Rimet – A Living Landscape: Establishing a Natural & Cultural Heritage Foundation in Romania, a Case Study in the Apuseni Mountains

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By Jackie Taylor, Tomintoul & Glenlivet Landscape Partnership

1.0 Setting the Scene

Situated to the north of the Mures River and west of Cluj-Napoca, the Apuseni Mountains form an imposing landscape of deep river valleys, wooded slopes and exposed limestone formations. The Apuseni are also called Occidentali in Romanian, which translates as Mountains “of the sunset”. They reach a maximum elevation of 1,849m and are a sub group of the Carpathian Mountains.

C:\Users\jackietaylor\AppData\Local\Microsoft\Windows\INetCache\Content.Word\20190911_151254.jpg The Apuseni encompass a living landscape comprising a wealth of culture and biodiversity. Mountain communities have existed in this stunningly beautiful, yet harsh environment, since prehistoric times and many villages and hamlets still populate the area. The lower and less steep slopes are actively managed to make hay and graze livestock. The sheltered slopes, closer to the homesteads are characterised by apple and plum orchards. Forestry is undertaken by selective tree felling in the expansive woodlands and logging horses are used for timber extraction.

Families work together to manage the land producing enough crops to sustain themselves, their livestock and to sell at local markets. This subsistence farming model is an important means of survival in rural environments and supports not only the families’ existence but their social, economic and cultural livelihoods’ and well-being.

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The cultural productivity of this landscape is underpinned by the rich biodiversity found amongst the mountain habitats and supported by extensive land management practices. The Carpathian Mountains have the largest track of unfragmented forests left in Central Europe and are home to an incredible array of wildlife including 45% of Europe’s top big carnivore population (bears, lynx and wolves). The Apuseni have over 400 limestone caves which are inhabited by rare species of bats, the mountains contain Europe’s second largest underground glacier and produce displays of wildflowers that paint the slopes in an array of colour each summer.

2.0 Report Overview

The report will explore the need for a Natural & Cultural Heritage Foundation (NCHF), how it could be formed and identify potential key activities it may implement, focussing on the village of Rimet, which is located in Alba County, in the Apuseni Mountains.

The concept of creating a foundation was discussed by Monica Oprean and Martin Clark of Satul Verde as part of the ARCH network group site visit to Rimet. During the visit, the group met with the Mayor of Rimet (Vasile Raica), a local Hunter and his family (Irina Alba and Victoria Alba), visited an ethnographic museum and village church and explored traditional thatched houses and barns. Two key themes emerged from the site visit:

Theme 1: Rural Development

Infrastructure improvements are currently underway that will result in a tarmac road from the main E81 road network to the village of Rimet. This is anticipated to increase visitor numbers to the mountains and provides the opportunity for the area to develop its tourism product. Alongside the access improvements, the Mayor’s office is working with the local community to provide legal papers confirming landownership boundaries. The presence of these papers will mean that local people can sell their land. The construction of the tarmac road and the expected tourism means that house and land prices are already increasing.

Theme 2: Culture and Biodiversity

The village of Rimet and the surrounding hamlets embody subsistence farming and the social and cultural traditions of generations. The village is remote and is accessed from the main E81 via a dirt track. The ethnographic museum displays a wealth of traditional tools, clothing, furniture, textiles and stories and the surrounding land provides examples of thatched homesteads, common grazing, hay fields, hay stacks and ash tree pollards (for tree hay). The wider mountain community gathers annually for a celebration event at Rimet and villagers attend regular Church services. The buildings and layout of the village are demonstrative of historical Romanian architecture and the people live within an area of high biodiversity and landscape value. A key issue affecting the village and other remote mountain areas is depopulation, as young people leave to study and work in the neighbouring towns of Aiud and Alba Iulia.

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The activities of Theme 1 have the potential to instigate change to the features identified in Theme 2. The changes may offer opportunities and positive outcomes and equally they may have negative results. A NCHF may be poised to assist with change and influence local development.

3.0 Change through Rural Development

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The construction of the tarmac road and legalising land ownership is anticipated by the Mayor and local community to result in changes to the local economy. This may include higher land values, increased visitor numbers, new holiday homes and demand for new businesses to provide visitor services and experiences such as cafes, B&B’s, outdoor activity provision e.t.c.

It is anticipated that tourists to the mountain village are likely to undertake outdoor activities and nature tourism. This is a growing business sector and accounts for about a fifth of all international travel[1]. Eco-tourists are interested in new and authentic experiences, increasingly at non-traditional destinations. Countries, like Romania, that have rich natural and cultural resources attract visitors specifically looking for natural landscapes, interaction with locals and active experiences.

Rimet is situated in a beautiful location, well connected to other villages and close to the Apuseni National Park. It is within 2 hours commute of the main towns of Aiud, Alba Iiula and Cluj-Napoca. It offers unspoilt landscape, steeped in cultural heritage and traditional practices. There is significant biodiversity and numerous opportunities for outdoor activities. These elements are highly valued by tourists and those seeking holiday home locations.

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Below, Table 1 identifies changes that may result to Rimet, its community, biodiversity and landscape. The changes have been identified as positive, or negative and are assessed based on the assumption that the overall objective of change is to conserve cultural and natural heritage whilst establishing a sustainable rural economy.

Table 1: Potential changes resulting from road infrastructure improvements and formalising land ownership boundaries.

No. Change Positive Negative
1 Improved access allowing local community easier access to services in their wider community. x
2 Improved access encouraging more visitors and opening up a tourist market x x
3 A new tourism market, creating businesses and jobs to encourage young people to stay in the area x
4 Increase in land for sale, short term family gain as land is likely to be worth more given the rural development potential. However, long term, this may result in a negative impact of land being owned in larger units by a single person or company or land being developed for housing. Overall, result is a loss of traditional farming practices and associated biodiversity and in the absence of proper planning controls, negative landscape impact. x x
5 Young people build new skill sets and have service related jobs or start new businesses through the tourism sector. x
6 Loss of traditional land management practices (scything hay, building haystacks, orchards, common grazing) as young people develop new skill sets to service the tourism industry. x
7 Land-use change to accommodate increases in tourism (e.g. B&Bs, hotels, cabins, cafes, car parking, toilets). These services can also benefit local people, providing social meeting points and shops/services closer to the village. x x
8 Seasonal tourism as access difficulties and cold temperatures in the winter months are likely to mean less visitors. This results in low paid, unsustainable, seasonal employment. x
9 Development in the countryside resulting in a loss of landscape character and traditional building skills no longer used in favour of more modern building techniques and materials. x
10 Reduction in biodiversity through intensification of land use and development. Higher visitor numbers resulting in increased development. x
11 Loss of the area’s cultural heritage (e.g. thatched buildings, land management, wood work, textiles and design). x
12 Increased opportunities to educate the local community and visitors about the importance of culture heritage and traditional buildings and land management. x
13 Opportunities to develop new businesses around culture and biodiversity alongside the usual services that tourists expect. x
14 Communities adversely affected by rubbish, pollution, degradation of water quality, noise disturbance and damage to land, property, crops and livestock. x

4.0 Natural & Cultural Heritage Foundation

It has been identified that current issues (e.g. depopulation) and the potential future changes discussed in Section 3, may adversely impact the cultural heritage of Rimet. The concept of establishing a foundation has been discussed in an effort to save the wealth of knowledge and rural skills that have shaped the people and the landscape.

It’s considered that the key steps to establishing a foundation in Rimet may involve:

  1. Identify the purpose, mission and values.
  2. Recruit volunteers / identify a core of individuals who would form a board for the foundation (e.g. an accountant, an experienced fundraiser, persons with expertise in natural and heritage conservation, community leaders or influencers, young people, persons connected to the tourism industry, legal / political expertise).
  3. Develop a constitution / operating procedures / policies to allow the foundation to apply for grants and manage funding / demonstrate transparency.
  4. Produce a delivery plan / business plan and begin fundraising.

There are a number of roles the foundation could undertake and it will be important, should a foundation become established, that activities are prioritised.

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In Romania, community foundations are a growing platform for local, national and international engagement and geographically, they cover 46% of the population[2]. They provide a source of funding, respond to local needs and opportunities and are also playing an important role in local development.

Based on the ARCH site visit and discussions, the following activities could be implemented by the NCHF of Rimet:

  1. Undertake a study to investigate sustainable tourism models that could apply to Rimet. Consider focussing on eco and heritage tourism to build a sustainable tourism business case that can be used to influence political decision making. The success of the Astra Museum may provide useful data along with the Association of Eco-Tourism Romania. For comparison, identify examples where tourism and rural development pressures have resulted in negative economic and community impacts. There are examples within the Cairngorms and the Loch Lomond & the Trossachs National Parks in Scotland. In these areas local byelaws have been introduced to control undesirable activities, additional funding is sought to manage vehicle and people pressures and damage to the landscape and disturbance to wildlife are key issues. The authorities spend significant funds educating visitors, protecting wildlife and habitats, working with local communities and addressing planning issues.
  2. The purchase of a traditional homestead is already being investigated by Satul Verde. This would be an excellent opportunity to provide a base for the foundation whilst preserving tradition and culture. The Prince of Wales Foundation has taken a similar approach with a farm in Viscri County, Brasov. It may be useful to meet with and discuss the issues in Rimet with members of the The Prince of Wales Foundation.

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  1. Education will be a key role for a foundation. Provision of information to tourists will add to the visitor experience and may provide income for the foundation. Education is equally important for the local community. Not all inhabitants will see the value of their architecture, knowledge and skills and may not look at their way of life as a product that can be marketed or an asset that should be protected.
  2. Provide tools that build capacity within the local community through the provision of training, new business start-up grants and professional support to create a high end and sustainable tourist destination based around the community and the natural and cultural heritage of the mountains.
  3. Marketing and Networking. Meet with other organisations to develop a presence, look at opportunities to join with projects and identify possible project partners. Build a communication plan that identifies key messages and through a range of media share the information and establish a voice.
  4. Fundraising will be key to the sustainability of the foundation. Sources of funding should be identified in a business plan but may include grants, donations, crowd funding, working holidays, running training courses, offering holiday accommodation e.t.c. There are some organisations that may provide grant support to a foundation setting up in Romania:
    1. Active Citizens’ Fund Romania – http://www.epce.ro/hirek.php?id=246
    2. The Prince of Wales Charitable Foundation of Romania – https://www.pwcf.org.uk/about-us/our-initiatives/prince-waless-foundation-romania
    3. Environmental Partnership Foundation – http://www.epce.ro/index.php

5.0 Closing Comment

In the Cairngorms National Park tourism has greatly influenced a range of factors including the development of towns and villages, road infrastructure, signage, land management, demographics and employment. The park has a resident population of 18,000 people and every year between April and October 1.8 million visitors enter the park boundary. This volume of tourism requires significant resource to manage. Rimet is on the cusp of change and in ten years may be a very different village to the one it is now; a small, picturesque village in a beautiful location. The decision makers have the opportunity now to plan for change, to look at other examples across the world, learn from their mistakes and demonstrate sustainable tourism in practice.

Foundations have been working across Romania over the past 10 years to foster sustainable community development, undertake innovative projects, influence decision makers and provide funding sources. It is considered that the development of a NCHF would be a key tool in managing change for the local community, biodiversity and landscape of Rimet and the Apuseni Mountains.

With many thanks to guides Monica Oprean and Martin Clark (Associatia Satul Verde), to the site visit hosts and to the ARCH group who made the trip to Romania truly memorable.

Report by Jackie Taylor (Programme Manager, Tomintoul & Glenlivet Landscape Partnership, Cairngorms National Park Authority)

  1. CBI – Ministry of Foreign Affairs – https://www.cbi.eu/market-information/tourism/
  2. Annual Report, 2017, for Environment and Communities, fundatia pentru partneriat

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