In the Land of Orpheus: Rural Livelihoods and Nature Conservation in Postsocialist Bulgaria by Barbara A. Cellarius. Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin Press, 2004. xi + 331 pp. US$45. ISBN 0-299-20150-3.
Between 1995 and 2002, anthropologist Barbara Cellarius spent two and a half years conducting ethnographic research into local environmental management in a small community in south central Bulgaria. More precisely, Cellarius was interested in learning how policies for nature conservation in Bulgaria, often emerging as a result of pressure from international nongovernmental organizations such as the IUCN, WWF, and others, were articulating (or not) with land management practices on the ground. As she put it in the subtitle of her PhD dissertation (University of Kentucky, 2000), she was keen to highlight the problematic and complex interrelations between “Global Priorities [for nature conservation] and Local Realities [for economic survival].” The capstone result of this research, conducted with financial support from an impressive list of prestigious funders, is the book under review, which, in her own words, seeks “to clarify the differing concerns and definitions of biodiversity held by ‘local’ people and [global] conservation advocates” (p 9).
Following a chapter that charts the recent history and geography of the Bulgarian environmental nongovernmental organization (ENGO) sector, Cellarius launches into detailed ethnographic studies of actual natural resource use in the central Rhodope Mountain community of Zaburdo. Her data are impressively detailed and extensive, covering spatial scales from the individual to the community to the national and international. She presents data about everyday practices such as firewood collection, farming of family agricultural plots, hunting, and the collection of berries and mushrooms—the latter providing a source of cash income as well as domestic comestibles. Though her data are rigorously social scientific, their presentation via family “case studies” makes her tales especially compelling. Overall, the reader is presented with a picture of families banding together to ride out the vicissitudes of postcommunist transition, during which the economy has contracted by more than 50% and wages are often insufficient even to pay the electricity bill.
Chapter 5 is, in many ways, the linchpin of the book's theoretical ambitions, outlining the emergence of local and regional “intermediary” ENGOs whose function is to translate global nature conservation priorities into local realities. Obviously this involves striking a delicate balance between the needs of local communities who must rely particularly heavily on local resource hinterlands in this time of transition, and national and international demands for “nature conservation.” Two case studies presented by Cellarius seem especially interesting here, involving two ENGOs: the Bulgarian Society for the Protection of the Rhodope Mountains and Green Balkans. In the former case, extensive relations were established early on with the WWF, but fell into abeyance by the late 1990s because of inadequate communications between the two ENGOs and the difficulties that the Bulgarian ENGO had in translating WWF's scientific research priorities into workable local programs, with many Bulgarians questioning the relevance of WWF activities for the Bulgarian context (p 229). In the latter case, Green Balkans, an ENGO with deep roots in the villages of the Rhodope, has been able to mobilize considerable local support through the promotion of ecotourism initiatives with support from other Bulgarian groups (Bulgarian Geographical Association) and European organizations (PHARE, EBRD, and others). These two case studies show both unsuccessful and successful intermediation processes.
Chapter 6 shifts gears quite significantly, presenting an interesting case study of the emergence of an ENGO in another part of the Rhodope out of grassroots concerns for cave conservation. According to Cellarius, this ENGO has survived from the communist era to the present because of its strongly localist and apparently apolitical concern with cave conservation. In the 1990s, it linked this primary concern with ecotourism promotion in the locality and thus articulated a work program that is independent of the sort of “project mentality” that characterizes so many other Bulgarian ENGOs (pp 258 ff).
The book ends with some reflective comments about nature conservation, ENGOs, and postcommunist transition in rural Bulgaria. Eschewing the temptations of grand theorizing, Cellarius restricts herself to the more practical issues related to the conditions under which ENGOs can succeed or fail, drawing on the many case studies presented earlier in the book. She suggests that “[i]n the Bulgarian context, NGOs can be more flexible, stable and issue-focused, particularly when compared to a poorly funded government distracted by the latest political crisis” (p 277).
This is a highly original book that will be of interest to scholars of nature conservation and mountain studies. It is part of a growing corpus of ethnographic studies of post-communist societies, but also manages to engage issues of nature conservation and local development which heretofore have largely been explored through case studies in less developed nations.