In the late 1970s, Julyungyol (lit. Water-chestnut Marsh) was one of the only marshes remaining after thousands of hectares of marshland had been drained to create additional agricultural land for the large collective farms in socialist Bulgaria. It was in the middle of a large block of arable land cultivated by a collective farm that was interested to erase the marsh in order to gain new land and to cultivate the block more effectively. When farmworkers began to destroy the marsh banks in 1980, a small group of the local elite in the nearby village of Draganovo sought the help of conservation biologists to prevent the destruction. With their support – using the conservation legislation – the marsh was declared a natural monument. This article offers a reconstruction and an analysis of a case of locally-generated conservation concern and discusses the differing perceptions and visions of the different interest groups (the ways they see the marsh), the power relations and the conflicts between them, and the competing (economic, biological/ecological and cultural/aesthetic) values they attributed to Julyungyol. The conflict between farm managers and conservationists is a classic example of a clash of development and conservation ideologies. The other classic conflict – locals vs. outside experts – could not occur in this particular case since the two parties collaborated against the farm. They shared the idea and aim of preserving, yet they had distinct ideas of what was actually to be preserved. The conservationists viewed the marsh as a habitat of species listed as “rare” in the Bulgarian Red Book and the annex of an international convention, whereas the local actors perceived the marsh through their own relationship with it; they associated it with past experiences in the contexts of leisure and social interaction (at the marsh), aesthetical consumption (of the landscape) and resource use (collecting water-chestnut fruits, fishing, cutting ice). The marsh was an element of their memory scape; it established emotional and nostalgic links to individual and collective experiences in their younger days. The conservationists identified the water chestnut (Trapa natans) – one of the species put on endangered lists – as a subject of protection. The locals who had stopped eating its fruits as snacks some ten years earlier related to the plant through memories of how they collected the fruits from the marsh bottom with sticks to boil them and to enjoy their unique flavor. Farm managers and conservationists saw and conceptualized the marsh in economic and ecological terms respectively, while locals ascribed to it cultural, aesthetic and emotional meanings shaped in their interaction with the marsh.
Keywords: nature conservation, human–nature relationship, place attachment, sense of place, landscape, land use, agriculture, wetland