Activists and farmers in a rural community are showing how small steps can be taken to address the global challenge of adapting to climate change.
“We don’t have mountains or a sea, but we have the fastest internet in Europe,” jokes Tanya, a vendor of locally grown nuts at a small organic market in the Moldovan capital, Chisinau.
This country is sometimes regarded as a hinge between clashing civilizations – particularly since Russia launched its war on Ukraine, sending millions of refugees fleeing across Ukraine’s western borders, including here. But Moldova is trying not only to balance the scales of cultural and political contradictions, but also to respond to current global challenges, such as climate change. This is especially true for the agricultural sector, as three-quarters of its territory is covered by farmland.
According to UNDP, climate change and related natural disasters combine to produce an average annual economic loss of 2.13% of Moldova’s GDP.
“The country’s unique biodiversity is currently threatened by climate change, habitat fragmentation, and over-exploitation,” the UN development agency states.
Over the past decade, the country has experienced a number of extreme events, such as droughts and major floods, rising average temperatures, and uneven distribution of precipitation throughout the year.
The largely flat territory – with forests, rivers, lakes, and unique biodiversity – is threatened not only by climate change but also by over-exploitation of its farmland and other natural resources.
Jolted into action, Moldova became just the fourth country to submit a national strategy to cut carbon dioxide emissions and achieve the goals of the Paris Climate Agreement.
Ambitious goals are one thing, getting your hands dirty to try and reach them another. To get a better idea of how some locals are doing just that, consider the small village of Riscova in central Moldova. It is here that treaties and resolutions on increasing the resilience of communities to climate change take on their form, voice, and content.
Natalia Otroc’s house is located on the outskirts of the village, where she and her husband, Oleg, run a small organic farm. A large rainwater collection tank next to the greenhouses immediately catches the eye.
The couple is raising four children. They moved here from Chisinau 11 years ago, with no experience in growing food. At the time, their oldest daughter suffered from food allergies so severe she once ended up in intensive care. This prompted the family to start growing organic food for their own consumption. Their daughter is now 16 and has forgotten about her allergies.
“Although we are not experts, we can feel the climate change in our region. Winters are less snowy than they used to be. And autumn has become drier. We are trying to adapt, and we can’t do it without knowledge of organic farming,” Natalia says.
From the Fringe to the Cutting Edge
It takes an hour to drive from Chisinau to Riscova. At the edge of this village of 1,200 inhabitants is the house of Liliana Botnaru, set amid a small complex built using locally sourced and sustainable materials. Botnaru is a member of EcoVisio, a sustainable development organization whose origins stretch back to 1999, when several educators in Chisinau began working together to popularize the teaching of ecology in schools.
In 2013, the NGO they had founded was transformed into EcoVisio with support from a number of international donors. Today, the 23-member team works in Riscova and other parts of the country, promoting sustainable agriculture and climate-friendly business models through training, education, and hands-on assistance.
Soon after the launch of EcoVisio, Botnaru began scouting locations for an “eco-village.” Riscova, a farming community not too far or too close to the capital, looked like a good choice. In 2015, she bought property and started constructing a house and other structures, soon joined by EcoVisio colleagues who had been looking for a rural location to host a training center. Their ideal vision was to not only build a place for educational and training sessions on sustainable development, but to create a space where like-minded people could live and share resources.
The complex now hosts two houses. Liliana and her mother and three children live in one; the second is used to accommodate tourists and participants in the center’s activities.
The training center, a workshop, a vegetable garden, and an equestrian area (still under construction), all built using locally sourced and sustainable materials, complete the complex, which is managed by EcoVisio and a partner NGO, EcoVillage Moldova.
Center staff do not run their own organic farms. They teach both local farmers and those from other regions of the country how to grow organic products, conserve natural resources, recycle waste, and build houses and farm buildings using sustainable methods. UNDP and other international development and social investment organizations have supported individual projects. Most of the income comes from organizing events at the training center, tourism, and private donations. It is currently the only center of its kind in Moldova, and more than 300 alumni of its programs live in all regions of the country, and also in Romania and Ukraine.
The complex’s courtyard is ringed with beds of vegetables and herbs. Fruit trees grow nearby and raspberry and blackberry bushes braid the fence. One building has become the trademark of the eco-village – a house topped with a mushroom-like roof made of reeds collected from a local lake. Reeds collected from the many lakes in the south of Moldova could be used in construction to take advantage of their natural insulating properties, EcoVisio members say, as well as reducing carbon emissions through the use of local materials instead of imports.
“With the birth of my children, I began to think about how to be more in touch with the environment,” Botnaru says, “because later my children will ask me what my contribution was to the preservation of life on the planet. I don’t have a solution, but at least I have taken some steps in this direction.”
When she became a vegetarian 25 years ago, she thought there were just a few people who cared about climate change, she says.
“That was until I started a discussion group about ecological lifestyles and was surprised by how many people responded. I still see that this movement is developing and there are more and more supporters. Nowadays, being vegetarian or vegan is nothing strange in Moldova.”
Fresh, Clean Water Is a Thing of the Past
According to a local custom, anyone who builds a new house should dig a well for travelers – because water should not be kept for yourself, but shared. Otherwise it will disappear. Thus, numerous roadside wells dot the streets of Riscova. During the increasingly frequent droughts, however, the water level in the wells falls significantly, or even disappears altogether. At such times, water from artesian wells is used to water the gardens.
“Twenty years ago, it was absurd to go to the store and pay for ordinary water in Moldova. You would have been called crazy,” Botnaru says. “Now, when I travel with my children, I always buy it. Because I don’t know which well is not contaminated.”
EcoVisio members promote water-saving practices among the villagers, such as collecting rainwater to irrigate gardens and the use of composting toilets, a kind of dry toilet that separates solid waste that can be mixed with straw or other organic material and used as compost.
“In our village, some practices spread quite quickly,” Botnaru says. “Some people have started growing food without chemicals and using crop rotation. Others decided to use more natural material for home repairs.”
The center’s work to introduce more sustainable ways of farming and building has also filtered down to local young people. Botnaru recalls that one group of youngsters took part in a session on project management and then laid out a flower-decked “green classroom” outside the village school to hold classes outdoors.
“There were also some teenagers, aged 14 or 15, who wanted to plant a park in the center of the village. We’ve been helping them with that. It’s very important to meet together and have the courage to initiate changes. This can be an example for other communities in Moldova,” she says.
Greening a Dump Site
Wheat fields surround Riscova, in places giving way to vineyards and fields of corn or sunflowers. The one hill that rises out of this flat landscape was for years a source of clay and sand for construction. Later, people started dumping garbage in the pit that had formed, leading to a risk that waste and sand could flow down into farmlands below during heavy rain.
Six years ago, local authorities cleared up the illegal dump and together with more than 100 volunteers from Riscova, Chisinau, and other parts of Moldova and even Romania, planted over 700 acacia and other fast-growing trees to stabilize the hill. Where there was clay, sand, and garbage, grass now grows. Local people collect acacia flowers as a flavoring for tea. The trees also provide protection from animals for some slow-growing plants.
The Otrocs grow organic products, and although they are not certified organic farmers, they have been able to take advantage of opportunities that have opened up for such farmers. They received two mini-grants and used the money to build two greenhouses and install drip irrigation.
For Natalia Otroc, like many others in her adopted home village, learning the ways of an alternative ecological approach to farming goes step by step.
“I had no idea that we needed to plant more trees in the garden to attract birds, which in turn clean the garden of pests. Or that if you cover the ground with hay and leaves for the winter, it retains moisture, and it is much easier to cultivate in the spring. Mustard restores and enriches the soil. And if you plant garlic along with strawberries, it repels pests,” she explains.
“They seemed like simple things, but when I first heard about them, I was surprised,” she recalls.
The Otrocs grow tomatoes, cucumbers, zucchini, eggplants, onions, garlic, leafy greens, and carrots for sale. Natalia used to travel to Chisinau to sell her produce. Now, twice a week, she delivers produce to Katalyst Kitchens, an autonomous, two-year-old spinoff from Eco-Village Moldova and EcoVisio.
Calling itself the first food business incubator in Moldova, Katalyst Kitchens buys locally grown organic produce and opens its professional quality kitchen to anyone for free to make preserves or dry vegetables, fruits, mushrooms, and nuts in large dryers to increase their production for sale.
Since the war in Ukraine began, local people also use the kitchen to prepare hot meals and food packages for refugees.
“I don’t stand at the market all day like I used to, but I can supply Katalyst Kitchens with my vegetables at market prices from spring to fall,” Natalia says. “This gives me a lot of freedom and the opportunity to spend more time with my children.”
Organic, Semi-Organic, or Just Curious
Around 60 farmers in Riscova grow their crops without the use of chemicals. However, almost no one has an organic farming certificate. They say that applying for a certificate entails a long and troublesome process. People here earn their livelihood from farming, and they receive no additional support from local authorities or the state.
EcoVisio’s data indicates that as of 2021, 151 agricultural producers held a certificate issued by one of 10 separate bodies. The area cultivated in organic crops was about 30,000 hectares.
Certified producers have advantages in exporting, and they can also sell their products in supermarkets labeled as eco-certified goods. Not everyone, however, is capable or willing to comply with the requisite regulations, rules, and standards, and some farmers say the application process itself frightens them, not to mention the prospect of competing with large farms for shelf space. All this generally slows down the development of organic farming in Moldova.
Bureaucratic hurdles aside, despite the environmental initiatives that have spread through the village, not everyone is ready to completely change their approach to farming.
Tatiana Cebotari is another convert to sustainable farming who moved to Riscova from Chisinau. She is married and has two children.
“As a person from the city, it was difficult for me to adapt to life in the countryside, but over time, I got used to it,” the married mother of two says.
“I like that organic farming is developing in our village. There is some kind of movement, development. And there are more tourists. I also try not to use chemicals, but I will never manually pick the Colorado potato beetle, so I spray the potatoes with a special solution,” she continues.
“Some people still burn garbage in their gardens. Burning it means you don’t have to pay for its removal. There is a lot of work to be done, but the main thing is that we talk about it, among ourselves in the community, at school, at work. I don’t remember any conflicts arising because of this. On the contrary, I think it has united our community. Who doesn’t want the best for themselves and their children?”
Sweat and Tears
People like to call Riscova “the potato village,” and in truth almost everyone here grows potatoes. During the annual fall potato festival, visitors come from as far as Chisinau to stock up on this Moldovan staple for the winter.
Aurika Bugniak, a former kindergarten teacher and now an eco-farmer, is a regular participant in the festival. She is the only farmer in Riscova to have completed the application, and is about to receive a certificate for the production of organic products. EcoVisio helped her with the paperwork. She is not a member of the organization, but she has attended a number of training sessions there.
Aurika is also the village’s only organic potato farmer. She uses no chemicals to control her main pest, the Colorado potato beetle. She picks them from the plants by hand. Her neighbors laugh at her, she says, but she pushes on, trying to set an example for others.
Her working day starts at 6 a.m. and ends when it grows too dark to see. She works mostly alone, because, according to her, she would not entrust her plants to anyone else. Instead of using artificial fertilizers, she uses green manure – plants that enrich the soil with nitrogen and suppress weed growth.
“Organic agriculture is very important for our health and for the environment. If we spread poison on our food, we are poisoning ourselves,” she says.
She uses drip irrigation on her farm and says this enables her to harvest two crops while still saving water. Her organic waste goes to compost.
A kilo of potatoes typically sells for 15 Moldovan lei (0.80 euros). Aurika sells hers for 30-35 lei. Her cucumbers also sell for twice the cost of chemically treated plants. Still, she says there is no shortage of customers and that the market for organic produce grows every year.
Looking at her plants, Aurika sees how climate change is affecting them. “Ten or so years ago, I could grow tomatoes and cucumbers in open fields. Now, due to rising average temperatures and sudden floods, this is impossible. I have to cover them. I even have a mobile greenhouse. When the onions ripen, I cover them, and when it’s time for the cucumbers, I move them. And so on in a circle,” she laughs.
As I get ready to leave the farm, Aurika invites me to try plachinda, a traditional Moldovan potato pie. She brings it out of her traditional wooden house, where two generations of her family grew up. When the war in Ukraine broke out, this place became a temporary home for Ukrainian refugees.
“Our wood-burning stove can bake up to seven cakes at once,” she says, “and we used to sleep on it, it was the warmest place in the house. We didn’t modernize the house; we left it as it was designed. This is our cultural heritage. We want to preserve it, as well as life in general on our land.”
“Anyone for seconds?” she adds.
Romaniia Gorbach is a journalist and media trainer from Ukraine with experience in radio, online, and print media. Since 2014, she has been actively involved in public work and educational projects in the media sector in Eastern Europe.
Photos by Tania Dzhafarova, unless indicated otherwise.