“The Banat Mountains are the largest area of biodiversity in the EU. What the Amazon is to the world, the south-western Carpathians are to Central and Eastern Europe,” says Oana Mondoc, who was born in Brasov and came to Armeniș, Caraș-Severin county, via London. “What we want to do in Armeniș is to have a place in this world where we can see if it is possible to rewrite socio-economic development so that it does not have a negative impact on the environment, i.e. to rewrite the economy based on nature.” They started from bison, which they reintroduced into the wild. Three months later, Oana arrived.
She studied International Development at a university in London — a mix of international relations and human rights, with a focus on ecology, she explains to us — then worked for three years as a campaigner for WWF (World Wildlife Fund). In 2014, she was working with Virunga National Park in Congo, the oldest natural park in Africa, which was at that time under threat from oil exploitation. Oana’s role was to Skype (“there was no Zoom back then,” she laughs) with rangers and people on the ground, extracting stories from them and generating content so she could influence things. People in the field were dealing with kidnappings and maulings, says Oana, and she needed them to frame a picture better. She realised that to effect change, she needed to be there, in the field, not remote, in London. So she decided to re-evaluate her work and made a list of the pros and cons of staying in that role. That same evening, she received a phone call from the former director of WWF Romania, Csibi Magor, who had just supervised the first transport of bison to Armeniș. He asked her if she liked bison. She showed him the list she was working on. Three months later, she returned to Romania to take up her new position, one for which there was no manual.
The bison were “the poster child, a charismatic, emblematic, headline animal,” says Oana. “They are large animals that have an accelerated impact in the ecosystem, they help and accelerate the natural processes that provide us with groundwater, fertile soil for food, microclimate for rain regulation.” But more than that, the project is “a chance to work in one place and change the system.” “Big words,” she admits. “But there is no tourism here, not even ecotourism. It’s a blank canvas and you can start building from scratch.”
The first layer is ecotourism, and the local community can play a key role in it. In Armeniș, Oana tells us, older people are farming; half of the young people in the community (40+ years old) help their parents in the fields or with animal husbandry, the other half work in the city, in Caransebeș, in jobs that don’t pay great. In every family, there is at least one family member abroad who sends money home.
The project Măgura zimbrilor/WeWilder first initiated trekking activities: 2-4 day treks in the footsteps of wild animals, led by guides selected from the local community and trained by the best specialists in Europe. These treks “reveal the story of the ecosystem; you see, understand and start thinking systemically,” Oana tells us. Tourists stay overnight in a glamping site, where three rotating families from the village have been trained to do total hosting.
In 2016, Oana and her team began curating small, local products and services with a low environmental impact. It’s essential to be involved in the design part, she tells us, when people start their businesses. To that end, they brought in business specialists to mentor new ideas, chefs to inspire locals, architects to discuss building practices. The desired end result is an alternative economic network of businesses that do as little harm to the environment as possible and that have enough people, dedicated enough to the values of the project, so that Oana and the team are no longer needed.
From this point of view, Armenis aims to be a model, or at least an example from which others can learn: what has been done, what has worked, what hasn’t. The next place they want to try to replicate the experiment is in Băiuț, Maramureș county, where Oana and the team will share their experience with the people running that project.
When we ask her about the relationship with the people of Armeniș, Oana says that there are mental frameworks that soften once you start producing value, which can mean anything from friendship to sources of income. This requires trust, which is built over time and through shared activities. People come to events, participate in various building activities, sell products to the project. Oana’s presence and especially her continuity in the village are essential. “People believe what you are, not what you say.”
Oana has lived in Armeniș since 2014 and has had her official address in the village since 2015. She says she has been “adopted by Banat.” She tells us an anecdote: everyone in the village has a nickname. One day, she was talking to someone about the moment you become part of the community. She said it’s when you get your nickname. The interlocutor corrected her: “You get your nickname right away. The question is how long does it take for you to learn it.” As far as she knows, she’s “Oana of the Bison”. “I’m from Brasov and I was adopted by Banat, but I feel at home wherever I’m surrounded by people I love. That can also be in London or Germany.”
For Oana, her job is her life mission. “We can’t dream that we won’t get into some gigantic crisis if we keep working at the symptom level, fixing a minus in the ecosystem.” Total solutions are needed, and Oana is one of the people trying to find those solutions while living a life in line with the values she believes in.
Oana doesn’t rule out the possibility of leaving Armeniș one day, when she will feel the urge to follow her heart. But she sees herself still having a “little place” in the network, staying part of it. As for her role, there is already a designated “heir”: a young man from the local community. Oana tells us he is one of the most talented wildlife guides in Romania, he has proven management and strategic skills and he will be able to successfully take the project forward.
Photo credit: Mircea Sorin Albuțiu