Wild mushroom picking in Eastern Europe is more than a tradition. It is a social event. Every year, in late summer and early fall, thousands of people roam the woods for the biggest, most perfect specimens. They take their children along to teach them which mushrooms are edible and which are poisonous, which are ripe and which should be left for another week or so, passing on generations-old teachings and care for the woods. In the evenings, families share their harvest around a plateful of tasty, butter-fried delicacies. Together, they celebrate their love for the forests, sharing the best spots they found and recalling the animals or birds they sighted along the way.
Forests are among the most valuable treasures on earth: they supply energy from timber, help with water regulation, soil protection and biodiversity conservation. Yet in traditional forest management, trees are still primarily viewed as a source of wood. All other products derived from wooded lands—such as honey, mushrooms, lichens, berries, medicinal and aromatic plants, as well as any other products extracted from forests for human use—are considered of secondary importance.
Non-timber forest resources, however, have far-reaching benefits for millions of households, both in terms of subsistence and income. These by-products go into food and everyday items like cosmetics or medicines. The protection of their environment is therefore a vital need.
Bulgaria, whose forests cover more than a third of its land area, is one of Europe’s richest biodiversity hotspots. Brown bears, lynxes and wolves can be found in its woods, which also harbour hundreds of bird species as well as a great variety of tree types, including beeches, firs, spruces and oaks.
The country has a long tradition of forest management practices. Large-scale monitoring programmes are in place, and local communities are known to keep a close eye on the natural environment. Together, these factors have allowed national authorities to make the most of their biodiversity.
Over 90 per cent of the annual yields of wild and cultivated herbs are sold as raw material to Germany, Italy, France and the United States, making Bulgaria one of the world’s leading suppliers in this sector. By gaining expertise in the protection and sustainable use of non-wood forest products, they have become a model for other Balkan countries.
Over the last twelve years, Bulgaria has received US$335.3 million in European Union funding for nature conservation projects. These were implemented by the Ministry of Environment and Water, national and nature parks, municipalities and not-for-profit organizations. The funds have allowed the country to further extend its environmental programmes and ensure that its forest resources continue to be used sustainably.
However, Miroslav Kalugerov, Director of Bulgaria’s Nature Protection Service at the Ministry of Environment and Water, knows from experience that receiving money for environmental protection does not necessarily lead to success. He also knows that while access to comprehensive information is vital to the sound management of any natural resource, it is only a first step towards environmental solutions.
“Without data, nature conservation is chaotic, goals can go unfulfilled and non-timber forest products conservation is impossible,” says Miroslav.
North Macedonia is a case in point. Despite exhibiting similar natural resource characteristics as Bulgaria, the country has yet to harness the full potential of the products and services that its forests have to offer. Lack of proper legislation and skills to identify and monitor the status of species of economic importance for the country are largely to blame.
To remedy the situation, UN Environment, the Ministry of Environment and Physical Planning of North Macedonia and the Connecting Natural Values and People Foundation organized a study visit to Bulgaria to share experiences on how to preserve and viably manage non-timber forest products. This initiative was part of a larger project—Achieving Biodiversity Conservation through Creation and Effective Management of Protected Areas and Mainstreaming Biodiversity into Land Use Planning—funded by the Global Environment Facility.
“Joining the forces of different national and local authorities, institutions, local people and businesses through different project activities will contribute to the protection and sustainable use of the so-called ‘healing gold’ or non-timber forest products in the Republic of North Macedonia,” says Iskra Stojanova, Project Coordinator at UN Environment.
Around 80 per cent of the developing world’s population use these products for health and nutritional needs, notes Anela Stavrevska-Panajotova, Project Coordinator at the Connecting Natural Values and People Foundation. The practices and skills learned from Bulgarian experts are crucial to work on identifying non-wood forest products and pilot testing in North Macedonia.
Educating local office managers and the business sector on the sustainable use of forest resources is a cost-effective solution to address climate change. Sustainable resource use helps to improve the state of forests and habitats and, by extension, ensure economic and food security for local communities.
In addition, forests act as carbon sinks and can remove pollutants from the atmosphere, making them a highly versatile tool to fight air pollution and mitigate climate change. Every year, they absorb one third of the carbon dioxide released from burning fossil fuels worldwide.
Improving air quality remains a top priority for the Western Balkans, where power plants emit 45 million metric tons of CO2 per year. The direct health costs of air pollution can be measured in billions of dollars.
Along with the need to switch to clean energy sources, forests are effective and natural allies in the fight for cleaner air—and essential to ensure a sustainable future for the communities that depend on them.
Air pollution is the theme for World Environment Day on 5 June 2019. The quality of the air we breathe depends on the lifestyle choices we make every day. Learn more about how air pollution affects you, and what is being done to clean the air. What are you doing to reduce your emissions footprint and #BeatAirPollution?
The 2019 World Environment Day is hosted by China.