Navigating the means for a better end
Rea Cris, 2016
We live in interesting times; some may argue the understatement of the year. Europe has always lived in interesting times, one only has to look at the timeline of how the borders of countries have been drawn and re-drawn to appreciate this. Yet in Western European countries at least, our extended post-world war peacetime may have given us the false luxury of making us complacent to increasingly viewing our practices, principles and even posing questions for our referendums in too many polarised dichotomies.
Unlike other post-Soviet nations which have relatively quickly left behind and sanitised their Soviet past to tourist attractions and historical monuments, Latvia gained her independence 26 years ago and the threat of their Russia neighbours still looms large and very immediate. The mixture of recent independence but no identifiable civic society and a superstition and reluctance of abandoning Soviet modes of operating, or more accurately ways of avoiding them, means that things operate in a different manner than what we may be used to in Scotland and environmental conservation is no exception.
In Scotland and the Western world including Northern America, we have come to position ourselves on a spectrum of charities and third sector organisations are the ‘good guys’ who battle for the public good, whilst private individual and companies are viewed with suspicion or contempt and contributing to the global environmental problems that we currently face. Recent anti-capitalist movements and voting patterns are testament to this simplified statement, but newly independent countries may not have the same connotations or choices. What I found most fascinating about my trip to Latvia is the varied paths different individuals have taken in trying to make a positive difference to their society and the conflicts and dilemmas this threw up for our Scottish group.
Latvia’s Soviet occupation still resonates even into today and how things are done. While in Scotland, society has somewhat become complacent about non-governmental organisations or activist groups being the guardians for the rights and wellbeing of its citizens and environment, the concept is almost alien in Latvia. Ugis Rotbergs, previous CEO of WWF Latvia, now chairman, and previously a parliamentarian, now promotes civil participation which at the moment is non-existent because, as per Ugis, people still believe someone else will come and save them which is a hangover from the Soviet era. Those who want to conserve their natural environment either do so through private commercial means or tap into newly acquired EU funding.
Ugis now works for Institute of Environmental Solutions which is a private commercial interdisciplinary advanced technological research institute whose clients include government agencies, private companies and NGOs. Resembling something of the Google of environmental research, they work with people and projects that excite them, have numerous spin-off projects and smaller enterprises and safeguard their technology in order to market it for sale later on.
In contrast we met Viesturs Larmanis, who is a scientific advisor to Latvian Fund for Nature and who explained that there is no real concept of biodiversity in Latvia. As Viesturs lamented ‘People see green and they think we’re green’ yet he explained that the high percentages of forests are not rich in biodiversity and the fragmentation and intensification of forest plantations, especially monoculture ones, did nothing to help. Viesturs says that despite the historical and cultural link between Latvians and their natural environment, this link is eroding and becoming superficial and he wishes to re-establish people with nature. He said he wanted to be the David Attenborough of Latvia. He lives on his family’s farm which thanks to European funding is an example farm with high nature value farming, but the government don’t seem interested or see the future potential benefits despite the Minister for Agriculture having visited. The cattle they rear on the farm don’t benefit from any additional economical benefits, recognition or certification for their organic credentials. At the moment the cattle are sold off as any other cattle in Latvia and the farm has no knowledge of the future food chain the cattle contribute to.
A similar goal but two completely different approaches. Many in our group were uneasy about Ugis’ approach. When asked about an ethical check or framework he replied ‘You trust yourself to do the right thing. A benefit of working in a private company is we allow ourselves some more trust to do the right thing.’ Many in our group felt more of an affinity with Viesturs and his concerns about the Common Agricultural Policy sounded very familiar. He explained that foresters exploit the carbon sequestration arguments in order to tap into rural development funds for commercial purposes or gains, whereas farmers he advises on meadow and grassland management for their greening measures under Pillar 2 in the Common Agricultural Policy complain of the unnecessary burden and don’t understand or appreciate their role in land management and the wider benefits it could bring to the environment and society. Ugis’ company produces medicinal herbs and as a matter of principle, they don’t sell their products within Latvia because they would then be competing with smaller local businesses and these wouldn’t be able to match the competition and would go bust, which is why they only export their product. Through our Western prism, who truly is the good or bad guy in this instance? The private company that protects its country’s local economy or the nature conservationist advising an EU policy which many agree needs reform, increased stringent greening measures and continues to pander to the lobbying of farmers?
Ugis explained ‘Lobbying is still a dirty word in Latvia, simply because there is no one lobbying for public interests only private interests’. Yet it is sometimes in these private interests that we find unlikely bedfellows for environmental conservation. Hunting has a completely different connotation in Latvia than Scotland. It isn’t imbued with ancestral rights or class divisions or questions over land ownership and the rights and responsibilities of those managing the land for the greater good. During the Soviet era, many people hunted in order to supplement their food. Now, in a similar vein to what is happening in African countries, it is the hunters who responsibly manage the land and forest in order to maintain and enhance the habitats of the animals they wish to hunt.
Yet this is not to assume that hunters are environmentalist. Hunting laws were some of the first legislation implemented after Latvia gained its independence, yet most politicians are hunters and therefore they make sure to take care of their rights. Hunters come from all social classes in Latvia and whilst at the moment the increase in popularity of hunting is because of the social status indicator it provides, if you want to go into politics you need to be a hunter too as, we were told, many political decisions are not made or agreed in the chamber but within the Hunting Clubs. When speaking about the Latvian political party Union of Green and Farmers (ZZS), a green but centre-left party similar to Nordic agrarian parties Ugis described them as “green as a dollar”.
With its independence, Latvia is negotiating and exploring the boundaries and crossovers between capitalism, neoliberalism, socialism, civic participation all beneath the umbrella of climate change threats and the remnants of its Soviet past. What we would deem as ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ have completely different connotations and consequences in Latvia. Cooperative farming, a triumphant alternative example to intensive commercial commodity focused farming in Scotland is only just now coming back in Latvia due to the aftermath of distrust it caused during the Soviet era. In 1949, private farms were forbidden and collective farms or state-owned farms were enforced causing, in environmental terms, intensification and in community terms a sense of distrust of the state and an apathy towards what was happening on the land as it was no longer under any control of the people who lived there not truly contributing to the wellbeing of all. Yet in the same breath, whilst Scotland is obsessed with land ownership and boundaries, in Latvia fences are a rare site. People just instinctively know where their boundaries end and begin. When we informed them that in Scotland land ownership is denoted by fences, their first question was “But how do the animals move about then?”. Where one country places more value in personal property and demonstration of that property, the other knowing from experience this could be taken away so suddenly pay less attention and instead focus more of the nature flow of things, including those that contribute to everyone’s and every species’ benefits.
In Latvia, it is not necessarily embracing capitalism rather than realism that if anything is going to work you need to make it financially viable. I for one was not uncomfortable with Ugis approach and if anything found his pragmatism refreshing. When speaking about ecosystem services, he is the first person I have spoken to about this who framed the debate within its own limitations and asked the right questions. He said “everyone always asks if you have enough assets in the bank but no one ever asks if you have enough natural assets to operate”. Perhaps what Latvians already know and what, in the West, we need to realise is there may be a middle way between the polarisation of our ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ or ‘good’ and ‘bad’. Our moral concepts may not need to be so black and white are we’ve constructed them.
When we met Ziedonis Vilcins a continuous cover forest manager, he was very open and honest in saying that the choices he made in his forest management were for economical common sense rather than from any altruistic motives, but Latvian have a strong historical and cultural attachment to the land and nature. This was evident with Ziedonis as he walked around his forest with intimate knowledge and touching consideration and care for his forest. As he said “People have lost the ability to value a single tree and only have a stand mentality now” and whilst he was specifically referring to the commercial validity of his forest, it was evident that the sentiment went further than this.
Unlike other commercial foresters, Ziendonis does not own or use harvester machines to harvest his trees. He prefers individual chainsaw operators who have the advantage of being mobile can walk around a tree to see if it is damaged from moose grazing or asses the best way to fell a tree and cause the least amount of damage to surrounding trees, unlike harvesters who in a production line kind of way simply fell trees in a row, without knowing if there is damage to the tree trunk from (marking down the price) and felling the trees in such a manner as to cause damage to others in the forest. Intensification of harvester means individual harvesters are losing their jobs en mass, meaning the consequences are local jobs and a heritage skills is being lost and not only are people leaving the countryside for work, but the country itself. There are hardly any more skilled chainsaw operators and this is especially troublesome for state owned forests where individual harvesters are the only option for smaller or denser stands and private foresters are not compliant with legislation. Banks who flooded the market with loans for harvester machinery now affect the market value of the timber industry. Perhaps capitalism has made its mark on Latvia already.
Ziedonis’ actions may have been motivated from being more economical and common sense in managing his forest, he does not have the traditional capitalist urge to increase profit at all cost. Ziedonis hunts in his forest, which has moose. I asked whether he envisions he could grow his business by charging for hunts, but he doesn’t wish to do that, despite the fact that he could make a lot of money charging for that. He hunts with a group of his neighbours once a month or so and they use everything from the animal, nothing goes to waste and everything is shared out.
When asked about whether his forest supports his family he eloquently replied: “It depends how much money you want to make. More money means more pressure on the forest. I believe you should make enough money to have to celebrate a birth, a wedding and a golden anniversary”.
This visit was made possible by the generous support and sponsorship of NET project, Erasmus+ and ARCH (Archnetwork).