Wilderness Conservation in Rural Europe - How do Discourses on Land-Use Change and the Neoliberalization of Nature affect Rural Communities?
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Conservation initiatives focusing on wilderness protection and rewilding claim that wilderness management can help to alleviate poverty and thus secure the livelihoods of rural communities. Nature-based tourism lies at the basis of these discourses, providing an alternative to traditional land-use practices. This dissertation attempts to shed lights on the advantages and disadvantages related to wilderness conservation in the context of rural development and community empowerment, focusing on two project sites in the Southern Carpathians of Romania. Semi-structured and informal interviews have been employed alongside field observations and site visits to assess the implications of wilderness management and the associated land-use change towards ecotourism on the local stakeholders. The research found that the ongoing rewilding and wilderness conservation efforts have a range of costs and benefits, affecting the different stakeholders to varying degrees in the two project sites. As alternative discourses on rural development and nature conservation are disempowered over dominant discourses on wilderness management, patterns of Marx’ primitive accumulation as well as Harvey’s accumulation by dispossession are identifiable. Approaches towards community participation in the two project sites neglect broader aspects of hidden power relations and corruption in Romania that reinforce aspects of dispossession and disempowerment initiated through the discourses on land-use change. Thus, marginalized groups that are adversely affected by resource-use restrictions imposed through the rewilding and wilderness conservation strategies are likely to be even further disempowered, with the costs and benefits of conservation and the associated promotion of ecotourism being distributed unevenly across the stakeholders. The research concludes that strategies to achieve sustainable rural development through nature-based tourism have to ensure that local specifics are taken into account to avoid reinforcing existing inequalities. Only then can wilderness conservation and rewilding provide opportunities for sustainable rural development and community empowerment.