Words by Justin Woolford – for the MAVA Foundation

In the fourth of our five-part series offering insight and inspiration for contemporary conservation, we visit Prespa – an iconic natural site whose conservation depends on locally-rooted collaboration that reaches beyond borders.

Hidden high in the mountains

Legend has it that high in the heart of the Balkans, two shepherds fell asleep by a remote mountain spring. And by accident, they let its waters flow on to the plain below, creating two huge, sparkling blue lakes, Mikri and Megali Prespa.

Perched high above sea level, straddling Albania, Greece, and the Republic of North Macedonia, the Prespa lakes are amongst the oldest and largest in Europe, first formed more than two million years ago.

Surrounded by snow-capped mountains, the plants and animals that live in this unique ecosystem have evolved in its reedbeds, forests and alpine meadows over thousands of years – and more than 50 species are found nowhere else.

Birds migrating between Africa, Asia, and Europe, as well as resident species such as the pygmy cormorant, gorge on an abundance of insects and fish, and alongside them thrives the world’s largest colony of the rare Dalmatian pelican – a symbol of the region.

Since the Stone Age, people too have found a haven along the shorelines, shaping the landscape. Hermits and holy men of Byzantium carved out rock chapels, while fishers and farmers have profited from the riches of land and water. And today, cultivation of Prespa beans drives the regional economy, their celebrated flavour an epicurean delight.

Threats, adventure and diplomacy

“I was born on the island of Lesbos in the Aegean Sea and came to Prespa in 1987 in my late 20s”, says Myrsini Malakou, Greek biologist and long-time Managing Director of the Society for the Protection of Prespa. “The two places couldn’t be more different. One is matriarchal and by the sea, the other patriarchal and in the mountains! But in both, people and nature are woven together. And here in Prespa, the water connects us all – wolves, bears, birds and people.”

Naturalists first recognised Prespa’s worth and came looking for Europe’s last breeding pelicans in the 1960s, but it was Luc Hoffmann, celebrated conservationist and founder of the MAVA Foundation, who drew international attention to the region after visiting for himself in the early 1970s.

“Back then you needed a licence to enter from the Ministry of Defence. So accompanied by a few soldiers, he took a boat and eventually saw the pelicans with his own eyes near the border with Albania”, recalls Myrsini. “He was enchanted but realised all was not well.”

Greece’s military dictatorship had plans for major road construction, drainage and mechanised farming which threatened Prespa’s intricate ecology and the delicate balance between nature and a traditional agrarian economy. But against the odds, in 1974, it declared the Greek parts of Mikri and Megali Prespa, a National Forest.

“Luc’s charisma and networking were enough to convince the dictatorship that Prespa had enormous natural value”, says Myrsini. “He persuaded them to protect it, which they did, using army patrols and sometimes even helicopters!”

Yet while the park outlived the dictatorship, conservation of this vast remote area still posed a challenge, especially beyond Greek borders. Luc knew success required close collaboration between three countries whose relations had historically been far from easy, and for whom conservation was not a priority. And its continued protection relied in no small measure on Luc’s personal commitment and diplomacy over three decades.

Centuries of geopolitical struggle, war, invasion, displacement and resettlement also meant the region contained diverse ethnic origins, beliefs and identities making a lack of cultural unity across different communities an additional challenge.

Old challenges, new achievements

With its entry into the European Union in the 1980s, Greece began receiving European funds for development. And in Prespa, history began to repeat itself.

“The government started pouring money into copy and paste projects from elsewhere with no consideration for Prespa’s people, natural value, or local conditions”, says Myrsini.

And when Thymio Papayannis, celebrated architect, environmentalist and former President of the Society for the Preservation of Prespa, visited the area in 1985 to investigate a complaint about the impacts of European funding, he blew the whistle.

“I wrote a report for the European Commission called The Prespa Debacle, recalls Thymio. “One proposal was for a hydro-electric project for which there clearly wasn’t enough water. Another was for a hatchery supposed to supply fish across the Balkans! There was a lot of corruption, little planning and even less responsibility but in the end the Greek government conceded such projects should be abandoned.”

Bringing people together

Following Thymio’s report, Luc continued visiting Prespa regularly to meet local people and explain the importance of the lakes and wetlands. With Thymio, he also helped set up WWF Greece, and then in 1991, together with biologist Giorgos Catsadorakis, who had researched his PhD in Prespa, they founded the Society for the Protection of Prespa (SPP), rallying a number of influential partners who brought international profile and recognition.

“In the ’80s there were many conflicting perspectives on how to conserve Prespa”, says Myrsini. “Some wanted to exclude people altogether but Luc saw they were a critical part of the ecosystem and that we had to bring them on side.”

Since then, for its conservation work with local communities, including reintroducing traditional practices and promoting organic farming, SPP has won numerous awards, including one of the first Ramsar Wetland Conservation Awards in 1999, and the Goldman Environmental Prize, jointly presented to Myrsini and Giorgos in 2001.

“At the beginning, we were told we were crazy, that doing conservation in this remote area wasn’t sustainable”, says Thymio. “Luc realised that the only way to succeed was to have a serious presence on the ground. That’s why we established SPP – to engage local people and gain their support, and bring conservationists together!”

Fishing for support

With the ability to hold three kilos of fish in their gullets, Dalmatian pelicans had long been considered a major competitor by fishermen – and for many years their persecution was sanctioned by the state. For every egg or dead pelican reported to the authorities, fishermen received money from the forest service.

In 1990, just as SPP was being formed, with around 160 nesting pairs left, things came to a head. A huge drought meant the only nesting sites out of reach of predators were on fishermen’s traps out in the lake. Made of piled up branches, with their tops protruding above water, they were perfect nesting sites – but the act of nesting destroyed the traps.

“In the Spring, we knew we had to do something so we went and told the fishermen that whether their grandchildren would see this bird alive on Earth or not was in their hands”, says Myrsini. “Watching the boats go out at dawn the next morning, we held our breaths – but as they approached the traps, they stopped their engines and rowed quietly by.”

It was a turning point for conservation in Prespa which would inform and affirm SPP’s approach – supporting local communities to value and care for their heritage. Today, local fishers help protect a colony of 1,500 pairs, bringing tourism and income to the region.

From its earliest days, SPP has also prioritised wet meadow conservation – areas critical for spawning fish and feeding birds.

“You soon understand that to conserve pelicans, you also have to manage land and water”, says Myrsini. “People used to cut the reeds to keep the shorelines clear allowing carp to spawn – but in the ’80s, people turned away from fishing to bean-growing, so the reedbeds expanded, and carp and bird numbers fell.”

Benefiting from EU LIFE funding and expertise from the Tour du Valat research station in the Camargue, SPP worked with local people to restore wet meadows, introducing buffalo, and testing different cutting and grazing methods.

“It’s always about collaboration between NGOs, farmers, fishers, municipalities – and finding benefits”, says Myrsini. “Today we’ve got over 100 hectares of wet meadow, mostly in communal areas.”

Three countries, two lakes, one future

On World Wetlands Day, February 2nd 2000, following a proposal from SPP and WWF, Myrsini and Giorgos helped make history when the Prime Ministers of Albania, Greece, and North Macedonia jointly declared the Prespa Transboundary Park.

“We had the idea for a park beyond frontiers but it was a military zone and we needed political support”, says Thymio. “Luc was well-connected and knew an adviser to the Greek Prime Minster, so we were able to explain the whole philosophy of the approach.”

As the first transboundary protected area in the Balkans, its birth epitomised everything for which SPP had been working – safeguarding natural and cultural values, involving local communities, and promoting collaboration.

“Across the three countries, scientists began to exchange data, children started learning about the value of the region, municipalities began communicating, national parks got to know one another, and things started to happen”, says Myrsini. “What matters is having a governance system that works. The catchphrase was, ‘Three countries, two lakes, one future’.”

It was a real watershed moment, and on the park’s tenth anniversary in 2010, the three countries and the EU signed the Agreement for the Protection and Sustainable Development of the Prespa Park Area legally binding the parties in cooperation.

WWF Greece CEO Demetres Karavellas, a marine biologist and free diver from Kalymnos – the sponge divers’ island – but long inspired by and involved in the conservation of Prespa, is in no doubt about the significance of the Agreement.

“When SPP completed the restoration of an old water mill in Agios Germanos, everyone was there to celebrate its opening – the mayor, farmers, the local school teacher – and all saying the same thing about what they wanted for the future of the region. Sharing the same vision is not something that happens overnight – it requires time and dialogue, and people listening deeply to one another. Besides its importance for Prespa, the Agreement was an intensely symbolic milestone, both environmentally and politically. It relayed a message of peace and cooperation following years of upheaval, hostility and war in the 1990s. And today, it remains a symbol of hope and optimism for local people.”

Reaching beyond borders

From first enchantment to sustained engagement, Luc, Thymio, Giorgos, Myrsini and Demetres have nurtured lasting collaboration beyond borders. There’s perhaps no better testament to their legacy than PrespaNet, an innovative cross-border network of NGOs formed in 2013 between the Society for the Conservation of Prespa, the Macedonian Ecological Society and Protection and Preservation of Natural Environment in Albania. Born and bred in Prespa, Daniela Zaec coordinates PrespaNet’s transboundary project.

“To me, Prespa means simply home. I want to build my career here and make this a better place for everyone. The main challenges is changing mindsets. In the North Macedonian part of Prespa most people have farmed apples for generations and new orchards keep appearing which puts more and more pressure on water supplies. There’s no quick solution but we work a lot with local young people, taking them into the field to see first-hand how science is done – and that a career and future in conservation is possible.”

Other PrespaNet activities include restoring wetlands, monitoring rare plants and large mammals, running summer schools, volunteering, and sharing expertise. And there’s no doubt PrespaNet is helping forge a new paradigm for cross-border conservation.

“We try to bring people from three countries together as much as possible through events like Green Belt Day which celebrates nature along the path of the Iron Curtain. It’s very simple but it makes such a difference, creating a sense of togetherness and belonging”, says Daniela. “Last winter was very dry and now lake water levels are low. It’s made local people very vocal, they’re looking for answers and calling on the government to tackle climate change.”

In perpetuity

Requiring investment local talent and expertise, conservation in remote, complex regions like Prespa is expensive. To ensure it continues in perpetuity, in 2015, the MAVA Foundation helped create the Prespa Ohrid Nature Trust. One of only a handful of transboundary conservation trust funds in the world and the first in the Balkans, it offers funding security for NGOs and a capacity boost for National Park management bodies in the region. And in November 2018, the Trust received the 2018 Pathfinder Award which recognises outstanding and innovative solutions for protected areas.

Encouraging the close involvement of local communities in conservation, its approach can be replicated anywhere that needs long-term conservation finance tailored to local needs and conditions.

“The Trust is designed to support conservation through collaboration so building in the flexibility to allow it to support multiple partners, objectives and approaches was vital”, says Lynda Mansson, MAVA Foundation Director General and President of the Prespa Ohrid Nature Trust.

For the love of people and nature

“For a long time, Prespa was the only place in the troubled Balkans where states and people built bridges – to safeguard natural and cultural values”says Myrsini. “Cooperation and reconnection was born from the environment – nature is what brought us together.”

When ecosystems cross borders, transboundary collaboration seems an obvious conservation solution. Executing it well is difficult – because border areas are often remote, or political, cultural and linguistic differences are barriers to cooperation.

Looking for commonalities and shared interests offers a way forward. In Prespa, everyone depends on a single, healthy watershed. From this starting point, investment in locally-rooted collaboration beyond borders provides the engine of success.

Without making allies of local communities dependent on shared natural resources, conservation in Prespa would fail, just another unwanted project imposed from outside. Working together, differences and challenges of all kinds can be overcome.

“You have to be holistic and see the human and environmental challenges together”, says Thymio. “If you decide to intervene, you must first understand the local context perfectly. Then having the right people on the ground is critical – if it’s just an employment opportunity, it won’t work.”

Conservation Lesson #4 – Transboundary Collaboration

Conservation beyond borders relies on sustained collaboration at all levels between many different actors. For success, recognise realities on the ground, listen deeply, enable local people to take the lead, deliver benefits, and commit to the long-term.

“The thing that stands out for me is Luc’s absolute commitment and love for Prespa”, says Demetres. “He stuck with it for more than 30 years – it’s an absolutely monumental achievement. Working with local communities takes a lot of time and patience. Luc encouraged ambition but he also knew that if you push too hard, you alienate people.”

Smoothing troubled waters

“Prespa matters because of its biodiversity and its people. Neither can exist without the other”, says Myrsini. “Its survival has always been about creating a system in balance.”

Prespa shows us just how delicate that balance can be, and how easily disturbed. Its conservation depends on an often talked about but seldom delivered transboundary approach. And conservationists and communities alike must remain vigilant in the face of ever-evolving threats – climate change, intensive agriculture, pollution, emigration, and abandonment.

Addressing today’s complex and inter-related health, nature and climate crises, in Prespa and elsewhere, and achieving water, food and income security, requires a watershed-wide approach. But most of all, our continued prosperity on a healthy planet depends on making people an integral part of conservation strategies. And in Prespa, through patient collaboration, the almost impossible hope that people and nature might live in harmony, is perhaps already possible.


Icons & Insights

Read the individual stories about MAVA’s iconic sites:

Conservation Lesson #1  from the Camargue – Science & Advocacy

Do good science and make sure it addresses real-world challenges. And for real impact, add advocacy with partners, informed by practical solutions and evidence of nature’s value.

Conservation Lesson #2  from the Bijagós – Biocultural Approach

Acknowledge, respect and safeguard the unique values, culture, practices and rights of Indigenous Peoples and local communities, and how their cultural and spiritual traditions integrate conservation, enabling them to manage territories and resources in ways that benefit people and nature.

Conservation Lesson #3  from Doñana – Nature-Based Solutions

Saving life on Earth relies on all relevant stakeholders jointly developing nature-based solutions that deliver prosperity and well-being for people while respecting and maintaining the integrity of healthy natural systems.

Conservation Lesson #4  from Prespa – Transboundary Collaboration

Conservation beyond borders relies on sustained collaboration at all levels between many different actors. For success, recognise realities on the ground, listen deeply, enable local people to take the lead, deliver benefits, and commit to the long-term.

Conservation Lesson #5  from the Banc d’Arguin– Sustainable Financing

As the twin crises of nature loss and climate breakdown converge, conservation organisations should pursue a variety of innovative financing mechanisms that secure and scale investment from the public and private sectors, unlocking additional funds and sustainable financing for conservation and development.