The Carpathian Convention at 10: On the map, but much left to do

Posted on May, 22 2013

The Carpathians turn 10 years old this month but it has only been only relatively recently that the Carpathians, which stretch across seven countries in Central and Eastern Europe, have really come into focus and gained a common identity as a mountain range with unique qualities, traditions and way of life, as well as challenges shared by people living across the region.
By Andreas Beckmann

The Carpathians turn 10 years old this month. The venerable mountains have of course been around for longer – at least 66 million years in fact. But it has been only relatively recently that the Carpathians, which stretch across seven countries in Central and Eastern Europe, have really come into focus and gained a common identity as a mountain range with unique qualities, traditions and way of life, as well as challenges shared by people living across the region.

Ten years ago, on 22 May 2003, representatives of the governments of the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Poland, Hungary, Ukraine, Romania and Serbia put their signatures to the “Framework Convention for the Protection and Sustainable Development of the Carpathians.”

Over the past decade, the “Carpathian Convention,” as the agreement is more often referred to, has created a common focus and framework for identity and cooperation across the region.

Record-breaking agreement

The idea for the convention was first broached in Bucharest in 2001 at a summit of regional leaders organized by WWF and the Romanian government. Within two years, and with the support of the United Nations Environment Programme, the governments of the seven Carpathian countries had completed negotiations and inked the agreement. As far as conventions go, the Carpathian Convention was negotiated and agreed in record time.

The original framework convention has spawned a series of additional, more specific agreements between the member countries. In the past 10 years, the seven member states have adopted formal protocols on the protection of biodiversity, tourism and forests.

Implementation strategies for these protocols have been agreed or are under development. Protocols on cultural heritage and transportation are already well advanced.

Strategic guidance on adaptation to climate change is also underway and expected to be formally adopted by ministers when they meet next year. Further agreements are expected in the future, relating to agriculture, energy and regional development and spatial planning.

Paper over practice?

Critics say that, to date at least, the convention has been more about meetings and paper than actual practice. Indeed, there have been many meetings, and not all have been productive.

Even where commitments have been achieved, it is fair to ask to what extent those commitments have actually changed anything. It is simply too early to know, for example, whether the Carpathian Convention commitment to protect Europe’s greatest remaining areas of virgin forest will become reality. Definitions of virgin forest will be discussed in June, to be followed then by discussion of actual protection measures to be taken.

A basic problem is that the Carpathian Convention is “soft” legislation – that is, legislation without a real bite – in contrast to EU directives and regulations, where there is the real possibility of diplomatic embarrassment and even financial fines and sanctions.

Also, while most progress has been made in terms of commitments to biodiversity protection, the key to securing this protection lies in addressing pressures in other areas, such as development of infrastructure for transportation and energy.

Habitat fragmentation is a major concern to the future of bears and other large carnivores, but so far, there has been limited progress in integrating wildlife migration corridors into transportation planning.

Similarly, the planned construction of thousands of hydropower stations across the Carpathian Mountains present an imminent threat to hundreds of streams and rivers.

Guidance for development of these projects is urgently needed to ensure that any gains in clean energy does not come at too great a cost in terms of biodiversity and other ecosystem services.

Yet it is unclear the extent to which a Carpathian Convention protocol on energy, which in any case is in the future, could address the intense pressure from investors and related political interests.

A common home

But even relatively blunt tools can be effective – for example in focusing efforts, and mobilizing cooperation and resources.

The Carpathian Convention has spawned networks of cooperation across the mountain range. Recently, 140 protected area managers and supporters came together to meet, inspire and learn from one another. Across the Carpathians, protected area managers do important work, safeguarding many of Europe’s greatest natural treasures.

Indeed, over the years, a community of people and organizations has developed around and in support of the Carpathian Mountains, from government authorities to international organizations like the United Nations Environmental Programme, which currently leads the secretariat, and non-profit organizations like WWF.

Cooperation has been fostered not only across the Carpathians, but also to the Alps, with a strong partnership with the Alpine Network of Protected Areas, and the European Academy in Bolzano, an Alpine think-tank that has been giving strong support to the Carpathian Convention secretariat.

Also not to be underestimated is the importance of creating an identity and idea, and networking behind it. Ten years ago, no one spoke of the Carpathians or saw them as one range of mountains shared by different countries. Differences prevailed over things in common.

Over the past decade, this has clearly changed. The Carpathians today have become a term like the Alps, a badge of identity and pride for the countries and the people living in these areas.

Nevertheless, the Carpathian Mountains are an area of extraordinary qualities and treasures, part of WWF’s Green Heart of Europe initiative, and those treasures are being lost. The extent to which they survive will be the ultimate test for the convention. A good start has been made, but much remains to be done.

Andreas Beckmann is director of the WWF Danube-Carpathian Programme, which has been closely involved in the development of the Carpathian Convention. 

Learn more about the Carpathian Convention at:
Brown bear in the Carpathian mountains
© WWF DCP Bohdan Prots
Brown bear, Central Carpathian Mountains, Romania
© Michel Gunther / WWF
River flowing through the fir trees forest in Retezat National Park, Carpathian Mountains, southeast Romania.
© Michel Gunther / WWF
Hilly landscape in the morning light, Magura, Piatra Craiului National Park, Transylvania, Southern Carpathian Mountains, Romania.
© Wild Wonders of Europe /Cornelia Doerr / WWF
Winter in Carpathians (Ukraine).
© Kateryna Kurakina
Shepherd looking after his sheep, Gradistea Muncelului Cioclovina Nature Park, Carpathian Mountains, south-west Romania.
© Michel Gunther / WWF
Danube-Carpathian region