Florin Stoican tirelessly worked to create Romania’s first citizen-led national park in a country that’s home to 65% of Europe’s virgin forests.
Florin Stoican. Courtesy of Florin Stoican.
A Romanian environmentalist connects people for the sake of nature and for our sake, too.
Florin Stoican, 47, is a geologist with 20 years of experience in biodiversity and geodiversity conservation.
He established the first citizen-led National Park in Romania, Buila-Vânturarița, and the only urban Natural Park, Văcărești.
Romania is one of the most biodiverse countries in Europe, with a third of the Danube River and half of the Carpathian mountain range.
One of the most bio-diverse regions in Europe
Romania contains 65% of Europe’s virgin forests and has the highest density and population of large carnivores. The Romanian government designated 24% of the land as protected areas, but 55% of them are in public neglect. And here comes Stoican’s work.
Stoican grew up in Costești, a small village in Vâlcea county. As a teenager, he used to go hiking with his friends and became interested in the biodiversity of the region.
“Buila Vânturarița is a mountain that formed 1,400,000 years ago,” Stoican said. “It is built from the skeletons of marine organisms.”
Acting to stop uncontrolled construction and tourism
The area shelters many species of reptiles, mammals and birds. It is also home to 28 species of orchids.
“While hiking, we saw the area we loved slowly deteriorating, because of logging, uncontrolled construction and uncontrolled tourism,” Stoican said. “We were afraid that it would suffer irreversibly if we didn’t do anything. So, we set out to see what could be done.”
They decided to establish a national park. They needed to gather information for a scientific paper showing the government why their homeland was worth protecting.
In 2000, Stoican started studying geology in the Romanian capital, Bucharest. “I wanted to study something in the natural sciences that would help me discover my homeland,” Stoican said.
Twenty years ago, Stoican and his friends founded an NGO called Kogayon. They initiated scientific research on the biodiversity of the region and sent it to the Romanian Academy. Three years later, the Academy approved their request and recommended that the government establish the National Park Buila-Vânturarița.
It was the first one established at the initiative of a citizen group.
A private-nonprofit partnership to protect a public park
The Kogayon Association competed for the administration of the park with Romsilva, the Romanian state-owned enterprise responsible for publicly-owned forests. Due to financial superiority, Romsilva won the management of the park.
The Romanian state does not finance the administration of protected areas, so administrators have to finance the conservation themselves, sometimes through logging. And more logging takes place illegally. According to Greenpeace, control authorities detect only 1% of the illegal logging that takes place in Romania.
Stoican’s team put pressure on the authorities and succeeded in establishing the first partnership between Romsilva and an NGO for the administration of the park. Kogayon developed the tourist infrastructure and organized speleology summer camps for children. Romsilva took care of the financial management of the park.
Now, they want to obtain UNESCO Global Geopark status for Oltenia de sub Munte, a natural area near the park. Since 2020, the project has brought together 60 partners, including schools, local authorities and the local community.
UNESCO Global Geoparks are a bottom-up approach to protecting the geological resources of an area. They are managed by a partnership of local communities and intend to educate people about the area’s geological heritage.
“If you don’t get people involved in conservation, protected areas remain just a legal restriction, and you end up with some conflicts that are detrimental to conservation,” Stoican says.
A national agency to protect environmentally-sensitive areas
Silviu Chiriac has been working to protect the environment for 25 years and collaborated with Stoican to set up the National Agency for Protected Areas in Romania. Chiriac has a PhD in conservation of protected areas and works for the Environmental Protection Agency in Vrancea, Romania.
”Florin is a symbol of those who fight for nature in Romania,” Chiriac said. “He represents the generation of the early 2000s, a generation that believed in the ideals of nature protection. And he has never given up. From the moment he believed in something and started working towards his goal, he stuck to it and, indeed, results came eventually.”
Chiriac said that coordinating the establishment of a national park and then creating another natural park in the middle of Bucharest is difficult.
”Success stories are the ones that give people courage and convince them to persevere in their work,” Chiriac said. “Although it’s difficult and they may be scared at first, his story is a good example for those who want to take the path of fighting for nature.”
A group of ornithologists and nature photographers rediscovered Văcăreşti 14 years ago. It is a natural area in Bucharest with unique biodiversity. The group invited Stoican in 2011 to help them establish Natural Park Văcăreşti.
Protecting the vulnerable ecosystems that are cities
According to the National Institute of Statistics, more than 50% of the Romanian population lives in urban areas. Romania’s cities are among the most vulnerable ecosystems to climate change, due to pollution and a lack of green spaces.
European standards state that every person living in urban areas should have 26 square meters of green space. In Bucharest, citizens have fewer than seven square meters.
Văcărești Natural Park is the largest green space in the capital. It has 5,000 trees, especially willows and bushes, on 183 hectares. Theses plants fix pollutants in the air and provide oxygen.
Stoican became president of the NGO supporting the initiative. He conducted the process of declaring the area a natural park and the Natural Park Văcăreşti was officially established seven years ago.
Now, they are working on building Romania’s Embassy for Protected Areas in Văcăreşti. It connects all the protected areas across the country.
“My vision is somehow to bridge the gap between rural and urban communities,” Stoican said.
When people experience nature, they want to protect it.
Văcărești now gives people a chance to experience wildlife experience through guided thematic tours and tent trips for families or schools Visitors can also learn about other protected areas in the country.
“Most people living in urban areas feel the effects of pollution and they don’t have much nature around them,” Stoican said. “They are more inclined towards nature conservation and they want it. People in the countryside don’t see the benefits of conservation and they use nature as a resource. Everyone loves the forest, but differently.”
Most of Stoican’s activism has been done voluntarily. He has been an Ashoka fellow since 2018, and he has received financial and logistical support, as well as more knowledge to continue his projects.
He has managed to connect people for the sake of nature. He has created a network of people involved in conservation that gives hope to Romania’s biodiversity. And it gives hope to humans, too.
“Being a geologist, I am convinced that nature will not fully disappear,” Stoican said. “But Homo sapiens are at risk of doing so. And, just as life recovered after the great extinctions, it would recover after us too.”
Studies show that if we want to survive healthily on the planet, we need to conserve at least 50% of land on the planet. The European Union, though, only asks Romania to designate 30% of the land as protected areas. Researchers say that is not enough.
“We need to expand the impact that we generate,” Stoican said. “If not, we will remain islands that do impressive things, but not enough.”
Questions to consider:
- Why was it so important that land be conserved in Romania?
- What makes Romanian forests so important to Europe?
- If you were to create an urban forest in your city, where might you do it? What would you need besides money?
Patricia Cîrtog is a Romanian student of Psychology at The Babeș-Bolyai University in Cluj-Napoca. She started publishing articles in a local youth-focused magazine in high school and hasn’t stopped since. She believes that, just like therapy, storytelling has the power to heal people, too. Her desire is to bridge the gap between communities by documenting stories of stigmatized groups.