Biodiversity conservation and development of an area do not have to be opposing activities

Zika Reh, Head of the Department for Environmental Protection and Sustainable Development in the City Administration of Subotica

Since 1973 World Environment Day has been celebrated on June 5th, and ever since, it has grown into the world’s largest global platform for environmental protection. This year`s global message is that there are billions of galaxies in the Universe and billions of planets in our galaxy, but there is only one planet – Earth. Accordingly, this year’s social media hashtag is #onlyoneearth.

Given the importance of the topic, activities around the world are not limited to just this one day, so European Green Week 2022 is currently underway in Europe. The function of our entire Ecolacus project is preserving and improving the environment. So, this very week, we wanted to offer the expert’s opinion to the readers on why, what affects flora and fauna in Subotica and its surroundings, is significant for all of us. We conversed on this topic with Mr Zika Reh, a graduate biologist and an environmental protection expert from Subotica with more than 25 years of experience in this field.

Is or to what extent is the environment of the City of Subotica and its surroundings threatened, but especially protected natural resources such as lakes Palic and Ludas?

Human influence has been strong on the surroundings of Subotica for centuries. It has been significant in these areas long before the so-called “industrial revolution”.The nature values we have today, which we protected by declaring protected areas, were created over a long period and have survived until today due to a series of geological, geographical and historical circumstances. The “on the border” position has enriched this region with great geological and landscape diversity. It does not mean just the state border, as it also contributed to the habitat preservation in the border zone in some period, because of the reduced human activities there, but primarily the boundary of sand and loess, i.e. more precisely Subotica-Horgos sandstone and the Bačka loess plateau. Palic and Ludas lakes were formed right in this boundary zone. We should remind us that, according to the official classification, there are only five lakes in Serbia, so these two in the territory of Subotica represent real wealth, especially when considering their importance for biodiversity conservation.

How complex is the ecosystem in and around the lake and why is it important to preserve it for future generations?

The system is both very complex and very sensitive. On the one hand, this area is not a “pristine wilderness” and cannot survive without human intervention and active protection measures. On the other hand, Palic and Ludas lakes are shallow and sensitive Pannonian lakes, strongly affected by anthropogenic factors. Although these lakes were changed significantly compared to a few centuries ago, when they were salty and had a very characteristic chemical composition, they are still very significant feeding and resting habitats for birds and habitats for rare and endangered plant species. Moreover, for a city that has no river, the lakes are the only water surface there. Wet and marshy habitats and salt marshes are among the most threatened habitats in the world. The reason why that is so is becoming clear to us if we look at the satellite image of this part of Europe. The once marshy Pannonian plain is now kilometres of endless arable land intersected by roads and canals, with especially rare “oases” such as Palic and Ludas lakes. Therefore, their great international importance is not surprising, simply because there are few such places on the planet. Whether we will preserve the uniqueness of these landscapes or whether we will turn them into something that will be indistinguishable from the surroundings on a satellite image depends solely on us.

How much does the Ecolacus project help to preserve the environment locally, given its focus on biodiversity?

Not so long ago, all biodiversity conservation projects were looked at with a sneer, wondering why “frogs” were more important than people. However, globally it is becoming increasingly apparent that not only “frogs” are endangered, but by protecting biodiversity, man is protecting himself and his future.

One of the most significant aspects of the Ecolacus project is that it sends a clear message that the preservation of biodiversity and the development of an area do not have to be opposing activities and that nature protection should not be observed through prohibitions and restrictions but through numerous opportunities to improve people’s quality of life.

The construction of sewerage and the investment in improving the wastewater treatment efficiency implemented within the Ecolacus project are clear examples of benefits for the population. However, there has been a step further for the multifunctional buffer zone – it represents a real open-air museum dedicated to the connection between biodiversity conservation and improving people’s quality of life. Although the primary function of this buffer zone is to prevent the entry of nutrients into the lake and to form and preserve  new coastal habitats, it was not made as a “no-go zone” but in places where there used to be arable land up to the shoreline, where fertilizer runoff and pesticides flowed directly into the lake, and the coast was collapsing due to erosion. We now have a recreational zone where visitors can walk or ride a bike around Lake Palic for the first time in their lives, enjoy landscapes they didn’t even know existed, and get to know the living world of the lake and its surroundings through educational content. With this approach, the Ecolacus project has set new standards in landscaping, allowing us to get to know, love and experience Lake Palic and Ludas differently. Because who else would care to protect something they don’t know about and love?

Biography of the interlocutor

Zika Reh is a graduate biologist with many years of experience in hydrobiological research, biological wastewater treatment and nature protection. He was engaged in the Lake Palic research, projects related to the examination and biodiversity conservation, educational activities and the popularisation of environmental protection for more than 25 years. He holds the position of the head of the Department for Environmental Protection and Sustainable Development of the City Administration of Subotica.