Every morning during the summer months, Fatjoni wakes up early and emerges from his hillside farmhouse into the beautiful landscape of the Albanian mountains. Their peaks stretch around him, shrouded in clouds, their sloping sides dotted with groves of trees and golden pastures. As he leads his herd of goats out of their enclosure and up the side of the mountain, the flowers glow from the undergrowth in flashes of yellow and purple. A snake, basking in the early morning sun, creeps through the bushes at the sound of approaching hooves.
Fatjoni is part of a dying breed: a young pastoralist who follows traditional practices used by his ancestors for thousands of years. Over the past three decades, traditional cattle herding has been slowly abandoned as younger generations move to urban areas in search of more metropolitan opportunities. “Young people are not so keen on staying and working only with cattle. Whoever is left has to fight a kind of isolation because there is almost no digital connection in the mountains,” says Mirjan Topi, small grants coordinator for the Critical Ecosystems Partnership Fund (CEPF) in Albania.
This has led to a vicious cycle, as the low population makes it harder for those left to continue earning a living. “One of the reasons why alpine pastures are not grazed is the lack of water,” says Topi. “In the past, people made structures to collect rainwater. But as the number of shepherds has decreased, these structures are no longer maintained and have lost their function.
KEEP WIDE OPEN SPACES
Breeders like Fatjoni are not the only losers in this situation. Over thousands of years of grazing, the Balkan Mountains have developed a unique ecosystem. The uplands and pastures in particular are home to plant species found nowhere else, including the beautifully unusual Albanian lilly, as well as rare reptiles such as the Meadow Viper. These slopes are now a biodiversity hotspot – but as more large tracts of land are abandoned and overgrown, this exceptional wildlife community is disappearing.
“I saw degraded pastures in some areas where it was hard to find a single flower in the middle of the dense grass,” says Topi. “It would be very difficult for reptiles to live in these habitats, as it would be difficult for them to move around and hunt.”
This is where BirdLife came in. In our role as the Regional Implementation Team for the Mediterranean Hotspot, we have facilitated three CEPF grants to support traditional herding through local organizations – as part of a goal of conserving “cultural landscapes”. “. AlbNatura, a local conservation group, has sprang into action to improve water facilities and provide solar panels and internet antennas, allowing herders (including Fatjoni) to connect with the outside world. The local population is already reaping the benefits: a family of shepherds can now keep in touch with their daughter, who is studying in France.
Another grant aims to establish ecotourism in the region, helping local people provide accommodation and food for tourists. As well as diversifying their income, Topi hopes this will motivate younger generations to stay in the countryside and combine ecotourism with traditional practices. “It would be very boring for a young person to just be a shepherd, but if he was involved in tourist activities – welcoming guests to his home, etc. – then it would be more attractive,” he explains.
Topi recounts a moving moment when a local farmer said to her, “Thank you very much…For 30 years, no one remembered us or helped us. My heart is full now to see my herd drinking water at the grazing site. It’s good that things are starting to change. »
LIFELINE FOR VULTURES
A similar project is underway in Morocco, with an added benefit: it could help bring endangered vultures back from the brink of extinction. Jbel Moussa is located near the Strait of Gibraltar, the narrow strip of water that separates Africa and Europe. Vast concentrations of migrating raptors, which do not like to fly over vast expanses of ocean, are carried over this crossing on their arduous journey between European breeding grounds and African wintering grounds. Many of these birds stop to rest and refuel on the mountainous slopes of Jbel Moussa, feasting on partridges, quails and small mammals that roam the open grasslands – or, in the case of the vultures, the remains of livestock dead.
However, as cattle ranchers retreat, these wide open spaces become choked with vegetation, making it difficult for birds of prey such as the black kite to hunt for food – and depriving vultures of the carrion they need. much needed. Endangered species such as the Rüppell’s vulture (critically endangered) and the Egyptian vulture (endangered) are now facing food shortages at a vital stage of their journey.
To combat this, GREPOM (BirdLife in Morocco), in collaboration with the Department of Water and Forests, is forging partnerships with local herders to collect carcasses and slaughterhouse waste, which are deposited in key areas at scheduled times. migration peak. They also encourage pastoralists to stay in the area by providing watering holes and helping them get better accreditation and certification for their products. Farmers can now obtain much better conditions for products such as meat, milk, cheese and wool thanks to these premium labels. To top it off, GREPOM is helping local residents to develop ornithological ecotourism, taking advantage of the spectacular bird migration that passes over this key “bottleneck”.
EMPOWERING RURAL WOMEN
When we think of shepherds, we often think of bearded men in sheepskin coats carrying long wooden crooks. But many of the herders in Tunisia’s Kroumirie region are women, who are often left to tend their flocks while the men head to towns and cities in search of work. In this case, overgrazing is the problem, as large groups of women often take their sheep to the forests around El Feija National Park. With a new management plan in place for the park, leading to changes in grazing practices, local conservation organization Association Sidi Bouzitoun is promoting alternative sources of income to complement pastoralism.
In this context, the association provides training in other traditional practices such as the production of honey, essential oils and pottery. They offered the women of 30 families the possibility of organizing three local markets in the city of Jendouba to sell their goods directly, facilitated commercial agreements with local shops and created a small production workshop for women in El Feija to create a new brand of essential oils.
Jason Deschamps, project assistant for CEPF in North Africa, explains: “The project aims to empower women against ‘economic intermediaries’ who often abuse their position by creating monopolies on their products, pressuring prices unfair to women who have no other alternatives. Today, women have the confidence to take to the markets in person, proudly promoting the products of their hard work and skill. “Seeing the impact of our work on the lives of women gives me the feeling that I am in the right direction to achieve my biggest goal,” says Hajer Ghazouani, project coordinator at the Sidi Bouzitoun Association.
It’s a lesson that’s been proven time and time again: local people are the key to protecting natural habitats. By empowering them to manage their local ecosystems and enrich their own livelihoods, we are sowing a seed that will continue to bear fruit for many years to come. As Mirjan Topi says of the mountains of Albania, “These grants may be small and short-lived, but their impact and sustainability will most likely last for decades.”