Leaving the ivory tower: Leuphana students meet actors in the study field

By Lara Schönweiss


Dieser Blogpost ist Teil des Studentenprojektes Transdisziplinäres Projekt: Landkreis Oldenburg im Master Nachhaltigkeit. Lehrende: Moritz Engerbers, Prof. Ulli Vilsmeier, Dr. Maraja Riechers

Four months ago, the transdisciplinary project in the region of Oldenburg has been expanded even more!

Now a group of 22 students from the master program Sustainability Science at Leuphana University Lüneburg affiliated their own transdisciplinary project with the Leverage Points project.

picture by Laurin Berger

picture by Laurin Berger


What is this all about? Our research project up to now

As transdisciplinary research is considered a key aspect of Sustainability Science3, the curriculum of this master program involves a project lasting for two semesters. During this time students learn how to do research independently, but embedded in a comprehensive scientific context and guided by lecturers.

Within the question of the Leverage Points project “In how far can nature parks be levers for sustainability transformation?”, we decided to focus on two broader research fields concerning the Naturpark Wildeshauser Geest, namely “nourish” and “drive”. These two topics were adapted from the first leading question developed at a workshop by Leverage Points project: “How can a (bio)diversity corridor nourish, promote and drive a viable and sustainable life in the Oldenburg region?”.

After more than two months of developing and organizing our groups and getting theoretically involved in transdisciplinary research and the study field, we finally had our first excursion to the Naturpark Wildeshauser Geest from June 13 to 15.

In Sustainability Science, we deal with complex real-world problems and produce socially robust knowledge which prospectively leads to potential social impact.5 Thus, one major part is to include local people as soon as possible in the research process.

At the moment, our research group is dealing with “Phase A – problem framing”3, so that it has been a perfect time to experience the nature park, meeting local people, press, mayors, people from the artecology_network and the association Naturpark Wildeshauser Geest.


“Why is this so important?”, people might ask.

Sustainability researchers deal with complex systems, but cannot craft usable knowledge on their own. Therefore, it is essential that we get to know practitioners and start collaborating with these local experts.1

Sustainability research should be based on mutual learning between scientists of different disciplines and key actors from society. This way it is possible to apply knowledge and values from practice in science and utilize science knowledge in practice.5 With the help of local people’s systems knowledge and joint reflections concerning the research topic, scientists’ understanding of knowledge-related problems is expected to increase.2,4 Thus, various kinds of knowledge can be integrated within the transdisciplinary process – namely modes of thought, disciplines, cultures, systems and perspectives.5


PRACTICE: First meeting with actors

The Oldenburg region was green, the sun was shining and our first impression was: What an idyllic countryside!

After arriving in Kirchhatten, we prepared dinner and started our excursion with a get-together, including researchers from Leverage Points project, artists from artecology_network and us, nine students of our project. This dinner was taking place at the spot where the collaboration of Leverage Points project and artecology_network is tangible: at the (Bio) Diversitycorridor. This container informs local citizens about the project and is extended with wooden art. Hence, we got a concrete idea of the project and a feeling for the place. All people were very open, friendly and curious about our group. Besides, everyone was excited about the press conference on the following day and preparing for it.

The press conference helped to get a detailed and clear insight into the project (Bio) Diversitycorridor and the connection between artecology artists and scientists of Leuphana University. Furthermore, we had the possibility to observe the collaboration with local people, with politicians  and with the responsible partner of the Niedersächsische Bingo-Umweltstiftung which funded the project.

Moreover, we met the representative managers of the association Naturpark Wildeshauser Geest. Due to a friendly and productive conversation, we received a great overview of the responsibilities and projects of the association. We also already exchanged specific views on how we could collaborate and which issues would offer a connection to our research. In the end, we promised to keep in touch and work together regarding the direction of our research project.

Experiencing two projects of the artecology_network (“GeLIEBter NEOphyt” by Anja Schoeller, http://www.zwischenbericht.eu, and “Civil Wilderness” by Dr. Helene von Oldenburg and Claudia Reiche, http://www.mars-patent.org) we also learned a lot about their approach of reconnecting with nature and dealing with human-nature relationships. Within “GeLIEBter NEOphyt”, for example, we dealt with “foreignness” and enjoyed an evening searching for unfamiliar plants getting to know their effects.

Finally, we reflected our impressions of Kirchhatten with our lecturers and explored the nature park by foot, walking along the river Hunte and through forest.


Clash of science and practice

Because of our excursion to the region of Oldenburg our group of students received a comprehensive picture of the nature park and towns located within. Additionally, we gained detailed knowledge about the network of people living there and working in administrative, political and artistic fields.

The great diversity of possible actors implements a high potential of identifying relevant topics for sustainable transformation within a transdisciplinary project. This is very important as the group’s composition of researchers and actors has a substantial influence on the outcome of a research project.4

Due to the openness and friendliness of all local actors who we met so far, I am very confident to set up an interesting and diverse group of actors to identify sustainability problems within the nature park and to develop strategies for transforming the issues. Thus, in the end hopefully our results will serve as an orientation for the actors to adapt to and utilize it within their decision-making processes towards a sustainability transformation in the region.5




1 Clark, W. C. et al. (2016): Crafting usable knowledge for sustainable development. PNAS 113 (17): 4570-4578.

2 Felt, U. et al. (2016): Transdisciplinary Sustainability Research in Practice: Between Imaginaries of Collective Experimentation and Entrenched Academic Value Orders. Science, Technology, & Human Values, 41 (4): 732-761.

3 Lang, D. J. et al. (2012): Transdisciplinary research in sustainability science: practice, principles, and challenges. Sustainability Science 7: 25-43.

4 Schneider, F.; Rist, S. (2014): Envisioning sustainable water futures in a transdisciplinary learning process: combining normative, explorative, and participatory scenario approaches. Sustainability Science 9: 463-481.

5 Scholz, R. W.; Steiner, G. (2015): The real type and ideal type of transdisciplinary processes: part I – theoretical foundations. Sustainability Science 10: 527-544.

Masterkurs„Transdisziplinäres Projekt: Naturpark Wildeshauser Geest

By Maraja Riechers and Moritz Engbers

Wir im Projekt „Leverage Points for Sustainability Transformation“ an der Leuphana Universität arbeiten an transdisziplinäre Fallstudien in Siebenbürgen (Rumänien) und im Landkreis Oldenburg. Alles mit dem Hintergrund, deep leverage points (Meadows 2009) für Nachhaltigkeitstransformationen zu identifizieren. Im Landkreis Oldenburg arbeiten wir zusammen mit dem ArtEcology_network und verschiedenen Akteuren an der Leitfrage:

(Bio) Diversitätskorridor: Wie können Allianzen gebildet werden, um die Region Oldenburg zukunftsfähig zu gestalten?


Nun beschäftigen sich auch 22 Studierende der Leuphana Universität gemeinsam mit uns an dieser Leitfrage. Die Studierenden sind Teilnehmer des Masterstudiengangs „Nachhaltigkeitswissenschaft“ an der Leuphana Universität Lüneburg. Ziel ist es, den gesamten Bogen eines transdisziplinären Forschungsprojektes von der Formulierung der Forschungsfrage bis zur Unterstützung der Implementierung von Forschungsergebnissen zu durchlaufen.

Das Projekt der Studierenden konzentriert sich auf den Naturpark Wildeshauser Geest. Unter der übergeordneten Frage, inwiefern Naturparke Ansatzpunkte für eine Nachhaltigkeitstransformation sein können, werden die Themen „Was die Region antreibt“ und „Was die Region nährt“ vertieft.

In den kommenden Monaten werden sich daher die Studierenden hier auf dem Blog mit den Themen von Transdisziplinarität, dem Landkreis, dem Naturpark und Leverage Points auseinander setzen. Wir freuen uns darauf!

Das Projekt wird durch die Lehrenden Maraja Riechers, Moritz Engbers und Ulli Vilsmaier aus dem Team des Leverage Points for Sustainability Transformation Projektes betreut.


Für Fragen zur transdisziplinären Fallstudie im Landkreis Oldenburg: Moritz Engbers (engbers@leuphana.de, 04131-677-4014)

Fieldweeks of Leuphana University and artecology_network in the Oldenburg district

By Moritz Engbers

During two ‘field weeks’, various events took place between 12 and 21 June 2017 in the course of a cooperation between the artecology_network with its project ‘(Bio) diversity corridor’, the project ‘Leverage Points for Sustainability Transformation’ of the Leuphana University of Lüneburg, and actors from the Oldenburg district. The aim of the two weeks was on the one hand to deepen the existing cooperation and on the other the joint work on relevant topics for the region. The cooperation is based on the guiding question: (Bio) diversity corridor: How can we build alliances to collectively shape an emergent and viable future for the Oldenburg region? The opening of the (bio) diversity corridor on 20th of June was a highlight. Its goal is to bring together various actors, activities and communities in the Oldenburg district. The events took place within the framework of a transdisciplinary case study in the Oldenburg district, in which the Leverage Points project is involved.

Contact for questions about the transdisciplinary case study: Moritz Engbers


Leuphana Universität und artecology_network forschen zusammen mit Landkreis Oldenburg

Im Rahmen zweier ‚Feldwochen‘ fanden vom 12. bis 21. Juni 2017 verschiedene Veranstaltungen im Rahmen einer Kooperation zwischen dem artecology_network im Projekt ‚(Bio) Diversitätskorridor‘, dem Projekt ‚Leverage Points for Sustainability Transformation‘ der Leuphana Universität Lüneburg und Akteuren aus dem Landkreis Oldenburg statt. Ziel der beiden Wochen war zum einen das Vertiefen der bestehenden Kooperation und zum anderen die gemeinsame Arbeit an relevanten Themen für die Region. Die Kooperation orientiert sich dabei an der Leitfrage: (Bio) Diversitätskorridor: Wie können Allianzen gebildet werden, um die Region Oldenburg zukunftsfähig zu gestalten? Die Eröffnung des (Bio)Diversitätskorridors am 20.06.2017 bildete dabei einen Höhepunkt. Darin sollen verschiedene Akteure, Aktivitäten und Gemeinden des Landkreises Oldenburg zusammengebracht werden. Die Veranstaltungen fanden im Rahmen der transdisziplinären Fallstudie im Landkreis Oldenburg statt, an der das Leverage Points Projekt beteiligt ist.

Kontakt für Fragen zur transdisziplinären Fallstudie: Moritz Engbers


Photo: Insa Winkler (artecology_network) at the opening of the (Bio) Diversity corridor

Foto: Insa Winkler (artecology_network) bei der Eröffnung des (Bio) Diversitätskorridors

Rethinking for sustainability: a prelude

By Dr Liz Clarke and David P. M. Lam, Leuphana University Lüneburg

At the heart of our efforts to make the shift to a sustainable world is the process of rethinking. Rethinking what is important to us, how we should live, what makes us happy, what ‘nature’ means to us, of questioning the very foundations of our assumptions, beliefs, values, and rules, all of which make up the fabric of how we understand the world. And what is sustainability if not an idea, an aspiration, a way of rethinking?

A few weeks ago, we facilitated a workshop in Sighisoara, under the shadow of the Carpathian Mountains and within sight of the towers and rooftops of the ancient birthplace of the legendary Count Dracul (or Vlad the Impaler as he was known to his fearful Transylvanian countrymen and women).

With participants from various Non-Governmental Organisations in Southern Transylvania we did some of this rethinking. All of these participants are engaged in change – change for sustainability, better livelihoods, and a better future. They are focusing on a wide range of projects – from protecting communal grazing rights, preserving the unique Transylvanian hay meadows, preserving biodiversity, restoring heritage buildings, promoting sustainable tourism, improving livelihoods, to creating sustainable businesses.

Over the past few years, they have developed an inspiring common future vision: Balance Brings Beauty. This vision incorporates sustainable livelihoods, where tradition and nature are both valued, as well as aesthetics and wellbeing, which draws visitors to Transylvania in droves.

We sat in a hotel surrounded by some of the most committed and motivated people in the province, and we asked them to look deep within at their foundational thinking to understand what drives them to dedicate so much of their energies to this vision.

The answers were not surprising but very salient. Driving all of them was their passion, their ideas and their belief in a better future. They talked about the importance of empowerment and self-esteem, of the uniqueness of their culture and natural environment, the value of history and tradition, of happiness, fun and love. One participant said, “Without this uniqueness, I will lose my interest and love”. Improving the local economy was mentioned but as a means to an end – to create happier, safer, and more secure lives.

This positions the people of Southern Transylvania as firmly connected and integrated with this unique landscape and also with each other. What did we learn from the workshop? The journey to Balance Brings Beauty is a long one – there are many more years ahead. But rethinking is a collective and collaborative process, and happens when a group of engaged and passionate people come together to share their passion, ideas, and love for their culture and natural environment.


Leverage Points and ArtEcology Network at Climate Day, Wildeshausen

On 7th May 2017, Leverage Points and ArtEcology Network were jointly present at Climate Day in Wildeshausen.  Both parties were presenting their work: Leverage Points for their transdisciplinary research in the area, and ArtEcology network around their project (Bio) diversitycorridor.

Within this joint presentation, Jaana Prüss released the Kitchenmobile.  The climate-friendly kitchenmobile is inspiring for self-sufficiency from local resources. It stimulates self-organization and responsibility and focuses on regional food. Joint cooking with wild herbs, vegetables and fruits from own cultivation makes your own food supply a new experience and the effects of the ingredients will play a role. The “kitchen mobile” is an environmentally friendly e-load-bike with an integrated kitchen module, which draws attention to the edible of the landscape, the wilderness and the vegetable gardens.Short distances for regional food are climate-friendly – they conserve the valuable nutrients in the food without long storage times and transportation routes and give the citizens a bit of self-organization and responsibility.In exchange and discussion with residents, schoolchildren, politicians, farmers, new neighbors and people with refugee background etc. the general and own food supply is to be experienced by joint cooking with wild herbs and accompanying vegetables and fruit from self-cultivation. Workshops will jointly test how self-sufficiency from local resources could work.


Kitchenmobile by Jaana Prüss and Olsen Kunstbauten; E-bike supported by Gemeinde Hatten. Credit: Peer Holthuizen, Hanayo Prüss

Moritz Engbers (LP) and Insa Winkler (Projectmanager (Bio) diversitycorridor, ArtEcology Network) with Manuela Schöne (Klimabeauftragte des Landkreis Oldenburg) Credit: Hanayo Prüss

Transdisciplinary Research with the ArtEcology Network in Oldenburg

The Leverage Points project centres around two transdisciplinary case studies – one in Transylvania, Romania, and one in the Oldenburg region of Germany.  In Oldenburg, Leverage Points researchers have been collaborating with artists from the ArtEcology network, around a (Bio) diversity corridor.

During the project (Bio) Diversitycorridor in Oldenburg County, fifteen cultural scientists and artists examine the connections between agriculture and cultural landscape, biological and cultural diversity, together with local actors and institutions as well as the municipal authorities of the Oldenburg county Participation in practices of sustainability.

The concept (Bio) Diversitycorridor in the district of Oldenburg is to be understood in the transcendent sense: as an imaginary, virtual space, which opens up various possibilities of perception and association. “Corridor” symbolizes a membrane, a space in the transition, a sluice or a room without a clear boundary. The emphasis is on the openings that result from it – into various adjoining landscaped areas; In cultural spaces with all their diversity of ways of life and economics.

The (Bio) Diversitycorridor, with artistic action and artistic means, takes on climate protection and the diversity of nature as a common task, i.e. its positive and also problematic effects as a theme.

With a variety of formats and participatory workshops, topics such as biodiversity, neophytes, self – sufficiency, renewable energies, climate change, scenic cultural heritage, ecological economic factors, agriculture, nutrition, environmental protection and their holistic contexts with the involvement of citizens are worked on Diverse stakeholders in the entire Oldenburg district.

The aim of artecology_network is to convey environmental issues through “environmental art”, to use professional and innovative artistic participation methods and to involve a broad public on the urging questions in workshops. In the project, questions of the region are to be answered in a practical manner and solutions are developed, which are practically experienced and tested within workshops with those concerned and can be pursued beyond the workshop.

The focus is explicitly on the transdisciplinary examination of other fields of professional and knowledge dealing with the diversity of culture and biodiversity and make valuable work in education for sustainable development

New Paper: Assessing sustainable biophysical human–nature connectedness at regional scales

By Christian Dorninger

Humans are biophysically connected to the biosphere through the flows of materials and energy appropriated from ecosystems. While this connection is fundamental for human well-being, many modern societies have—for better or worse—disconnected themselves from the natural productivity of their immediate regional environment by accessing material and energy flows from distant places and from outside the biosphere.

In the search for the most “efficient” sustainability solutions for land-use based management issues modern societies often tend to supplement, or replace, (potentially) naturally renewable regional energy—its net primary production (NPP)—with external material and energy inputs (e.g. fossils, metals, and other minerals extracted from the lithosphere). The extent and consequences of these biophysical disconnections remain unclear.

In our new paper, we conceptualize the biophysical human–nature connectedness of land use systems at regional scales. We distinguish two mechanisms by which the connectedness of people to their regional ecosystems has been circumvented.

  1. ‘Biospheric disconnection’ refers to people drawing on non-renewable minerals from outside the biosphere (e.g. fossils, metals and other minerals). It is characterized by a strong dependence on industrial inputs which delay or displace ecological constraints. This raises concerns about intergenerational justice, because it creates societal structures that cannot be maintained indefinitely, and diminishes the biosphere’s life-supporting conditions for future generations (e.g. through causing climate change).
  2. ‘Spatial disconnection’ arises from the imports of biomass and mineral resources from outside of a given region. This spatial disconnection of resources creates unsustainable lifestyle patterns through long-distance trade relationships that, potentially, disadvantage the ‘source’ regions. Spatial disconnectedness may thus compromise intragenerational justice, especially if the teleconnections are strong and unbalanced.

Both mechanisms allow for greater regional resource use than would be possible otherwise, but both pose challenges for sustainability, for example, through waste generation, depletion of nonrenewable resources and environmental burden shifting to distant regions or future generations.

Moreover, Cumming et al. (2014) argued that such disconnections weaken direct feedbacks between ecosystems and societies, thereby potentially causing overexploitation and collapse. In contrast, biophysically reconnected land use systems may provide renewed opportunities for inhabitants to develop an awareness of their impacts and fundamental reliance on ecosystems. For this reason, we argue for a reconnection of human activities to the biosphere and its regenerative cycles. This, in turn, implies not only a reduction of industrial material use and a limitation of human domination of ecosystems, but also a strengthened sense of being connected with and knowing the limits of nature. Material realities of human-nature interactions have cognitive consequences and vice versa, e.g. perceptions and understandings of human-nature relationships might have a significant influence on how biophysical interactions are structured. For example, biophysical regional disconnectedness might foster belief and trust in technological progress and technocratic solutions to solve any sustainability issue, or reinforce the idea that sustainable land use is a “problem of other people”.

We propose a conceptual framework to analyze regional-scale biophysical human–nature connectedness. The proposed framework builds on the regional land use system as unit of analysis. Yet it explicitly recognizes not only regional land use, but also global material trade and energy flows.


Our framework provides a new lens through which land-use sustainability can be investigated, which goes beyond ‘on site’ efficiency thinking. The operationalization of this model can be applied as a heuristic tool to reveal complex social–ecological interlinkages, raising awareness of the challenge in managing biophysical connections across scales. This in turn might help to shift the focus of sustainable land use management to a more comprehensible and holistic perspective. Instead of making humanity’s reliance on the biosphere ever more opaque, reconnected regional land use systems will require a greater focus on self-reliance and self-sufficient land use systems. Such regionally reconnected systems may, in turn, facilitate more foresightful, responsible and conscious behaviors.

We are currently undertaking empirical research to demonstrate the utility of the framework developed in the paper and to contrast our findings with results on cognitive human-nature connectedness in the same case study regions. We hope that this will provide deeper insights into the relationship between material and cognitive (dis-)connectedness, and thereby potentially reveal hitherto unrecognized, deep leverage points for sustainability transformation.

The full open access paper can be found here.

Dorninger, C., D. Abson, J. Fischer, and H. von Wehrden. 2017. Assessing sustainable biophysical human-nature connectedness at regional scales. Environmental Research Letters 12. https://doi.org/10.1088/1748-9326/aa68a5.

New paper: Many pathways to sustainability, not conflict but co-learning between transition narratives

There is an increasing focus in sustainability science on transitions and transformative change and an increasing number of proposed pathways for transitioning towards sustainability. In a new paper by Chris Luederitz and colleagues we discuss four archetypical transitions narratives (the green economy; low-carbon transformation; Ecotopian solutions and the transitions movement) in terms of the kinds of interventions these different approaches engender and the ‘depth’ and nature of systemic change they seek achieve.

In addition to summarizing critiques of these four approaches to transformative change, we draw on Donella meadows’ ‘leverage points’ concept (see also here) in order to characterize the different narratives in terms of their potential to enable systemic change.  The different transitions narratives seek to act on different system characteristics ranging from system parameters (taxes, incentives, rules) and system dynamics through to challenging the fundamental design, rules, values and goals of the system. We therefore argue that rather than representing competing visions for societal change, there is considerable scope for co-learning between these different approaches. By understand where in a system a given transitions approach does or does not seek to intervene we believe it is possible to combine facets of these approaches to create a more holistic transitions pathways that act on multiple leverage points for systemic change.

Luederitz, C., Abson, D.J., Audet, R. and Lang, D.J. (2016) Many pathways toward sustainability: not conflict but co-learning between transition narratives, Sustainability Science. doi: 10.1007/s11625-016-0414-0

Hiring now: Postdoc on human-environment connections

Ideas for Sustainability

By Joern Fischer

Because one of our postdocs is moving on to a tenured position (congratulations!), we are looking to find a new person to join our project on “leverage points” for sustainability (see, for example, here and here, or here). This position will be collaborating closely with others, especially myself, Henrik von Wehrden, Dave Abson, Julia Leventon, and several PhD students working on the “re-connect” component of the project.

Although somebody else has previously held this position, there is a lot of flexibility for how the position can be filled with life and meaning in the future. We’re particularly looking for somebody who is interested in pursuing empirical work on human-environment (re-)connections in Transylvania (Romania) or Lower Saxony (Germany) (or both); focusing on food or energy systems (or both). You can email me if you have questions.

The official advertisement is available here. Below, I copy and paste that information, but…

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Romania – where there’s a will, (I think) there’s a way to achieve sustainability

Ioana Alexandra Dușe

I begin this blog post by saying that Romania is truly amazing, with valuable agricultural landscapes and breath-taking views.  Some might say that I am biased, but of course I am; I was born, raised and, for a big part of my life, educated there. However, I see a lot of problems in Romania, in terms of politics (institutional transparency, corruption at the highest level), education, rural to urban migration, environment and sustainability issues. So, the question is why should we pay attention to all of these problems? Well, first it is relevant for us in terms of research, there is a lot of potential for good research to be done in the area. Second, we have to understand the underlying causes of the problems and the symptoms in order to understand how to tackle these issues, and third, because there is no such place like Romania and when one has an opportunity like this, one has to find a way to build on this.

In May, this year, members of the Leverage Points team (Andra, Pim, Nicolas, Chris and I) headed to Transylvania for a week of scoping fieldwork and exploration. Our aim was (1) to see how can we frame our research questions to the Romanian context; (2) to see how can we pursue our objectives considering the complex problems that Transylvania is facing in terms of food and energy systems, and nevertheless we wanted to have a taste of Transylvania (believe it or not, Dracula was not part of the story, this time!) We had 21 meetings with stakeholders from academia, NGOs, local action groups, local government, farmers associations, activist groups, and many others. The amount of information we gained during scoping is very helpful to our future work, a lot of interesting discussions were generated. Here I will just give an overview of the highlight of the meetings, and a few key emerging points.

How are Transylvanians connected to nature?

In Romania, for centuries highly diversified subsistence agriculture and production supported the population. The region of Transylvania still relies on traditional rural land use, often considered ”antiquated” in Central Europe. Farmers in the traditionally managed areas do not use chemicals or intensive machinery, and this has created a large variety of landscape structures, plant communities and habitats for animals. Biodiversity in traditional farming landscapes is also supported through mutual socioecological relationships, in which rural communities influence ecosystems and vice versa. This reciprocal relationship provided strong incentives for sustainable land use, however, the benefits people derive from nature are tight to their value systems and to their connectedness to nature.

Transylvanians perceive, value and interact nature differently. People from the rural areas (who call themselves “peasants”) are very pragmatic and understand nature as more the way through which they benefit from it and appreciate it for livelihoods. Elderly people tend to have a different appreciation for nature, they, have a unique connection to the land, especially compared to younger generations who grow more disconnected from the land/nature. This disconnection is amplified by migration. As more young people leave the rural areas for economic reasons and go to work either in close urban areas in Romania or leave the country, the traditional values related to nature in the region no longer flow from generation to generation to the extent that they did once.

People from urban areas appreciate nature for aesthetics, recreation, and only a small proportion of young people in Romania started developing this feeling of “going back to the roots” for (re)discovering the traditional rural life.

There is another category of people – tourists – who seem to be more aware of the values of the landscape, want to protect it, and appreciate the beauty of the region. These people look for the benefits of the landscape from the natural perspective of the elements. In other words, their connection to nature is oriented towards subtle forms and naturalness.

What are the major sustainability challenges, causes and solutions?

Across Romania, Transylvania included, natural resources have become the object of speculation and massive investments, wherein land owned by millions of Romanian peasants is being grabbed and transformed with far-reaching effects. Some of the foreign visitors have become the famously known “land grabbers”. Data from official registries shows the strong presence of banking institutions and investment funds like Rabobank, Generali or Spearhead International. The range of investors is “exotic” from Austrian Counts, to Romanian oligarchs and Danish and Italian agribusiness companies. Legislation has been driving changes in large-scale monoculture farming, forestry, mining, energy, tourism, and ultimately speculation – as a process that is weakening rural economies and hampering the development of a dynamic rural sector. Urban-rural migration remains a problem along with agricultural intensification, foreign ownership, and the loss of traditional agriculture. Some of the causes are linked to the value systems of the locals and their mind-sets, the level of poor education, unemployment and short term thinking, focused on immediate benefits. Most of the time this shows the lack of hope, pride and support from authorities and responsible institutions.

Energy – seems rather a vague topic for discussion, especially when it comes to renewables and to the support given by the public and by the legislative framework, which is inexistent. People in urban areas still use gas- as the primary energy source whereas people in rural areas rely much on wood.

As for solutions, it will take time to change minds and value systems, and to heal the wounds that history left in Romania after the collapse of the communism. There is still sort of nostalgia floating in the air, but we (as researchers) need to understand what the practical solutions are that trigger sustainability, what are the drivers that shape behaviour, re(create) values for nature appreciation, economic sustainability and legal structures that enable all this to occur.

The role of (in)formal institutions, collaboration and social capital

The informal institutional landscape in Romania seems more and more vibrant. What we witnessed is an outstandingly strong collaboration between public-private actors; local governments and companies/foundations have shared goals and a common vision for a sustainable future. Social capital seems to be the catalyst in this region. In many of our discussions, we came down to the idea of drivers that facilitate mutual beneficial relationships among individuals and collective actions, resulting in longstanding collaborations. So, trust is important and this can be gained and maintained through learning interactions and mutual support. On the other hand, issues such as the legal frameworks, excessive bureaucracy (too complicated, time consuming), and the constant changes to “rules of the game”, are seen as barriers for development. The Romanian Government is pushing on with the development of agro-industry and making substantial efforts to attract foreign investments. The Government’s Program for the period 2013-2016 clearly states it wishes to move towards very large scale, export-oriented agriculture. In Romania, as traditional and organic farmers are being marginalised, land is becoming merely a commodity on which companies can speculate. As some might say, land has become “the new gold”.

One glimmer of hope is the momentum behind participatory groups.  NGOs, researchers, some local institutions, and more responsible and active citizens saw the potential in Romania and decided to help to build a more sustainable future by involving the locals and making them proud of what they have. In one of our discussions, someone said something that keeps coming back to me as a good principle in life: “If this should work for me, it should work for somebody else as well”. How this might play out in the Romanian context in the near future remains to be seen.


We had discussions with: Dr. Tibor Hartel, Mihai Eminescu Trust (Caroline Fernolend), Adept Foundation (Ben), Dan Craioveanu, Asociatia Neuerweg (Hans Hedrich), Mioritics (Mihai Dragomir), GAL “Dealurile Tarnavelor”, GAL “Microregiunea Hârtibaciu”, Bunești City Hall, Mayor Saschiz, Asociatia Monumentum (Eugen Vaida), Asociatia CasApold (Sebastian Bethge), BioMoșna (Willy Schuster), Valea Verde Retreat (Jonas and Ulriche Schäfer), Cincșor Guesthouse (Irina Ciungu Suteu), Faculty of Political Science, BBU Cluj (Dr. Gabriel Bădescu, Dr. Cosmin Gabriel Marian and Drd. Mădălina Mocan), Faculty of Biology, BBU Cluj (Dr. Marko Balint), EcoRuralis (Boruss Szocs Attila)

 We thank all for their valuable insights and elaborations!


Boruss Szocs M.A., Rodrigues Beperet M., Srovnalova A., Land Grabbing in Romania – Fact finding mission Report, EcoRuralis, April, 2015 (online: https://drive.google.com/file/d/0B_x-9XeYoYkWUWstVFNRZGZadlU/view )