Bojan Fürst

Villages in Transition

In Photography, Print on May 22, 2008 at 9:00 pm

Posavina horses resting in Lonjsko Polje Nature Park.

Posavina horses resting in Lonjsko Polje Nature Park.

(Published in YouthVision magazine, China)

I arrive at dawn and villagers are already up and working: men and women biking to market with baskets full of fresh cheese and metal pails full of cream; cow herders collecting livestock from yards to take into the fields to graze; old women in black scarfs feeding chickens.

Best known for its feathery residents – white storks who make their home in large nests on the roofs of almost every house in this small Croatian village – Čigoč is also the gateway to one of Croatia’s best kept secrets: Lonjsko Polje Nature Park and marshes.

A large flood area between five rivers in central Croatia (Lonja, Sava, Kupa, Una and Strug) the park is home to some 250 bird species, 500 white and black stork couples and 21 villages.

Recognized internationally as an Important Bird Area, the region’s inhabitants are fighting to preserve their natural and cultural heritage.

I meet Dejan Poturica, a young man in his late 20s who has just sent off his cows with one of the herders. He shows me his barn and yard, talking to his pigs and sheep in a calming voice to get them used to this stranger in their midst. In this part of Croatia they use the word “blago” for livestock. It literally means treasure.

A traditional wooden boat moored at a makeshift wharf on Sava river.

A traditional wooden boat moored at a makeshift wharf on Sava river.

Poturica is unusual in a village populated by elderly people and run-down traditional wooden houses. He sunk his capital into modern farm equipment, thinking he could do well. “Now, I don’t really have a choice. I could not leave for the city even if I wanted to,” he says with some bitterness.

Dejan Poturica working in his barn.

Dejan Poturica working in his barn.

He says there is little support for those who want to operate a family farm and raise traditional livestock – such as the local species of pig – instead of developing tourism.

Davor Anzil, park ranger and educator, is convinced there is room for both. In fact the successful family farm and unique rural tourist experience are interconnected, he says.

He points to the story of the storks. Čigoč is one of the largest nesting areas on the continent for these graceful white birds. But storks have been leaving the village and nesting across the Lonjsko Polje marshes in the village of Osekovo for one reason: the population in Čigoč is dropping. Scarcely 100 people live in the village today; there is less agricultural activity and fewer grazing areas to provide food for storks.

A herder is taking cows to a grazing meadow in Lonjsko Polje Nature Park.

A herder is taking cows to a grazing meadow in Lonjsko Polje Nature Park.

Over 7000 people live within the park’s boundaries, which is the reason the park is not protected as a national park. “We have so much human activity,” says Anzil.

Once, the turopolje pig was the traditional livestock raised by farmers here; its meat was sought all over Europe. The fall of socialism and the war in the 1990’s changed that.
Today’s new owners prefer to buy the American duroc, a much meatier species of pig. But the the survival of the water shamrock, a lovely four-leafed clover, is dependent upon the activity of the traditional pig, which roams over the marsh, turning over the soft soil in the spring.

The nature park has established a program encouraging local farmers to again raise traditional pigs.

“After introducing the species back into the environment we have witnessed re-emergence of the shamrock,” says Anzil.

Aside from protecting the flora and fauna across the 506 square kilometers of the park, the complement of seven rangers is also in charge of protecting the cultural heritage in the area.

A traditional wooden house in Posavina region of Central Croatia.

A traditional wooden house in Posavina region of Central Croatia.

Take the traditional wooden houses: a unique interlocking system of beams allowed a house to be dismantled and reassembled in a single day. “It’s very much like legos, except bigger,” laughs Anzil.

That made sense several hundred years ago, before the construction of the dikes along Sava river. The river would flood at regular intervals and the inhabitants would simply move their houses to dry ground to wait for the water to withdraw. The durable oak beams were valuable and when a son got married, his new family would inherit a portion of the house – a sort of a starter home that could then be built upon.

Preserving that unique architecture is challenging. “The young moved to the city and have no interest in returning to the villages to maintain these old houses. The elderly are dying out and have no means or desire to continue with the upkeep because they feel that there is nobody to leave these houses to,” Anzil says. He adds that a younger generation can see the traditional houses as a reminder of poverty, tearing them down to make room for modern brick and concrete houses.

Croatia provides financial incentives for the renovation of these old houses and the development of rural tourism. Today, the region has 60 beds in traditional houses available to tourists, but the majority of the houses remain in a state of disrepair.

“I honestly don’t think that people understand what they have here,” says Anzil. “In ten years, I am not sure that you will see many of these traditional houses around.” He says it is difficult to explain to German, Dutch, Japanese and English tourists who are just starting to discover the Croatian interior that there simply is no money to invest in preservation and restoration. Anzil shares their anger. He hopes that once Croatia joins the European Union he and his staff will be able to access funds available to new members. He already has a World Bank study completed that ranks Lonjsko Polje marshes shoulder to shoulder with Dubrovnik as the country’s potentially most significant tourist destination.

Meanwhile, young farmers like Poturica are a lot more interested in price of milk, which currently stands at about 35 cents per liter, and what effect will joining the EU have on Croatian agriculture.

For visitors to the Park, and they now number in tens of thousands, the next few years might be the last chance to see unique architectural and cultural heritage of a region that still feels rural in the true sense of the word.

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