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On the Environment

Wednesday, September 10, 2014
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A Post-Communist Landscape: Mother Latvia and her Sustainable Countryside

By Guest Author, Avana Andrade, Yale F&ES '15

Mother Latvia stands in the center of Latvia’s capital Riga and immediately evokes the people’s struggle for freedom from Russia, and alternating German and Soviet occupations. Liberty, a woman cast in copper, lifts up three stars representing different Latvian regions and her posture, head slightly bowed and both arms raised high, conveys a sense of sacrifice that Latvians still recall from a  not-so-distant past. Having gained independence in 1991, the country now pursues its own desired and expected development.

The Latvian government has committed itself to sustainable development. In the words of former Minister for Environmental Protection and Regional Development of Latvia, His Excellency Edmunds Sprudzs, Latvia is dedicated to “environmentally sound, sustainable policy and growth.” However, the definition of what “sustainability” means to the Latvian national identity, and in the face of increasing Western European influence, is up for debate.

After decades of invasion and occupation, rural landscapes are dotted by derelict farms, some of which may appear to be more wild than agricultural after decades of abandonment. The country is marked by large and eerily untouched sanctuaries of land and coastline, which, thanks to historic Soviet dictates that prohibited any access (fishing, farming etc.), now harbor multiple endangered species. As a result, ideas about wild and rural landscapes and how each evokes Latvian national heritage are sources of contention among government officials, rural communities, and international and domestic non-governmental conservation organizations. At the center of these debates is what “Latvianness” is and how landscapes might be managed in that image.

During the 1990s, for example, the fight over sustainable forestry within Latvia was largely driven by the politics of conservation and national identity, namely the tension between two opposing views, “liberal internationalism” and “agrarian nationalism.” Conservative forestry officials defended the sustainability of their forestry practices against the reformists’ arguments (including those of timber companies) that government practices were ecologically harmful and far from “sustainable.” The reform coalition argued for decreased state intervention, and endeavored to facilitate private and foreign owned commercial forestry, thereby revealing a distinct vision for Latvian development. That is, the reformists foresaw a future defined by involvement in international markets, private enterprise, and civil society. Just as the government foresters envisioned their traditional role as protectors of the forest for the Latvian people, so too did the reformists’ liberal sustainable development agenda rely on the idea of a peasant’s deep respect for nature. Both reflected a national consciousness of the Latvian people derived from a relationship with the land. In several ways, therefore, contention over national identity as embedded in the landscape shaped the debate over how to manage natural resources.

Having studied the emergence of national parks in the United States, I wonder, in creating reserves and attracting Western European tourists to experience its wild and “untouched” nature, will the ecological integrity of Latvia’s sanctuaries be jeopardized? And to what extent will Latvian culture (given the multiple definitions of what this is) be commodified by government administrators or non-governmental organizations (NGOs) for international consumption?

To help guide development, NGOs often come to play key roles in coordinating community-based conservation projects.  The role of the environmental NGO is complex, and one that I came to think critically on during my internship this summer at the Baltic Environmental Forum (BEF) in Hamburg Germany. The organization recently kicked off its multi-year VivaGrass project that will restore and maintain grasslands in Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia.

The grasslands themselves are a quickly vanishing, an extremely rich ecosystem that has co-evolved with human activity along the Baltic coast over hundreds, perhaps thousands of years. Ancient and modern grazing and farming practices have kept shrub and tree growth in check and allowed a staggering diversity of plant and animal species to flourish. In recent decades, however, the local farming communities that once maintained these grasslands were destroyed by Soviet farm collectivization and have remained debilitated under the infusion of food and goods from Western Europe.

Since the VivaGrass project kickoff meeting in May, I came to appreciate how intertwined the environmental conservation goal of the project is with rural development and how, even though BEF’s primary issue is grasslands, it is inevitably acting within a much larger context of history, national identity, and national politics. Latvian, Lithuanian, and Estonian professionals within BEF, in close coordination with rural farmers and local government administrators, are the leaders of the VivaGrass project. Regardless of the heritage of BEF’s team, though, VivaGrass will deal with more than monitoring grassland health.

As BEF’s VivaGrass project begins to create socially and ecologically “sustainable” grassland management models for its Baltic project sites, it is inevitably involved in political and cultural discourses of rural landscape conservation and development. In its early stages, the project will involve rural stakeholder engagement and grassland rehabilitation (shrub and tree removal). Over time, and in coordination with farmers and municipal leaders, the project will establish long-term maintenance schemes. Such maintenance in other grassland conservation projects around Europe has typically entailed purchasing sheep or cows and a fencing or transporting system. These project often hire shepherds to tend to the animals or enlist local farmers to perform the work. Local farmers ideally would be able to sell meat or milk products for profit to local markets or tourists. In some cases, the products from the animals are coupled with the sale of other locally produced goods.

In remaking select Baltic grasslands, VivaGrass also will be re-fashioning the rural landscape, which is both a cultural and agricultural act. Although local stakeholders may not explicitly state the narratives embedded in the landscape, “liberal internationalist” and “agrarian nationalist” stances may nevertheless shape collective impressions about what is an appropriate appearance and form of grassland rehabilitation. BEF, therefore, is poised to advance a cultural and/or political vision of rural development. Even if it does not officially endorse a particular viewpoint, BEF’s awareness of the implications of either narrative is key in anticipating outcomes of the project as it proceeds and balances local and national developmental needs and desires. Furthermore, a sensitivity to the power dynamics associated with rural development and continually assessing to what degree local populations have control over their own development is a critical question that will impact the long-term viability of VivaGrass.

While Mother Latvia has been a central symbol for the country’s embattled path to independence, the history behind her image does not offer a clear path forward now that the Latvian people have rural landscapes and wild spaces of their own. Competing ideas about national identity and responsible socio-economic development create a backdrop against which any non-profit environmental organization’s efforts are organized. The protection of grasslands within the Baltic region are a particularly poignant case in conservation simply because these ecosystems actually rely on human activity. They are, in other words, biological expressions of an ancient human-nature relationship. As such, BEF’s efforts to protect endangered grassland ecosystems is as much cultural as it is ecological. After decades of war and foreign occupation, Latvian government officials, rural community members, and farmers face the socio-biological consequences of land abandonment and farming community collapse. Non-governmental organizations like BEF may be uniquely positioned to help bring about environmentally and socially sound paths of conservation and development.

Avana Andrade is a Master of Environmental Management candidate at the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies. She earned her B.A. in International Studies and Western European History at Colorado State University in 2010. Before returning to school, she worked as a public historian and backcountry ranger with the Student Conservation Association and the National Park Service in both Northern Arizona and Southern Utah. Her work has focused on the history of grazing and cultural resource management in Glen Canyon National Recreation Area and Canyonlands National Park. Work and recreation on the Colorado Plateau motivates her primary interest in grad school, environmental conflict mediation. Avana is a Colorado native and an avid backpacker and gardener.

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