Protection and use of the cultural heritage of the Carpathians for the sustainable development of the region

Photo: UNEP/GRID-Warsaw Centre

Cultural and historical heritage of the Carpathians is one of the main distinguishing feature of the region in Europe and globally. It determines the exceptional tourist attractiveness of the Carpathians, while the richness and diversity of local cultures are not inferior than the natural heritage of the region. Properly exposed it can contribute to the increase of the economic potential of the Carpathian region and its competitiveness for investors and tourists. Awareness of the richness of the common cultural heritage strengthens the sense of identity and dignity of the inhabitants of the Carpathian region.

The cultural heritage of the Carpathians is most often associated by the vast majority of Polish citizens primarily with the culture of Podhale region, in particular the folklore of mountaineers from the Zakopane area (especially their dialect, music or costumes), and the “Zakopane style” in wooden architecture (modeled on the elements of traditional Podhale construction style, introduced by Stanislaw Witkiewicz as late as in the last decade of the nineteenth century and enriched with elements specific to the Art Nouveau style).

Significantly fewer people are aware that Podhale Highlanders are just one of the many ethnic groups for centuries shaping the Carpathian culture together with many other local ethnic groups, widespread throughout the Polish part of the Carpathians. Moreover, the cultural heritage of the region is the common achievements of the groups inhabiting not only the Polish part of the Carpathian Mountains, but also areas currently located within the current Czech Republic, Romania, Slovakia, Serbia, Ukraine and Hungary. Its richness and diversity are mainly due to centuries of coexistence, interaction and cultural exchanges of many nations and local ethnic groups living in the Carpathians.

The human presence and management in the mountains and foothills, under specific environmental conditions, the interdependence with the natural heritage, contributed over the centuries to the evolution of the whole diversity of practices, cultures and traditions, so much different in different regions. The evolution of the cultural heritage of the Carpathians was also affected by the variety of external factors, e.g. migration and settlement in the Carpathians of the Wallachian population (of the Balkan origin) between 13th and 17th century; the interaction of many different religious beliefs of western and eastern rite, or ancient historical powers (e.g. the Byzantine, the Austro-Hungarian, and the Ottoman empires).

The cultural heritage of the Carpathians consist of various elements of material and immaterial culture of the inhabitants of the Carpathian region, derived from the traditions and folklore of various ethnic groups and local communities.

The wealth of intangible cultural heritage of the Carpathians is the diversity of beliefs, ideas, knowledge and practices concerning nature and the universe; languages, dialects, traditions, oral history, music and dance, customs, rituals and rites, skills (e.g. related to agricultural practices, traditional crafts and medicine), as well as accessories, props and artifacts necessary for their use (e.g. items used in pastoral magic, or herbs used in folk medicine).

The material cultural heritage of the Carpathians consists of objects such as historic sacred and secular buildings (including folk wooden architecture), historic cities and city centers, canals, roads and railways, as well as items such as e.g. documents, artifacts (e.g. utensils and household appliances, agricultural tools and crafts, clothing, musical instruments), works of art, regional agricultural and culinary products, products of local crafts and handicrafts, as well as cultural landscapes and natural sites related to beliefs and rituals.

Threats to the conservation and sustainability of the cultural heritage of the Carpathians

In our time, the diversity of the Carpathian cultural heritage (in particular its intangible manifestations) is increasingly threatened, both because of the progressing globalization of culture as well as social and economic changes, which could lead to its destruction, abandonment and decay.

The style and pace of life in the Carpathian Mountains does change, while the progressing process of depopulation of rural areas leads to the abandonment of traditional methods of agricultural land use, proper for mountain areas. The abundance of easily available cheap, mass-produced industrial goods and foodstuffs make a number of professions much less profitable or necessary. With the extinction of the older generation of folk artists and craftsmen, traditional techniques and skills inherited from past generations living in the Carpathian Mountains go into oblivion, which threatens the continuation of the many fields of traditional arts and crafts.

Every year several objects of traditional wooden architecture vanish, the most attractive areas for tourism and recreation are subject to investment and residential development pressures (often with the utilization of architectural patterns alien to the region). The traditional structure of villages and towns changes, while the areas of well-preserved traditional Carpathian cultural landscape, not yet spoiled with contemporary landscape dominants, become a rarity throughout the whole Carpathian region.

The importance of protecting cultural heritage for sustainable regional and local development

The protection of the cultural heritage of the Carpathians fosters the sustainable economic development of the region. The promotion of the Carpathian traditional local products, arts and handicrafts in conjunction with the development of the cultural tourism, and the gradually increasing demand for healthy low-processed food and organic agriculture products should contribute to the creation of new jobs, increase in entrepreneurship and investment in the Carpathian region, and thus increase the level of income of the local population. Transmission of traditional techniques and skills necessary for the preservation and continuation of traditional arts, crafts and endangered professions to future generations may contribute not only to the preservation of the intangible heritage, but also to the development of entrepreneurship in the region.

Preservation and providing adequate visibility to the objects of cultural and historical heritage of the Carpathians (e.g. wooden folk architecture) and the areas of the Carpathian cultural landscape, can decide on the maintenance of the tourist attractiveness of towns and municipalities in the region. It is worth noting that tourism based on the cultural heritage resources of the Carpathians can yield profits all year round, which could at least partially reduce the negative impact of the seasonal tourist traffic generated during the winter season by fans of downhill and cross-country skiing.

Skansen sanok
Museum of Folk Architecture in Sanok
Photo: UNEP/GRID-Warsaw Centre

It is true that a large part of the historic buildings in the cities and towns of the Carpathian region disappeared forever in the conflagration of two world wars. However, the mountainous Carpathian region still harbours hundreds of historic wooden churches of different rites, some inscribed to the UNESCO List of World Heritage (17 sites in the Polish part of the Carpathians, plus further 25 in the Romanian, Slovak and Ukrainian parts). Most of them can be visited, as a valuable element of thematic cultural tourist trails and routes (e.g. wooden architecture, icons, regional cuisine, local products, traditional crafts trails). Almost unknown in the world (and untapped for the marketing of the Carpathian heritage) is the fact, that the Carpathians are the original cradle of the oil industry, currently one of the most important sectors of the global economy.

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The Protocol on sustainable tourism to the Carpathian Convention provides for undertaking measures towards the dispersal, redirection and channeling part of the tourist traffic out of the currently most popular resorts and main tourist destinations to areas less developed and less explored by tourism, but having sufficient potential to absorb and accommodate part of the tourist traffic (which would be beneficial for the local economic development), and from valuable but sensitive sites such as protected areas, to the areas being less ecologically sensitive. Due to the fact that the historical objects of the cultural heritage of the Carpathians are mainly located in urban areas (in villages and towns), such redirecting of the part of the tourist traffic, currently concentrated in e.g. national parks or nature reserves, would benefit the environment, contributing to the reduction of the tourism pressure on protected areas of the Carpathians.

The protection of the cultural heritage of the Carpathians

The first international agreement relating directly to the cultural heritage of the Carpathians is the Carpathian Convention, signed in 2003. Article 11 of the Convention expresses the will of the Parties to cooperate on the preservation and promotion of the cultural heritage and traditional knowledge of the inhabitants of the Carpathians. The text of the Convention pays particular attention to preserving the traditional architecture and land-use patterns (reflected in the specific cultural landscape of the Carpathians), local breeds of domestic animals and cultivated plant varieties, and the issues of sustainable use of wild plants in the Carpathians. The Convention also requires the Parties to pursue policies aiming at preservation and promotion of crafting and marketing of local goods, arts and handicrafts.

The Protocol on the cultural heritage of the Carpathians

In 2012 under the project "Carpathians Unite - mechanism for consultation and cooperation for the implementation of the Carpathian Convention" the first proposal for a new thematic Protocol on cultural heritage to the Framework Carpathian Convention was drafted by the project leader - UNEP/GRID-Warsaw Centre, and submitted for regional consultations with the representatives of cultural institutions, academia, local communities, NGOs, and folk artists of the Polish Carpathians.

Later the draft of the proposed Protocol was subject to discussion by the Carpathian Convention Working Group on cultural heritage and traditional knowledge, during its two meetings organized in May and September 2013 in Poland under the "Carpathians Unite” project, and in March 2014 in Bratislava, at the invitation of the Government of the Slovak Republic.