We usually think of the American and African continents as the places of big, untouched, wilderness. Whatever the merits of this view (amply and ably disputed), it at least serves to make a negative point: in Europe, the kind of nature that superficially looks untouched doesn’t really exist. What Europeans call nature is a deeply layered cultural landscape, and it has been this way for a very long time. The European countryside has always been inhabited and worked; old-growth forests had already been cleared by the Romans, and whatever was left was all but gone by the middle ages. In this context, it is surprising to read that Europe is now a continent full of opportunities to rewild, i.e to bring back species of wild animals that have disappeared in the past and allow vast tracts of land to exist without human control.
The basic phenomenon that much rewilding argumentation rests on is that of land abandonment. What millennia of history didn’t manage to do (empty the countryside), globalization is apparently managing. Many are colloquially familiar with this phenomenon: farmers grow old without passing their craft to the next generation, which moves to the city in search of a different life. Agricultural production becomes concentrated in big mechanized businesses, and small farms slowly disappear from the land. With growing urbanization, the small farming lifestyle which has for so long defined the countryside is disappearing. What it leaves behind is land in various stages of abandonment.
By some estimates, this unfolding story is poised to transform an enormous amount of land. A report commissioned by WWF Netherlands and the Institute for European Environmental Policy predicts that around 150.000 square kilometers of land will have been abandoned by 2030. The methods that the report uses make it difficult to predict accurately; in fact, there is very little certainty as to how much land is currently abandoned. One of the reasons for this is the very definition of abandonment. The report uses a three-pronged definition that includes actual abandonment, meaning land that is no longer used for any agricultural purpose, semi- or hidden abandonment, namely land that “is not formally abandoned and is subject to some form of management”, and transitional abandonment, resulting from land-use changes that might or might not be permanent.
Despite the complexity of the definition, all abandonment remains relative to earlier use patterns. We can imagine a hilly landscape with patches of open grasslands, fruit trees, and forest, all maintained through the daily interaction of people with the land for the purpose of making a living. When such a landscape is populated by 1000 families that are managing its character, then it is fully used. When 800 of those families move to the city, the landscape is not entirely abandoned, to be sure, but it is also no longer productive in the former sense. It starts undergoing changes that would not have happened had the land continued to be used. In this hypothetical example, there could be both actual and hidden abandonment. When happening on a large scale, as it is happening in Europe, this phenomenon can be met with reactive policies, like paying people to keep the land looking a certain bucolic way.
Though abandonment is relative, activist discourse of the kind exemplified by popular writing on rewilding (for example Monbiot’s book Feral) tends to present it as a fait accompli. In truth, we can more accurately speak of a profound change in land-use patterns. The term abandonment itself can be misleading, suggesting that land has been willfully left behind, to fend for itself as it were. It suggests a certain availability of the land for whomever might have good ideas about what to do with it. This might be the case in some places but, given that it is mostly agricultural land that is the subject of ‘abandonment’, at the very least the unused land is someone’s property.
The projects that I have described so far in this blog (the reintroduction of European bison to the Southern Carpathians and the rewilding initiatives in the Danube Delta) are supposed to happen in areas of land abandonment. From what I have seen, this is hardly a correct characterization. Take the European bison. They were released to an area that was selected based on low anthropic impact (human transformation of the environment). This area, though representing one of the least humanly modified ones available, is highly anthropic nonetheless. Logging roads criss-cross an inhabited territory as they continue to hum and harvest. Some abandonment has occurred, in terms of former land uses: people no longer gather hay in the mountains like they used to, but they still have rights to the land, as well as a summer cottage that they could, at any moment, use again. Several national roads encircle the area of reintroduction, and it is anybody’s guess how the territory (which, again, people can legally use for all sorts of purposes) will develop in the future.
In the Danube Delta communities are struggling, often moving away from traditional lifestyles. The population in some villages is no longer being replaced. Does this mean that the Delta is undergoing land abandonment? In some sense, yes. But to characterize this environment as abandoned is to hide several important things: there is nothing permanent about the movement away from the land – it can just as well be reversed; and people are in fact still using the land, but not in the ways that have traditionally kept the landscape in a particular shape. In the mountain example, people no longer gather hay, but they do gather wild fruits and berries. The impact this change in land-use has on the land is considerable, because gathering hay arrests ecological succession, whereas gathering fruits does not. Similarly, in the Delta people no longer gather reeds as they used to, but they fish, hunt, raise cattle, and a number of people buy vacation homes and use the land for recreational purposes.
Abandonment can also be straightforward, as in the case of the Chernobyl exclusion zone. There, land is truly abandoned, and also because of that it does not need to be actively rewilded: it managed to do so itself. But short of this kind of thorough removal of human agency, we are always speaking about relative changes to land use. To present rewilding as a response to the obvious problem of land abandonment is to try to sidestep its political implications. Rewilding of land that in any case is in close proximity to human communities and is likely used by these in some form or another is a political decision, and therefore a decision about how we want to relate to the land and, through it, to each other. Pointing out that it is abandoned is like trying to justify taking a car for a ride because it was open and the keys were in. Fine, but that in itself doesn’t justify going for a ride, it merely makes it possible. It is, why not, possible to rewild agricultural land that is currently not used for its historical purpose. Whether we want to is the real question (a we that includes the farmers still on the land), and one that doesn’t depend so much on the issue of abandonment, but rather on making a compelling case for more wilderness in a densely populated Europe.