“Practically all landscapes in Europe today are cultural, we hardly have any wild landscapes left to speak of. Landscapes have been cultivated for millennia, shaped and altered by humans to secure their survival. But over the past decades we have seen this balance between nature and humans has disrupted as the result of radical changes in our lifestyles and new technologies.”
In the last decades, Mateja Šmid Hribar has been working across three complementary fields. Her research begins with cultural landscapes, both rural and urban, and the ways we see and understand them, and continues with ecosystem services, which include the direct and indirect contribution of ecosystems and landscape elements to human well-being. The last piece in the whole is the commons and community-based natural resource management. When she was working on her master’s thesis she became interested in landscapes, including those recognized as cultural heritage. The study area that she chose for her dissertation was the Ljubljana Marshes landscape park, where she was interested in how the landscape have changed with land use.
She came to realise that it was important “who owns certain landscape components, who governs something, who has the use right and who has the right to reap the benefits.” She began to study community-based natural resource management practices that maintain specific ecosystems with low input human intervention. In addition to traditional collective actions, which in the case of Slovenia involved mainly rural agrarian communities that have govern pastures, forests, roads, and water resources, we have recently come to see new types of urban and urban-rural commons that are not primarily associated with survival, but oriented toward sustaining social cohesion.
Cultural landscapes change with social development and management practices. New land uses, management practices, and even ownership may influence new/different ecosystem services. A shared pasture thus not only offers forage, but also provides recreational benefits as part of its ecosystem services, and even regulating services (e.g. air and water purification, noise protection, flood control, pollination). When such a pasture is divided into smaller plots (as it happened in Ljubljana Marshes), their owners may convert them to fields, but when abandoned, this pasture may become overgrown, which leads to the loss of provisioning and cultural services on the one hand, but stronger regulating services on the other.
The heart of her research consists in the interaction of nature and humans as reflected in the landscape, and the links between practices and specific landscape elements. She understands cultural landscapes as a mosaic of landscape elements, its cornerstones. “When you arrive in a traditional rural landscape, the first thing you notice is the meadows, fields, or orchards that cover it, with a forest in the background and a few buildings at the fore – that’s a typical traditional Slovenian landscape. Then you try to discern the logic of the landscape, its inner logic.”
Mateja uses different research methods and combines them with technologies and software tools. She uses GIS tools for landscape analyses, to determine land use, and to mark specific landscape elements. She always complements this data with fieldwork and interviews, which, as she points out, are very revealing. She interviews individuals, experts, and social groups relevant for a specific research study to find out how they live, what they do, what the landscape or the natural resources they manage mean to them.
The aim was to synchronise various natural and cultural heritage registers into a single digital encyclopaedia, because if we want “people to recognize heritage they need to know what in their local environment constitutes it. Only then will they know heritage and protect it.”
In the framework of the Shared Green Deal project the participants from four countries learn about biodiversity through social experiments in the form of study circles. The idea is to explore cultural values linked to different aspects of biodiversity. One of the ways to achieving this could be through artistic practices. The project focuses on building biodiversity-related knowledge and skills in the local community.