vineri, 3 septembrie 2010

Conservation when change is inevitable: an Eastern European rural perspective

Tibor Hartel

Rural landscapes were shaped by human activity, which sometimes can be tracked back to centuries. These landscapes represent a fascinating subject for applied conservation and research. I consider as “conservationist” every academic person who is actively involved in the conservation of cultural values of these societies. This can be an architect or anthropologist or ecologist. Preferably all together in a mixed team. In this note I highlight some aspects related to traditional and new values, changes in these values (which we, as conservationists of Eastern Europe generally don’t like) in rural societies and their potential consequences for conservation thinking.

When is a rural community (with its “extended phenotypes” such are the cultural products) traditional? Difficult question, especially because of the many uncertainties around the word “traditional”. From an Eastern European and Romanian context it seems that the “cultural heritage” of the traditional rural communities can be tracked back for centuries. The traditional costumes, traditional songs and dances, poems, or architectural products (houses, churches etc.) and nevertheless landscapes are just a few of the many cultural values produced and maintained by rural societies. Although these may change during time (since societies are not isolated entities, infiltration occur from other cultures as well – see for example the Saxon-Hungarian-Romanian interface in the Southern part of Transylvania), traditional culture will always give an identity to societies. Institutional aspects are also important. Under institution I understand a coherent set of rules, produced and accepted by the community, adapted (and adaptable) to changes in order to maintain the integrity and identity of the community and its cultural, moral or other values. Therefore the institution is a very important thing and it is not easy to have it. It needs time to be formed, including many conflictual situations within the group especially in the first stages of its formation. Once formed, it may be quite resistant to change (especially fast, global changes which seem to occur now and “hit” these societies) and may even lead to the collapse of a society. So, the institution may be key element of maintaining societies but at the same time, it may cause its collapse in sharply changing times. (I have this insight after studying the Saxon institution and its collapse in Southern Transylvania but many other reports suggest that such collapses occurred in many parts of the world – see Jared Diamond’s book about collapse) Nevertheless, well built institutions can be found not only in traditional rural communities. Many Western European urbanized countries seem to have good institutions without being traditional in the sense of e.g. the traditional rural communities presented above. (this being, I think, the key of their economic flourishing as well)

What will happen when a community is sharply “released” from the (traditional) cultural control? (to adopt a term from ecology: “cultural release” occurs (instead of “ecological release”)). For example, this may happen by the sharp cease of the temporal continuity of a culture (and institution) caused e.g. by a sudden dilution of cultural values by new values. This dilution can happen e.g. by replacement of people with different cultures and value systems (e.g. massive emigration of one culture - resulting in a 'cultural vacuum' - followed by immigration of other culture(s)). Dilution can also happen with massive “invasion” of new values into a society. These newly formed communities may have very different behaviour from the above presented ones. In the worst case, they will start a kind of “vandalization” of the cultural heritage they received from the past society. Basically this is not a bad thing, from evolutionary perspective. Imagine that the major social and lifestyle transitions (e.g. the nomadic ->pastoral, agricultural -> industrial transitions) which resulted e.g. in me being able to write this text from my laptop, were something similar.

The Saxon area of Southern Transylvania (Romania) may be a very good example regarding the “fate” of traditional cultural heritage under sharp institutional change. Without too many comments (and it is not my intention to skew the message of this post toward buildings…), I will illustrate this e.g. by presenting some pictures about buildings from this area (Pictures 1-3, below and also Picture 4 for a Finnish architectural type).

Picture 1. Sighisoara, in the Saxon period.

Picture 2. The new Sighisoara. The arrow show an unfinished huge building which (i) occupies a lot of space and (ii) is “architecturally mutilating” the town. Source: internet

Picture 3. If the visitor come into Sighisoara (a town built and shaped by Saxons along the centuries) from Brasov direction, this is the architectural landscape what she or he will see. The buildings from the left side of the picture are very recent (<5-6>

Picture 4. I experienced a “remarkable constancy” in the architecture of Finnish (and also Swedish) buildings across that huge country. They were beautifully diverse but at the same time so clearly representative.

Societies are changing, and most likely nothing can be done to stop this process. What need to be done is to help societies adapt (their institutions) to change.

I don’t know how much from the old values will be kept in the newly formed society after and during the institutional change. Conservationists are fighting to keep as much as possible - and I dont know how 'fair' is this or not. If one can manage to “plant” these values in the “core” of the (new) institution (or, why not, to build one around these values) then we may be optimistic. But this is hard to do, and it seems that most of conservationists from Romania fail to do this in a proper way.

To be efficient in our conservation attempts in a changing world, we need to know what the major driver (or what kinds of drivers operate - since likely there is more than one) of change is. If we understand this, we can assess better our aims, limits and possibilities and also we could allocate resources more efficiently.

If I would try a quick attempt to identify drivers of (institutional) change this would be not hard at all. From individual perspective some short bits could be: The wish to work less and gather more (and more). To feel safe. To feel good. To be healthy. To be sexually attractive. To have money, power (as much as possible). To be independent. (or: to be in a level of social hierarchy which assure more and more independence) To travel around the world. To know more, think more. To have fun. (these are what I generally see around, and I am sorry if the reader lack any or all of them)

If the existing cultural products and heritage allow at least the illusion of having some of the above mentioned things, then it is likely that people will keep them. Otherwise, likely they will dissapear or be markedly changed.

Now, how many milliseconds should be spent to realize how much of these may have a family which is doing something like that presented in Picture 5 especially when they are young and know that in their surroundings there is a life which is presented in Picture 6?

Picture 5. Upper picture: young people making traditional farming in a Saxon village. Picture below: a short brake during agricultural work with my grandmother, mother and a villager who come to help.

Picture 6. Youth in a party in Bucharest (source: Internet). Parties (of this type) are generally organized to allow people know each other, show how attractive they are, to have fun. And “to escape…”. These kids generally will not be very happy to do farming in the sense of Picture 1 and if they are not obligated they will probably not even try it (unless they will find in it a – temporary – fun)

There are, of course, a number of global-institutional drivers acting more or less independently from the above mentioned ones.

To come back to our problem: how to conserve values when the societies and value systems are rapidly changing? First, I really think that conservation work needs to be done. Other way, we loose all the important reference points. But what and how and how much? As a conservation biologist I would say: life, before all! I would invest a lot of energy and resource to understand the 'behaviour' of a social and ecological system under various circumstances: how adaptive and resilient that system is. Which are the key features of that given system which assures resilience and adaptability. Building or forming, (new) institutions and value systems - dont forget: we live in sharply changing times - would be of critical importance to achieve this goal even if this would mean the “broke” with many traditional values (traditional “cultural packages” should be “filtered”).