have been inquired about my normative stands on nature conservation or the influence of agriculture on nature or intensive agriculture in general. I had to constantly justify and explain myself to conservationists and farmers alike, to highlight my neutrality – or better, my being on “their side”. In another case my colleague and I had to change the location of a joint transdisciplinary workshop because some of the participants would have cancelled their attendance due to the political and nature conservation attitudes of the owner of the workshops location.

On other instances, I was happily welcomed as a conversational partner. “Finally” someone listened to their complaints, which they felt were just not heard (or they felt misunderstood). One interviewee prepared three full computer written pages of bullet points about problems he sees around him with regard to social-ecological landscape changes. It was an easy interview, as it started with a 45 minute monologue (all very fitting and informing for my research).

Such hidden indicators cannot be translated into direct research results but clearly influence the way I had to communicate with people and proceed in collecting my data. It required utter awareness and a careful approach towards topics and values in the interviews. In many moments, when interviewees made statements on topics they felt were controversial I was carefully scrutinized for every single indicator that would convey my opinion. For me it is important to establish trust and show respect towards my interview partners. Otherwise I am quite sure I would not have been able to get honest statements. I experienced that the first few minutes of the interviews were crucial to establish this trust. This research situation was one of those clear cases on how I as a researcher with my personal history (me as a German, blond, young female university employee with a PhD, from a little German village and a farmer in the family) has an effect on my data collection. I consider this reflexivity and the acknowledgement of my own role and influence on my research process quite important.

Landscape changes can influence us subconsciously in many ways. Some of the changes are visible to us, some only through comparison on how it was some decades ago. In some cases, landscape changes might lead to a loss of sense of place or connection to the landscape. In other cases we as researchers can only guess some of the effects landscape changes have to the residents and actor groups within it. Many of the implications of the changes, such as emerging conflicts, are hard to measure as they require reading between the lines. For me it meant to be care- and respectful, rely on my honesty and sensitivity and skillfully navigate towards emotional topics and contrasting viewpoints.