Q&A with the experts – Dubravko Dender (Croatia)

Mar 7, 2022

Our Q&A with the expert series continues with an insightful talk with Croatian biodiversity expert Dubravko Dender. Dubravko is a published biologist, dedicated ornithologist, and the head of the bird conservation program at BIOM. Backed by years of experience in the field and multiple successful projects, Dubravko shares his thoughts on the current state of affairs in environmental protection and biodiversity conservation in Croatia.

1.    We’ve heard a lot about biodiversity loss in Croatia over the last couple of decades, but little about the specific consequences for ecosystems, the economy, and the quality of life. Can you tell us the primary outcomes of biodiversity loss in Croatia and how they affect its citizens?

The loss of biodiversity is, on the one hand, the result of development, the definition of which did not adequately consider the preservation of nature’s components. As an example of this, we can mention the development of tourism as one of the strongest branches of the economy in Croatia, especially on the coast. The development of tourism leads to significant construction, which in turn has a negative impact on coastal and marine habitats. A special problem is the tourist development of areas with low sandy and muddy shores, which in the Croatian part of the Adriatic occupy relatively small areas, and they are the most suitable for the development of a large number of tourist facilities. The turn of the population in the coastal part of Croatia to tourism as the main source of income has accelerated the abandonment of rural areas and the emigration of people from rural areas. This has caused a terrible blow to natural components that depend on centuries-old agricultural practices (grazing, tillage, etc.), primarily species related to grassland habitats. When we talk about Croatia, a special story is the biodiversity of the sea, the exploitation of which has also been carried out for years without considering the real impact on its condition. Impacts are such that fisheries resources have become a luxury for the average citizen.

2.    What are the most significant threats to biodiversity and the biggest obstacles to environmental conservation in Croatia?

Although the Republic of Croatia has in principle determined itself as a country that will take into account the conservation of biodiversity in connection with its development, in practice such an impression is often not obtained. Mainstreaming biodiversity into sectoral policies (other than on paper) is still far out of reach to the most part (only forestry is very slowly starting to take biodiversity into an account). Even in public, high-ranking officials can be heard saying that biodiversity conservation is an obstacle to economic development. At the same time, one avoids one’s own responsibility due to the existing shortcomings of the legal framework, which should, in addition to economic development, also ensure the conservation of biodiversity.

As for the threats, threats to freshwater ecosystems, wetlands, and grasslands are the most prominent. Freshwater management is completely outdated in Croatia and the government on one side is still pushing for canalizing of rivers with the excuse of flood prevention, on the other hand, it has slowly started supporting dam removals. However, there is a very long way to go for the water management sector to take into account conservation and to understand the restoration potential. Wetlands are, as in most places, highly-threatened ecosystems in Croatia – for years they have been considered useless and even harmful to human health. The remaining wetlands are very few and very much under high human pressure, especially Neretva Delta with pressure from agriculture but also illegal activities of conversion of wetlands into agricultural land. Grasslands and their biodiversity are threatened due to the lack of grassland management, which is, in turn, the consequence of the abandonment of land and traditional agricultural practices, as mentioned above.

3.    What is the current number of protected areas in Croatia? Is their number growing or decreasing?

The number of national categories of protected areas in Croatia is 410, which is 9.3% of the state territory. In addition, there are 745 SCIs (Sites of Community Importance – for habitats species other than birds) and 38 SPAs (Special Protection Areas – designated for birds) that constitute the Natura 2000 network – EU ecological network. These Natura 2000 sites jointly cover 29.34% of the state territory (in more detail – 36.67% of the land territory and 16.26% of the territorial sea and internal seawater of Croatia).

The increase in the number and the extent of protected areas is a result of the EU accession process. Croatia first declared its National Ecological Network, which was later, to the most extent, transformed into the EU ecological network Natura 2000. Therefore the EU accession has greatly contributed to the increase of the coverage of the protected areas in Croatia. However, the mere inclusion of some areas in the ecological network has not stopped the increase of protected areas at the national level. Thus, last year a new Dinara Nature Park was established, and a year earlier special reserves – the ornithological Blue Eye and Lake Desna and Kuti in the Neretva River Delta. It is interesting that as a civil society association we witness the growing interest of local self-government units in the establishment of new protected areas as protected areas are increasingly recognized as a potential for local community development.

A rare sight in Croatia – Scopoli’s Shearwater (Calonectris diomedea). Image source: BIOM.

4.    How active is your country in international negotiations, i.e., the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), and what is the current situation with national action plans and their implementation?

The Republic of Croatia is actively involved in the work of international bodies related to international conventions to which it is a signatory. Since 1999 Croatia has regularly been adopting the National Biodiversity Strategy and Action Plans (with a slight delay once, due to changes in the government). The current strategy, The Nature Protection Strategy and Action Plan of the Republic of Croatia for the period 2017-2025 has been developed based on the global Biodiversity Strategic Plan 2011-2020 and particularly based on the EU Biodiversity Strategy to 2020. It provides a framework for biodiversity conservation/nature protection in Croatia and it is being implemented through regular government activities, as well as EU projects.

5.    Solving these serious problems requires awareness and action of the entire community, so how can Croatian citizens get involved and contribute to biodiversity conservation?

It is in this field that we see the great importance of the civil sector, whose activities, among other things, should be and are significantly focused on raising awareness of the citizens. Only informed citizens can be more engaged in biodiversity conservation in the long term and this is still not the case in Croatia. Croatian citizens better understand and are therefore more involved in environmental protection than biodiversity conservation. However, the reality is that citizens are mostly mobilized only when the issues, mostly environmental issues, come into their backyard. Civil society organizations in Croatia are working on awareness-raising of the public and education of children in order to broaden the understanding of the biodiversity crises and ways how the community can contribute to its conservation.

Civil society organizations are also working on mobilizing the public on policy issues, which should result in more active participation in environmental and other procedures. In addition to that, the civil sector, through its advocacy work, is contributing to a more transparent functioning of public administration and the procedures it conducts, partly through cooperation with public administration bodies.

Croatian citizens can get involved by supporting any conservation organisation that is working on biodiversity conservation – be it a local organisation or national organization. They can become members, volunteer, donate, share information and also educate themselves, as only aware citizens can contribute to solving serious problems. By joining and/or supporting civil society organizations citizens can be eyes and ears in their local communities, be involved in different citizen science initiatives, as well as actively join conservation initiatives on the ground.

6.    Can you tell us about some projects, initiatives, or discoveries that have moved biodiversity conservation forward in Croatia in the previous decade?

Accession to the European Union and harmonization of nature protection policy with EU acquis implied significant harmonization of, first, nature conservation policies, but also policies of other sectors through mainstreaming biodiversity conservation into these sectors, at least on paper. Although this process continues today, the mindset about biodiversity conservation in Croatia has changed significantly. Civil society organizations have a significant role in opening topics and resolving various obstacles. Speaking about the nature protection sector, it is worth mentioning ongoing large EU projects on Natura 2000 whose implementation is planned to produce strategic planning documents (management plans) that would define long-term steps in the management of protected areas (including Natura 2000 sites), primarily with the aim of preserving biodiversity.

As for the projects that have been implemented in the last 10 years which had a significant contribution to nature protection in Croatia, there have been a few. World Bank’s project (loan) “EU Nature Integration Project (NIP)” contributed, among other things, to extensive biodiversity data collection. GEF project implemented through the UNDP “Strengthening the Institutional and Financial Sustainability of the National Protected Area System (PARCS)” contributed to a more systematic approach to protected areas management. More recent EU projects have also contributed greatly through detailing the approaches for protected species management and a more structured approach to invasive species management.