Led by the Slovenia Forest Service in partnership with 11 organisations from nine countries (Slovenia, Croatia, Austria, Germany, Hungary, Romania, Montenegro, Serbia and Bosnia Herzegovina), the Interreg-funded ECO KARST project aimed to address one of the main challenges in nature conservation, namely bridging the gap between the needs of biodiversity preservation and the improvement of the livelihoods of local populations.

To do this, the project brought together seven protected areas – so-called karst bio-regions - from across the Danube Region to find ways of generating and supporting new socio-economic opportunities that are in keeping with the extremely fragile karstic Natura 2000 habitats (e.g., intermittent lakes, beech forests, wet and dry meadows) and that are based on their valued ecosystem services.

The first step was to map all the ecosystem services generated by the karst habitats in these seven Natura 2000 sites. 57 maps (eight per pilot area) were produced in total and then analysed, in close collaboration with local stakeholders, to identify areas that could become Biodiversity Investment Opportunities (BIO). The 23 BIO maps were used in turn to prepare Local Action Plans, in which each protected area aimed to combine the necessary conservation guidelines with the potential for local, sustainable, and nature-friendly economic development.

These Action Plans have since been integrated into official park management plans and other relevant documents in each of the parks, to ensure that locals and nature are brought closer together and where possible are mutually supportive. The Action Plans include some 146 new measures (21 per protected area) that are of common interest to both park authorities and local stakeholders, with shared responsibilities.

The project also sought to actively encourage new socio-economic activities in the sites and therefore launched a call for Pro-Biodiversity Businesses (PBBs). In total, 70 entrepreneurs responded to the PBB award calls, and 23 were awarded support. These are businesses that create profits, without harming nature or even by actively conserving it. PBBs represent a concrete and viable option for achieving sustainable development within European protected areas and the entire Natura 2000 network.

Together, the Action Plans and PBBs have been a vital step in bridging the gap between the needs of biodiversity preservation and the improvement of the livelihoods of local populations.

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