Nature conservationists actively engaging for the European Green Belt

Borders separate, nature unites

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She wants to make the region a place which is really good to live in, for everyone: the nature conservationist Daniela Zaec.

© MES

Daniela Zaec, from North Macedonia, loves Lake Prespa - one of the southernmost gems on the European Green Belt. After a number of years at the headquarters of the Macedonian Ecological Society (MES) in Skopje, the ecologist has returned to her homeland in the tri-border region. There, she manages the MES office which is situated right on the border with Albania and Greece, and her motto is: Borders separate, nature unites!

What is it that you love so much about the Prespa region? 

Daniela Zaec: I was born here, I feel closely connected to this place. It evokes so many good memories: of my childhood, of trips with my family, with my school friends. For me Prespa simply means home. 

“It’s the rugged beauty which moves me most of all. That’s the unique attraction of the Prespa region.” 

Ezerani, for example, is a wetland area on the northern shore of Lake Prespa and a paradise for birds. It’s so wild there and there’s so much to see. Ezerani is a mosaic of many different habitats - you’re surrounded by trees, the river, the lake... There are always birds flying above you . It’s simply stunning.

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The Prespa Lake is worth a trip.

© Roland Knauer

Do you worry that the wild beauty of Prespa could be lost?

Daniela Zaec: Yes, the biggest danger is that those of us who live in the Prespa region take this beauty for granted and that we fail to realise how much our behaviour is putting it at risk. People must be made aware of that. Nearly every day new apple plantations are springing up - in protected areas too. There’s a lot more use of pesticides than is necessary. All these harmful substances end up in the lake. Just as damaging is the extraction of sand on Lake Prespa’s beaches. Many areas that I remember from my childhood as places of wild beauty, have been covered by summer homes or have simply become apple plantations. 

“It hurts to see how everything is being destroyed. It makes me sad.”

Why is international support so important in ensuring Prespa remains a good place to live?

Daniela Zaec: We don’t get funds from governments, but have to see for ourselves how to finance our nature conservation activities. Right from the very beginning, EuroNatur has recognised the value of the Prespa region right from the outset and has always been ready to help us, both technically and financially. 

“What I appreciate most is that you actually come to see us, talk with us and listen to us. You don’t say: ‘Here’s our plan, now put it into practice’, instead you see our vision and help us to realise it. That doesn’t happen very often.”

Where does the local community stand in relation to the conservation efforts?

Daniela Zaec: The main obstacle getting in the way of the non-governmental organisations here is the impression that people have in their own minds. They think we’re only undertaking projects to bring in money and that afterwards we’ll disappear again. We’ve opened an MES branch in Prespa so that people can see that we want to work together with them in the long term, to make the region a place which is really good to live in, for everyone.

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A special highlight for nature lovers: Watching the Dalmatian Pelicans.

© Jiří Míchal

What does that mean? 

We want our nature conservation measures to have positive effects for people too, for example, by opening up new employment perspectives through nature tourism. We don’t just sit in the office inventing new plans. We want to know what people need, what they know and how we can combine that with our nature conservation objectives. But we don’t want to motivate people with money either. Instead our aim is to get people to share our vision and really get behind it. 

“We could, for example, give private owners money for a year to mow the meadows , but then they wouldn’t do it for any longer than a year.” 

We would prefer to change the way people think, to create an awareness of nature and to achieve sustainable goals. To do that we need long-term support.

Is there any sign that this change in thinking is happening? 

Daniela Zaec: Yes, but it requires a lot of time and patience. What pleases me most is when we have people coming to our office who have found an injured bird, who want to ask for ideas for excursions in the region, to find out about our work or to report cases of environmental damage. That shows we are triggering something; people are beginning to think about these things! 

How important is cross-border cooperation with Albania and Greece?  

Daniela Zaec: Very important! We knew, if we really want to achieve something, we have to work across national borders and we need joint goals. That’s a major step forward because, for a long time, there was no international contact between conservationists from the three countries, mainly because of the political situation.

“Today, together with our colleagues in Greece and Albania we are developing nature conservation objectives, helping each other and sharing our knowledge.”

With each of our activities we are trying to bring the people of the three nations together. There is so much that connects us; we share the lake, the mountains and we live close to each other. Nature brings us together. 

Daniela Zaec, thank you very much for this interview!

Interview: Katharina Grund

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