We will remember our first, and so far only, visit to the Obedska pond, a magical swamp located 40 kilometers west of Belgrade in Southeastern Syrmia, because of its incredible peacefulness and natural beauty, but also because of two stories that we had heard. The first one is associated with the Obedska pond's trademark, the ibis. This bird used to have its largest colony here in the first half of the last century, and it finally returned to its habitat a few years ago, although in a much smaller number. At present, only four couples returned.
The other story relates to the forest. This magical place, where you can find trees as old as 200 years, was discovered by Amos Clifford, the founder and director of the Association of Nature and Forest Therapy, who brought a group of followers who did not hide their enthusiasm with the peace the Obedska pond offers for meditation and rehabilitation purposes.
However, our visiting the Obedska pond has more to do with the story of how, through grazing, the cows naturally help maintain the meadows that the volunteers had made. Indeed, the volunteers made the meadows manually, and it was hard physical work. It all started in 1997 when the Young Researchers of Serbia established volunteer workcamps.
We manage to clear only 300 meters a year in the volunteer workcamps. However, in 20 years, these meters pile up!”, says Bojan Beronja
"Back then you couldn't see further than the two meter radius from all the bushes and we could only imagine that the Obedska pond would one day look the way it looks today - meadows, trees, cows, people...," says Bojan Beronja, the workcamp coordinator from the Young Researchers of Serbia, on our way to Obedska pond, where a larger group of people is waiting to talk to us. How could we cover such a complex story without including the other actors responsible for preserving the Syrmian beauty? We asked Bojan to be our host, which might be strange given that he is from Belgrade. "My friends make fun of me and ask if I've taken out an ID card with a residence in Pećinci," he explains and adds: "The thing that's kept me going all these years are the people and the relationships I've built with them. Many showed up here only to make a lot of promises, but they didn't do a thing. The locals see us and it's clear that we work, even if it's only 300 meters a year. However, in 20 years, these meters pile up! "
Slobodan Puzović from the Provincial Institute for Nature Protection, former Provincial Secretary for Urban Planning, Construction and Environmental Protection in the Government of Vojvodina, started taking interest in Obedska pond in 1982 when he visited the reserve as a student of the Faculty of Forestry in Belgrade. Nevertheless, he explains that the fate of the Obedska pond could have been completely different.
"In '61, the rangers wanted to drain the Obedska pond and make an embankment along the Sava River in order to make space partially for agricultural land, and partially for poplar plantations. They even bought several thousand tons of explosives, made plans for the logging of old oaks, after which they would plow the land and prepare it for planting," Puzović says. Dušan Ćolić, who was the director of the Institute for Nature Conservation of Serbia at the time, managed to prevent this from happening. After this, the provincial government realized that they had to introduce protective measures in order to preserve the Obedska pond.
Puzović concludes that synergy and teamwork have been key in shaping Obedska pond's current appearance and functioning. The pool of partners and associates constantly expanded. Had it been otherwise, they would not have succeeded. "Persistence is essential, but you need to have a vision before that. However, this shouldn't be an individual's vision, it should be the vision of a whole system," concluded Puzović.
“The area was first institutionally protected only two years after the protection of the first protected area in the world, the Yellowstone Park.”
What is it that makes Obedska pond so special? "This has been a protected area since 1874, a period in which the Austro-Hungarian monarchy ruled these territories. Back then it served as the imperial hunting grounds due to the pond providing a habitat for a large number of birds, thus also attracting ornithology aficionados and hunters," explains Ivana Lozjanin, a Senior Manager for Protected Areas and Environment in the Forest Estate "Sremska Mitrovica". "The birds from this area were extensively hunted, were later stuffed and distributed across Europe. Luckily, nature lovers noticed that this would result in the destruction of flora and fauna and had begun the process of protection. Prince Rudolf visited this area, first as a passionate hunter, and later as a promoter of protection. Friedrich Naumann, the founder of scientific ornithology, counted birds in the area on two occasions, and these figures indicate that around 60,000 bird couples were nesting in "the Horse-shoe" (as locals call it) at that time and that the largest colony, which is still here, consisted of 15,000 couples." Ivana adds that the area was first institutionally protected only two years after the protection of the first protected area in the world, the Yellowstone Park. Only the highest officials from Europe could visit this area.
Since the last protection revision in 1994, the reserve occupies 9,820 ha, and the importance of the pond is reflected in the range of ecosystems: pond, swamp, meadow and forest ecosystems, which entails great biodiversity. The reserve is inundated twice a year, mainly when the Sava River reaches its high-water levels and the reserve becomes an integral part of the river flow. It is then that life here starts waking up. This is the most important retention area in Serbia, and it serves as Belgrade’s only protection from floods, along with Lonjsko polje in Croatia.
„Obedska pond is the most important retention area in Serbia, and it serves as Belgrade’s only protection from floods, along with Lonjsko polje in Croatia.“
The first camp was held at the end of August only three years later, due to the large response of mostly foreign volunteers. The camp has been organized at the same time to this day. Namely, as the bottom of the ponds and swamps rises and later settles, it makes the vegetation rise as well, which leads to the encroachment of meadows. Although traditional livestock breeding was almost non-existent due to industrialization and urbanization, twenty years ago volunteer workcamps helped revitalize this practice. "We work two weeks a year and we cannot work more because we need to respect the natural balance, and nature has to compensate for everything that we 'destroy'. But we work well and this, as far as I'm concerned, is confirmed and rewarded by the fact that the white-tailed eagles come here to nest. This is a very specific and sensitive species, so its arrival proves that we’ve done a good job," explains Bojan.
The employees of the managing company in charge of the protected area, i.e. the employees of the "Vojvodinašume" public company, contributed to the success and longevity of the workcamps as they proved to be active participants. They prepare the terrain before the camp starts by cutting all the woody material, they provide transportation, help volunteers during work by cutting everything the volunteers collect with chainsaws. After the camp ends, they continually maintain all the cleared surfaces by mowing them, either manually or with the help of machines.
Along with the aforementioned white-tailed eagles and ibises from the beginning of the story, the cattle also returned and now the pond is starting to resemble its former self from the period of the Second World War. Or so we are told by archaeologist Pera Odobašić from Pećinci, a person who performs several functions: he is the president of the council/village, the president of the board of directors of the "Zeleni pogled" association in charge of organizing the camps, he has been appointed president of the Kupinovo Local Community, but he mostly works as a consultant in the tourist organization of the municipality of Pećinci. While we are standing on the observatory overlooking the arranged Kupinik and numerous cattle that graze on the meadows that Bojan and many other volunteers have been clearing for years, Pera recalls times past.
"All this that you are looking at was once overgrown, and today we have 80 hectares of meadows. Look at the sheer number of birds that can carelessly lay their eggs and feed their chicks, this is their supermarket. Twenty years of labor carried out by the Young Researchers, some provincial institutions and the local community have led to this. I think that the awareness of people living around the pond is slowly rising and that they see this as their own. So far, the focus has been on using what was possible — for fishing, hunting, etc. — but now this has finally been channeled and is becoming institutionalized and charged for. Farmers pay per head of cattle, the cattle are registered... Believe it or not, somewhere around the Second World War, this whole area looked just like this one part now. We had to properly roll our sleeves up to get it back to this state," explains Pera.
The owner of the cattle we are looking at is livestock farmer Mladen Marijan, and his cattle graze on approximately 400 hectares of cleared meadows. Considering the decline in livestock farming in Serbia, we asked Mladen about his motive for returning to cattle breeding. "In our livestock farmers' association we were thinking about the options that would be in accordance with the Obedska pond special nature reserve regulations so that they wouldn't disturb the nature, and could be of use to us, so we came to the idea of livestock farming. Syrmia has a long tradition of pork trading as pigs were kept in this area for generations, ever since trading was done over the Sava River with the Austro-Hungarian Empire. However, pig farming has not been especially prospective in recent years. On the other hand, there have been problems with cattle throughout Europe, and here in Serbia, many people have left rural areas and there is no one to take care of the cattle. Therefore, we decided to keep beef cattle, mainly the Hereford breed, in the cow-calf operation. This is how we produce organic meat. We keep pasture-raised cattle, additionally fed cereal crops as a source of forage, in order to sell for further intensive fattening or to sell locally. The market price should be higher, although this is currently not the case," Mladen said, somewhat bitterly, referring to the agricultural subsidy system in his country.
“After coming to an agreement with "Vojvodinašume" and the Institute, around 100 heads of cattle graze here today and there's no need for managers to intervene - everything's running smoothly. The cows do all the work!”, says Mladen Marijan
Given that farmers need space for extensive livestock farming, as you need to provide one hectare of land per head of cattle, they decided to contact "Vojvodinašume" and they were given a designated area for grazing cattle. "We have up to 200 heads of cattle in the association. The cattle graze along the edge of the village and in the area cleared with the help of volunteers from workcamps. There were no meadows in Kupinik until 1997, only overgrown shrubs. After coming to an agreement with "Vojvodinašume" and the Institute, around 100 heads of cattle graze here today and there's no need for managers to intervene - everything's running smoothly. The cows do all the work!", concludes Mladen.
"Vojvodinašume" manage this area, and their task is not easy. The pond extends over the area pertaining to two municipalities and it is not always easy to come to terms with the local population. "What they do for nature protection does not increase their revenue, quite the opposite. What they wish for in terms of revenue is tenfold of what they can actually get," explains Bojan. This is how much the company is in the red, especially compared to what you can receive from the Ministry, through projects and eco-tourism.
Branislav Petrica, Head of the Forest Administration Kupinovo, agrees. Nevertheless, he puts the local population first: "We need to work with the local community and understand them. The relationship between the municipality, which defended the interests of local people, and our administration was quite poor when I came here two years ago. In the meantime, everything has changed. Last year, we signed a contract on using the land for grazing with 86 livestock farmers, which represents major progress. Last year, 266 cows, 12 horses, 92 sheep and 1017 pigs grazed on around 3,000 hectares, which covers roughly 30% of the protected area. Cooperation has definitely been improving, and it's important for everybody to be satisfied. We ask some livestock farmers to move to a different location in order to preserve the poplar plantations, and that’s it. Problem solved!"
What makes Obedska pond special are its forests, which have all been certified for over a decade. This is what makes the price of trees considerably higher, and that's why most are exported. Today, Branislav is mainly focused on building a Visitor Center in Kupinovo.
This center should help boost tourism in this region. Because the conditions for it are there: harmony between people and nature, a number of legends and interesting historical facts, and the incredible love that the locals have for Obedska pond, the Syrmian beauty that so many only recently claimed was dying, and today represents a prime example of preserved nature.