Illustration by Loreta Isac-Cojocaru
Environmental Anthropology: On Nature, Human Communities, and the Little-Known Reality
We all care about the environment, one way or another. The news in recent decades about the state of the Planet has probably made us more careful about our actions, because we care about nature and what we pass on to future generations. Also, in addition to the general public, specialists in the natural sciences initiate numerous environmental protection programs. All these efforts and good intentions can sometimes be misdirected in the absence of a deep understanding of the situation on the ground. Environmental anthropology deals with the way human communities relate to the environment and use the natural resources. For environmental protection programs to become a success story, it is crucial that environmental anthropologists contribute to these programs alongside biologists, geographers or ecologists, because the human communities they study are located in protected areas and have been part of that ecosystem for hundreds of years. Offering examples from different areas in Romania, this short essay presents how environmental anthropology effectively makes a contribution. The debate on “ecological traditional knowledge,” local communities in protected areas, or “natural disasters” emphasizes the need to understand ecology from a human perspective. An absolutely must for us and our future.
Oana Ivan is an anthropologist specialized in visual anthropology and environmental anthropology (following her PhD under joint supervision at the University of Kent, UK and Babeș-Bolyai University, Romania). She is also a director and producer of anthropological documentary films focused mainly on the interaction between human communities and the natural environment. Her research area includes in particular the protected natural areas of the Danube Delta, the Danube Meadows, the Eastern Carpathians, the Transylvanian Plateau and the Apuseni Mountains. She is currently a lecturer in the Documentary Film Department of the Faculty of Theater and Film – Babeș-Bolyai University, Cluj. She is also a consultant and collaborator in various research projects of: National Geographic, World Bank, Electric Castle.
Loreta Isac– Cojocaru she is an illustrator and animator. She considers herself an explorer especially when she draws the stories she discovers/ or documents them with various occasions.
Katia Pascariu is an actress and a cultural activist. She studied Drama & Performing Arts at UNATC, obtaining her BA in 2006, and got her master’s degree in Anthropology in 2016 at the University of Bucharest, where she currently works and resides. She is part of several independent theatre collectives that do political and educational projects – Macaz Cooperative, 4th Age Community Arts Center and Replika Center, with special focus on multi- and inter – disciplinarity. She develops, together with her colleagues, artistic and social programs, in support of vulnerable and marginal communities, while promoting socially engaged art, accesibility to culture, with a main focus on: education, social justice, recent local history. She has been part of the casts of Beyond the Hills (C. Mungiu, 2012) and Bad Luck Banging or Loony Porn (R. Jude, 2021), among others. She is working also within the artistic ensemble of the Jewish State Theatre in Bucharest. She performs in Romanian, English, French and Yiddish.
Starting from February 2020, together with Professor Michael Harkin, Fulbright scholar, I organized the first environmental anthropology course at the Faculty of Sociology of Babeș-Bolyai University. Although the environment is one of the biggest concerns at the moment, to our surprise, no other university in Romania has ever offered such a course. Being a national premiere, I was invited to speak on a radio show about this topic. At the end of the interview, the producer asked me why the wind was blowing hard in Cluj that day—matter totally outside the research area of environmental anthropology. It was then that I realized again how little the general public knows about this topic.
In addition to the general public’s unfamiliarity with environmental anthropology, the vast majority of environmental protection programs in Romania, although well-intentioned, use an outdated approach, several decades old, which has proven its ineffectiveness worldwide. This approach relies almost exclusively on ecological science experts, ignoring local communities, even though these are part of the ecosystem. That is, geographers, biologists, and ecologists propose solutions aimed at flora and fauna, failing to collaborate with those who have lived in those spaces for hundreds of years, and impose only restrictions. Thus failure to collaborate with local communities—or doing so only “on paper” to check the European requirements of “local sustainability” or “inclusive management”—leads to conflicts between local communities and environmental experts, and therefore to a less protected environment.
Many of us have probably attended an anti-deforestation protest at least once, or made signs and flags for an environmental cause and waved them in public squares with anger, and mostly with hope. Because it hurts us to see nature destroyed before our eyes. In addition to demonstrations, participation in various cleaning, greening or reforestation actions shows the involvement of the general public in actions to protect the environment. However, mainstream discourse can easily hijack and manipulate the good intentions of the general public. Often this discourse lacking nuances and an analysis of the functioning mechanisms of communities creates false categories such as “educated urban population vs local ignorant population and destroyer of the natural environment” or the ones presented and deconstructed in this essay.
In a very short and simplified definition, environmental anthropology deals with the relationship between human communities and the environment, and this relationship is as old as humans. However, environmental anthropology is a relatively young science, which came into its own only in the 1960s, passing through various stages. Today “political ecology,” i.e., the relationship between politics, power, economy and social and environmental factors is the most important branch of this science.
Due to the limited space, I will discuss three basic themes of environmental anthropology and provide examples from Romania to understand how things are in reality, so that the solutions become viable and not utopian, or worse, have negative effects, as I have found in different areas in the country. I will talk about: traditional ecological knowledge, protected areas and local communities, and natural “disasters.”
Traditional ecological knowledge (TEK) stands for knowledge, beliefs and traditions about the environment that the community transmits from one generation to the next through different practices. Traditional ecological knowledge ranges from using chamomile or other plants to treat minor infections or using a plot of land for crop rotation to replenish nutrients in the soil to not working in the fields on Sundays or on other mythic-religious holidays.
This traditional ecological knowledge about local ecosystems is very important because it represents a local adaptation to shocks and ensures the livelihood of communities. Therefore, instead of being ignored in environmental protection programs as it happens now, this knowledge should be an integral part of environmental strategies. In short, it is useless for natural resource management specialists to propose environmental protection solutions from the offices of research centers if they do not take into account how specific local communities understand and use the natural environment.
At international level, using the methods of environmental anthropology to understand traditional ecological knowledge and how it can be incorporated into environmental protection programs to avoid the failures of recent decades has become mandatory policy. Thus the Convention on Biological Diversity encourages governments to protect this knowledge for ecology and to include it in cultural heritage.
As a PhD student at the University of Kent and Babeș-Bolyai University, I spent almost three years, until 2017, doing field research in the Danube Delta to understand, among other things, what the local traditional ecological knowledge is. The Danube Delta is a UNESCO site, a Biosphere reserve, and is under the management of the Administration of the same name. Its approach still uses the model of ecological conservation where local communities are marginalized or excluded, as one fisherman notes: “Hundreds of biologists and ecologists come here to save the fish and the pelicans, but no one cares if we die or not.”
The Danube Delta is seen as a “natural paradise,” “Europe’s last wild oasis,” a distorted stereotypical image that doesn’t take into account the presence of over 14,000 inhabitants. This “man does not touch anything, we only let nature work” management model ignores the reality of the fact that the entire delta itself is the direct result of human intervention along the course of the Danube, with dams greatly changing the composition of the river, all the way to its discharge in the Black Sea.
The locals told me how their grandfathers dug the canals using spades to dredge them and bring fresh water from the Danube to the lakes inside, oxygenating them and providing a good breeding ground for fish. This is a classic example of traditional ecological knowledge that demonstrated a good understanding of the water cycle and led to increased biodiversity. Today these practices are prohibited because they are considered “man-made interventions,” and as a result the canals are clogged year after year with silt and the uncontrolled growth of reeds. Thus, without fresh water, many inland lakes have turned into swamps, killing fish populations and reducing biodiversity.
Examples of ignored traditional ecological knowledge whose loss leads to environmental destruction and implicitly social tensions are frequent in the Danube Delta. Collaboration with local communities, understanding how they use and relate to ecosystems is fundamental to improving environmental conditions. Environmental anthropologists can provide viable, long-lasting solutions if co-opted into environmental strategy teams.
Protected areas and local communities
In 1872, at Yellowstone, in the heart of the Rocky Mountains of the United States of America, the first national park was born, created by the (white) rich people from New York and Washington who wanted to experience the “wild nature” of the mountains, without people, in safe conditions. Thus Native American tribes were displaced to fulfill the dream of the East Coast elites. History was rewritten, the traces of local populations who had been living there for centuries were erased, resulting in a “sanitized” landscape without a cultural history, a natural park that corresponded to the ideal of “untouched paradise” of the rulers of the time. “Yellowstone National Park” thus became the first national park in the world, imposing this model of nature conservation by expropriating or removing indigenous communities established there for centuries.
Of course, especially in the current context where every piece of land is expected to be economically exploited to the maximum, there is a need to create protected areas (be they reserves, natural parks, natural monuments, etc.) where human activities are restricted. But the creation of these protected areas must break away from the Yellowstone conservationist model established 148 years ago, which causes conflicts between environmentalists and local populations, failing to better protect the environment in the end.
In addition to incorporating traditional ecological knowledge into environmental programs, as we have shown above, environmental anthropology also brings into question the way we look at these protected areas. According to international institutions, the human-nature relationship is divided into four major categories: nature, culture, environment, and society; categories that most of the time do not exist as such in real life. Therefore, the failure of environmental protection projects is explained by the fact that “locals are difficult and do not understand ecology,” when in fact it is precisely these top-down approaches, simply drawn on the map and forced into artificial categories, that lie at the heart of the problem.
In a project focused on the human-nature relationship in Natura 2000 areas, a mayor showed me how an area was delimitated without the minimum of practical application. The boundary of the area passed through a local’s property, dividing it in two. The house was outside the Natura 2000 area, while its stable and toilet were inside. Any modification and action within the Natura 2000 site required approval from the authorities.
Another example comes from the Danube Delta, where a local family tried to establish an organic farm, following the example of their grandparents. The authorities forbade them to live in that space as it was considered “nature” and living was restricted to the “economic” area, according to their rigid categories—in utter disregard of the fact that the life of the locals is characterized by a continuous interpenetration of nature with society and human culture.
More and more often, we get so worried when we hear breaking news about “natural disasters” in Romania or in the world: a river bursting out of its riverbed and destroying half of the village, a landslide that buries people and households, an earthquake that demolishes hundreds of homes, a fire that ravages huge areas of forest.
However, scientists agree that there is no such thing as a “natural disaster,” actually a misnomer given that all these unfortunate events are caused by humans and are by no means “natural.” Most disasters are the result of combinations of natural hazards and human vulnerability. A natural hazard cannot be prevented, while a disaster can, as an example from South America shows. Due to the failure to comply with the minimum building conditions, in Haiti an earthquake—a natural hazard—led to the tragic death of 160,000 people, trapped under the rubble of poorly built housing. In Chile, where the resistance structures were made according to a special design for seismic activity, only 520 deaths were recorded. The earthquake is an unpredictable event for both cases, but the prevention and therefore the level of vulnerability were completely different.
Once again, traditional ecological knowledge plays an important role as shown by the case of the Danube flooded plains that I researched in a project by the Romanian Academy. For hundreds of years, the Danube overflowed every spring, flooding the meadow, bringing fresh water into the lakes. The inhabitants did not see this phenomenon as a natural disaster, but as a blessing that brought fresh fish and fertilized the flooded plains. After the embankments were built during the socialist period, the Danube stopped overflowing, and the inhabitants began to use the former flood plain for large-scale agriculture, protected by the safe and solid embankments. After 1989 and privatization, many of the evacuation pumps were destroyed, causing damage to crops, while the dikes eroded and increased the vulnerability of the localities. The biggest tragedy happened in 2006 when the Danube had a record high flow and when, according to the opinion of the locals, a series of political decisions not at all adapted to the situation on the ground and ignorant of the area’s geography caused the disaster. Thus the Danube broke the dike and flooded several localities, causing immense damage. In this case, the natural phenomenon of the overflowing of the Danube turned from a “blessing” in the twentieth century into a “natural disaster” in 2006.
The deep understanding of the natural phenomenon in the specific economic and social context is essential, and in this case the environmental anthropology approach contributes substantially and is able to differentiate between “event” and “disaster.”
This very brief introduction to environmental anthropology has presented some of the basic notions of this science and especially its usefulness for environmental protection programs. Understanding local communities, traditional ecological knowledge, as well as political and social factors has become a necessity in dealing with environmental issues. We all want to stop deforestation, breathe clean air, and have a healthy environment for our children. For this, it is important to have an in-depth understanding of how communities function and adapt to the environment they live in, to understand the ecosystem in all its complexity.