With the Danube Payments for Ecosystem Services project coming to an end in 2014, we ask Mara Cazacu from the Romanian team about her experience with the project.
Tell us about your role in the Danube PES project.
I joined the project team in the summer of 2012 with the responsibility of handling the communications activities in Romania, under the supervision of WWF Romania’s communications coordinator. It was time for a change, as we realised that certain local partners somehow misunderstood the nature and the aim of the project. There was also a need to reach out to other audiences and an internal need to level out our understanding of the several stakeholder groups and to agree on the strategy and messages we put out. I came in half way into the project implementation period, tried to catch up and to understand this abstract and fairly new concept of PES so that we could develop a good strategy to take it forward. It has been a steep learning curve and I’m still pushing up the hill.
What is the biggest success of this project in your view?
As I am the newest addition to the team and I don’t know all the details of the project’s evolution, I am not sure that this is the biggest success but it still is an important achievement that signals a change of mentality. At the last meeting we organised in one of the project sites in Romania – Maramures, we had the very pleasant surprise to hear one of our partners (the owner of a local guesthouse who contributes to the PES scheme) speak our language. In Maramures the project has naturally grown from a pure PES scheme into a broader initiative to develop the area into an ecotourism destination, as this was the only way to ensure the scheme is continued and the national (policy) context was also extremely favourable for this. Although the process of developing the area into an ecotourism destination wasn’t very clear at the beginning, the local partners saw this as an opportunity and so together we started taking steps in this direction. During the meeting in question, our partner said that this is the only path they could embark on in order to keep business going: if they don’t follow through, they will collapse and the area will suffer. The others also nodded in agreement. In other words, they are beginning to understand the rationale for them supporting the scheme and the wider ecotourism initiative. They are beginning to sense their responsibility and the role they have to play in this: the transfer of ownership has begun – a very important milestone in any PES scheme, a sign of sustainability.
What is your favourite story from working on the project?
Travelling there – every trip is a nice and unique story and travelling with Monia Martini, the national project coordinator, makes it very pleasurable indeed. We put the 12 hours (we always travel by train and the journey takes 12 hours) to good use and brainstorm on all kinds of things – logistics, agenda, communications, scenarios, other people or organisations that would be good to meet with. As we tend to think similarly, but have different backgrounds and skills, these brainstorming “parties” are very productive and we are always satisfied with what we come up with.
On the other hand, you need some time to rid yourself of your daily routine, of various things you need to get done, of habits and maybe whims in order to be ready to immerse yourself in the Maramures way of life and the local way of thinking. That is, if you want to feel and be treated as one of their own, which increases the chance of getting yourself heard. And so every journey that we’re making leaves a mark – in terms of knowledge, social skills, attachment to the people and your common mission and, of course, in terms of local eating habits (which we are still trying to accommodate).
What is the biggest challenge?
Making people work together and making them understand that they’ll be reaping the benefits together and in the long term. Due to local history, people tend to be individualistic and this tendency is accentuated by the growing competition in the tourism sector. Many people have built guesthouses over the past years, taking advantage of the fairly accessible European funds, the availability of consulting services and the fact that Maramures is already a coveted destination. And the number of guesthouses is still growing. This phenomenon is putting pressure on every business - they are desperately trying to remain profitable and they are struggling to offer all the services that others provide, which is a dead end. So, I think we came in with our proposal (the PES scheme and the ecotourism initiative) at the right time, when they really ought to think about ways to differentiate themselves from the competition.
This brings us to another big challenge: managing people’s expectations. At first, our proposition seemed like an opportunity to boost guesthouse income relatively fast and easy, by bringing in more clients. When I joined the team, we had to revise the communications strategy and all that’s linked to the relationship with community representatives and partners. We had to correct these expectations and explain every time that this is a long term effort and it only succeeds if people agree to work together and to have the courage and maturity to call on other partners and now colleagues in this mission for services that they cannot provide. Which means working in an integrated network. It is hard to make this change, to maintain a “healthy” level of trust. We lost a few of the partners along the way, but we gained some too that are closer to the profile of businesses and people suited to this project. There’s a natural selection process going on in the project right now and I think we can only benefit from it.
What would you say to ordinary citizens about ecosystem services and PES?
It depends on the ecosystem services we are focusing on and on the role we would like or need people to play. But generally speaking, I think it’s necessary to make the link between the ecosystem service(s) and livelihoods or businesses very clear and easy to understand, to avoid abstract words and tone the technical language down.
With regards to PES, I think that generally it should be presented as an investment, because it naturally tends to be taken for extra (even futile) expenditure. My experience with PES only stretches for 18 months, so I am not in the position to give advice and I also don’t like to speak in general terms. But I think that it is important to demonstrate the added-value of pursuing a PES scheme, to do your maths (which also entails collecting all the necessary data) and to avoid making empty promises.
And to your communications colleagues?
That it’s a very hard task to communicate on this subject, which is new on the global conservation agenda too. That you need to read a lot and talk to experts whenever you have the opportunity. I for one have very much appreciated the fact that the project manager made it possible for us, the team members, to meet and benefit from the know-how of Julio Tressiera, the global coordinator of WWF Netherlands’ Equitable Payments for Watershed Services Programme who has travelled the world and given advice to organisations and governments on PES for more than 10 years now.
One of the greatest Romanian cultural figures, Lucian Blaga said that our life, as human beings, is marked by our characteristic striving to unravel the mystery of things and that the more we delve into the inner workings and sense of things the deeper the mystery becomes. My experience this far with the Danube PES project is marked by this paradox and this has pushed me to further the search for answers and ideas.